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Those Who See Only Dwarfs Today Are the Sort Who Belittled Giants Past

December 03, 1987|EDWARD M. KENNEDY | Edward M. Kennedy is the senior senator from Massachusetts. This commentary is adapted from a speech that he gave recently at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. and

My experience in national campaigns, winning and losing, from 1960 to 1980, has left me with a sense of a widening gap between the real issues and the reporting--a feeling that the voters are not seeing candidates whole or clearly, but through a journalistic lens increasingly honed to the prism of People magazine.

Nothing more clearly manifests the distorted political bent of the coverage than the obsession with polls. Everybody takes them, everybody trumpets them and everybody treats them as the near-equivalent of an election. Candidates move up and down, gain or lose attention and money, are perceived to be stalled or surging--and nobody bothers to ask how accurate such pre-caucus and pre-primary surveys are likely to be, or have been in the past.

They did not predict the rise of Jimmy Carter in 1976--or the decline of Walter Mondale in 1984. In 1979 the November polls said that there was no way I could lose Iowa--and in 1980 the March polls said that there was no way I could win New York.

The polls did not pick up the McGovern movement early in 1972 or the McCarthy breakthrough of 1968. Yet now polls have become the quintessential pseudo-events of the pre-primary campaign. They may tell us something, but they don't tell us everything. Perhaps we cling to them because they offer us numbers--and the numbers confer a certain appearance of reality. It is the statistical analogue of false consciousness; it is false objectivity. Or perhaps the seductive pull of the numbers reflects a resistance to the harder work of dealing with issues on their own terms.

Instead, serious candidates can be all but read out of the race before a single election is run.

And as each candidate's season passes, much of the press, in self-fulfilling disappointment, renews the suggestion that they are all dwarfs anyway. If there is a pack journalism this year, that is its common chord.

The complaint that there were giants in other days, running in other campaigns--a complaint amplified by the question: "Where are they now?"--represents an even deeper disregard for history than the obsession with pre-primary polls.

Often the giants, too, were at first dismissed as dwarfs in their own time.

Lincoln was derided as a party hack, with no executive experience. Wendell Phillips assailed him as "a huckster"--and William Lloyd Garrison called him a "coward" who would block emancipation.

Franklin Roosevelt was dismissed by Walter Lippmann as an "amiable man" of no consequence. The New Republic weighed in that he was "not a man of great intellectual force or supreme moral stamina"--which sounds like some of what the New Republic writes about candidates today.

Listen to some of the other things that were said of F.D.R.--and you will hear the cliches of 1987. Here are sentences from the Nation magazine:

"His candidacy arouses no real enthusiasm . . . . (There is) no evidence whatever that people are turning to Roosevelt . . . . There is small hope for better things in his candidacy."

Come forward a generation, to 1960, and Lippmann does it again. He urges that John Kennedy step aside so that Adlai Stevenson can be drafted. And later in the year Arthur Schlesinger has to write a book to refute another journalist's view, widely repeated, that there is no difference between Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Obviously, in 1987, there are many who have forgotten history, for they surely are repeating it. But now the message of mediocrity is applied to a field of candidates, is woven like a thread through most of the coverage and magnified by the increasingly powerful technology of the information age.

People and politicians, candidates and non-candidates alike, are left asking: Is this any way to pick a President?

No system is perfect--and who would want to return to the time when a controlled convention could deny the clear preference of the people?

I think that the press can do a better job of reflecting on its own role--and recognizing that the choice ultimately belongs to voters, not reporters.

But here are some things that we can do:

--Candidates should be able to discuss campaign coverage without fear of being assailed as "whiners" or "complainers" or agents of repression. I see no prospect for a resurgence of Agnew-ism, which in any case consumed its own perpetrator.

--At the same time, the press can resist the standard of the lowest common denominator, the rationalization that all news is fit to print that has appeared anywhere else, in any barely respectable newspaper. Handicapping the race is irresistible, but it should not be the ceaselessly beating heart of campaign journalism.

--Finally, we can approach presidential elections with at least a minimal sense of consequence and history. Why not give stories historical context? Theodore White told us what went on inside a campaign, but he also related it to what had gone on in other generations and other campaigns. And those who borrow his approach should not leave half of it behind.

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