Pat Buchanan had fired a shot heard loud and clear, surprising the pundits by finishing second in the Iowa caucuses. Sizing up the results that February night on CNN, Democratic strategist Bob Squier said, "If he doesn't get the magazine covers out of this one, he's not going to get them."
Buchanan did get the covers. The next week, heading into the crucial New Hampshire primary, Time put Buchanan out front for a story exploring the populist themes running through the Republican field of candidates. Buchanan's victory in New Hampshire placed him the following week on the covers of U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek.
In a presidential campaign flooded with coverage by newspapers, broadcasters and online services, the newsweeklies are making up in the weight of analyses what they cannot provide in up-to-the-hour delivery of news. With a combined circulation of more than 9 million copies, and a pass-along readership that numbers many millions more, these magazines are capable of exerting considerable influence.
"Getting on the covers of those magazines is like winning a primary," Squier said in an interview from his Washington office. "When Time put Buchanan on the cover, and showed him in a hard hat and work clothes, it gave him the kind of credibility that he wouldn't get otherwise. I think that some voters who were undecided saw that as permission to go along and vote for him."
Reports of the newsweeklies' demise "are greatly exaggerated," said James Carville, an architect of Clinton's 1992 campaign and author of the new "We're Right, They're Wrong" (Simon & Schuster). "Some people say they used to be more influential, but I think what they say and what they put on the cover matters out there, especially in the heartland."
Observers of the political scene speak of the resonating and confirming power of the newsweeklies, which have given loud voice to concerns among many Republicans that Sen. Bob Dole cannot defeat Clinton. It wasn't just the Newsweek cover line--"Doubts About Dole"--but its use alongside photographer David Hume Kennerly's grave and shadowy portrait of the candidate that helped move the Dole Question to center stage in early February.
"I thought our picture went perfectly with the mood in Dole's camp," Newsweek Editor Maynard Parker said recently. "I think there are still doubts about Dole."
As with Buchanan, the generous coverage that Forbes received in the newsweeklies helped legitimize his candidacy. His appearance on the covers of Newsweek and Time during the same week in January, as he was exerting what Time called "a gravitational pull" on the race, was the kind of double hit that even Forbes' millions could not have bought.
Seated recently in his Manhattan office, opposite framed portraits of George Orwell and other luminaries, Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson said the scheduling of primaries on Tuesday did not conspire against a magazine that goes on sale the day before. "I think it's been good for us because we stay away from doing pure horse-race stories, which get overtaken by events," he said. "Daily newspapers get trapped in the who's-up, who's-down-today type coverage, but a weekly is a perfect pace to say, what is Steve Forbes really all about, why is Buchanan's message so resonant, what's he really saying?
"One goal we have at Time is that we hope to help set the national debate."
Now, as Dole and Clinton prepare to square off, first in the legislative arena and then before the voters, the newsweeklies have demonstrated that they will study the two men against a larger backdrop of the big issues that divide them.
"I see it as a watershed race over fundamentally different views of the role of government in our society," Isaacson said. "You may just want a sound bite on the evening news or a glance at headlines in the paper, but I've got to believe there are 20 [million] or 30 million people out there who are going to want to relish this interesting choice a little more--and that's what the magazines are there for."
* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday.