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Regarding Media

Profiles That Stand Apart From the Crowded Field of Campaign Coverage

August 09, 2000|ELIZABETH MANUS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — "Campaign reporting is very narrow," says Nicholas Lemann, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine. "If you watch Tim Russert interviewing Gore or Bush on TV, he's really good at what he does. He has to operate within an incredibly narrow channel because inside Washington, there's a menu of things deemed to be relevant about Al Gore. The better you are as a journalist, the more you have to stay with this narrow channel. It's pretty easy to do it in a different way if you're operating in an environment where you know your editor isn't going to say, 'Dammit, you didn't ask him about the Buddhist temple!' "

Lemann did it in a different way, twice. His profile of George W. Bush ran in the magazine's Jan. 23 issue; he wrote in depth and with some surprising detail about Al Gore in the July 31 issue. Each article features a long "interview scene," as Lemann puts it, and reveals the candidates as much by what they say as by how they interact with the writer. The articles raise interesting questions about political writing in this season of seemingly endless campaign coverage.

Titled "Gore Without a Script," the most recent story cuts back and forth between Gore's family background and record in Congress, and the brainy candidate of today. It discusses his book, "Earth in the Balance" and his penchant for metaphor.The portrait builds up to an interview during which the candidate gets quite heady, quoting philosophers and theologians, and touches the journalist lightly on the arm. Gore draws circles, arrows, squares and wavy lines for a total of four diagrams. He talks aboutsomething called the self-sameness principle, which appears in fractal theory and expounds on "distributed intelligence" as a metaphor for the current historical moment.

"These are serious character studies," says George Stephanopoulos, formerly of the White House staff, now an ABC political analyst. "Reading those two profiles back to back would be like reading primers on the candidates."

Lemann's piece follows yards of Gore writing, including an 11-part series in the Washington Post, which is continuing, and a three-part one in the New York Times, end point to be decided.

To some readers, Lemann's long interview scene with Gore seemed slightly startling. "There are some things hiding in plain sight you can see more easily coming in from the outside," he says. "It's not that these guys haven't had these conversations a million times with a million reporters. For me it was about saying, 'I'm going to get him to do it and then lay it out for people and let them see if they find it interesting.' "

Lemann received a fair amount of e-mail, telephone calls and letters with wildly diverging reactions to his piece. As he sums them up: "About 60% said, 'Get me away from this guy immediately,' and about 40% said, 'I've learned to love Al Gore.' "

Yet critics question how much new there is to say about Gore. "At this late stage, it's awfully hard to discover something profoundly new. [James] Fallows' July Atlantic Monthly piece ventured into new territory and was very successful," says Scott Stossel, executive editor of the American Prospect. "It had original reporting about Gore's preparation for debates. The gist is that Gore is a wickedly talented debater, partly because of native talent but more because of assiduous preparation."

Stossel says Lemann's piece is full of interesting detail, "but the only new insight into Gore's personality is Gore's ability to ascend to a ridiculously high level of abstraction even in the midst of campaign chaos."

"I don't think the New Yorker piece made a dent in the political reporting world," adds Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, a daily political tip sheet. "But there's always a disconnect between New York and D.C. Timing may have been part of that. It hit in the middle of the big Bush news story, when Bush was picking his running mate."

Some might say Lemann brought a beginner's mind to the task. Although he's been a journalist for 25 years, he has never covered a presidential campaign. "I came as a complete novice"--albeit one with five books to his name including "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy."

In theory, a daily reporter sitting on Air Force Two should be able to assemble over time the kind of rich profile that would approximate Lemann's. In practice, it's another story. "First there's the problem of the daily deadline, which I don't have," Lemann explains. "Then I have the luxury of not worrying about what the big story of the day is. I can say, 'I don't care.' If you're a daily reporter, you have to care."

There's another well-known pitfall to fresh political reporting, what Lemann calls "the Going Back to the Well Problem." This is particularly problematic, he says, with Bush. "If you get an exclusive interview and you do something they don't like, you don't get the next interview," Lemann explains. "What you write daily is very closely watched."

Lemann says he was hoping to avoid the common campaign coverage themes, No. 1 being "campaign strategy, a sports championship game approach to the campaign.

What animates profile writing? "I guess the primary theme is psychobiography, something I do myself somewhat," he replies, adding: "I'm trying to do something that hasn't been done. What does the person think? If they served in government, what did they actually do? Where do they fit into intellectual and political history? I don't want to make it sound like I have a method. I had a theory."

And, so on the eve of the Democratic convention, what is his theory about Al Gore?

'He's a person who doesn't believe that his true self will be a successful commodity in politics, but he has a strong drive to be in politics and to win. So what you see in public is not evidence of hollowness, it's his way of thinking his way through his actions to excess instead of just acting without thinking."

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