Halperin vs. Halperin

Time.com’s political don pens a maddening mea culpa

Just when you thought it was safe to spread open The New York Times and eat a turkey and cranberry sandwich, Mark Halperin turns in a Week in Review op-ed that kills the appetite. He’s decided that the national press spends too much pushing horse race manure, while ignoring leadership and character, which he says can be found in the oats of candidates’ “full lives and public record.” Points for originality!

Of course, what makes Halperin a surprising vessel for this message is his very own full life and public record. Halperin got his ticket to the small club of Washington press deans as the purveyor of ABC’s “The Note,” a once under-the-radar, agenda-setting, daily tipsheet of political chatter (who’s up, who’s down, who’s hired, who’s fired) widely gobbled like doughnuts straight from the fryer. Despite being hot, tasty, and a good match for morning coffee, it’s horse race manure, and not good for your health.

Once you can wrap your mind around that delicious hypocrisy, Halperin puts his foot in it again by setting the blame for misplaced press priorities on the shoulders of What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer’s magisterial thousand-plus page portrait of six 1988 presidential contenders, their families, friends, and handlers. According to Halperin, the book ushered in an era where the media learned to think that “campaigner equals leader”, or that the reportable strength of a campaign is a valid proxy for how a given politician might perform once in the Oval Office. This is a gross misinterpretation of the book.

Cramer’s book is one shining star in the small constellation of election books worth reading once in paperback—endlessly tributed, discussed, and eulogized. And from what I know—and I admit I only recently started it—Halperin’s got it all wrong.

What It Takes plumbs the depths of candidate’s “full lives” and character to an unmatched level. As Matt Bai put it last week in a thoughtful New York Times Book Review reflection, “Cramer began researching detailed psychological profiles of the contenders, visiting their families, their college roommates, even their first grade teachers.” It’s hard to see how you could get more into candidates “full lives” than that.

Before moving on, let’s quickly tackle two other maddening aspects in Halperin’s piece.

First, it seems that Halperin’s regrets stem from his belief that the current Bush and the past Clinton, brilliant candidates both, fell short of the mark once in office. But to do this, you have to, as The Atlantic’s Matt Yglesias points out, ignore the grapefruits and grapes difference between a disastrous close-minded foreign policy and a blowjob.

Second, Halperin is way short on prescriptions. It’s not at all clear that he thinks scribblers ought to spend more time sounding policy proposals. Cramer wasn’t big on doing this either—but, hey, his book really didn’t need too; it was color-commentary published four years after the fact.

That brings us back to What It Takes, and a final triple bank shot irony. As The Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum notes, if there’s a book to blame for the curse of process coverage, it’s one that Cramer himself spotted. In the introduction to What it Takes, Cramer writes that “mountains” of campaign newspaper articles and books left him knowledgeable about “polls and ad-campaigns, people-meters, direct-mail fundraising, computer targeted-media buys, and all kinds of arcane wizardry,” but did not address the questions Halperin longs to answer—who the candidates were, what drove them, and what they were like as people. And, Cramer writes, that’s the hole he set out to plug. Last week, Bai wrote that in a recent conversation Cramer was more specific, and fingered Theodore White’s 1960 The Making of the Presidency, another epoch-making political tome, as the book that spoiled campaign reporting. Cramer saw White’s focus on the horse race and related campaign minutiae as unhealthy.

Interestingly enough, after the 1972 campaign rolled around, even White seemed to agree. Tim Crouse, in The Boys on The Bus, his own constellation-dwelling campaign coverage exposé, interviewed White, by then the author of ’64 and ’68 Making clones, in his Manhattan townhouse. White recounted an anecdote from the ’72 campaign, when reporters stalked George McGovern and an aide as they desperately sought privacy to chew over his upcoming vice-presidential pick, one of any campaign’s greatest “process” decisions:

“…all of us are observing him, taking notes like mad, getting all the little details. Which I think I invented as a method of reporting and which I now sincerely regret. If you write about this, say that I sincerely regret it.”

Alas, such regrets didn’t stop White from pressing ahead and releasing a 1972 Making of the President. Why? Was it the lure of money? The thrill of the trail? His exclusive access or transparent love of the political game? Who knows.

Halperin now helms “The Page,” Time.com’s bloggy campaign round-up. And today, the very day after renouncing his old ways in our nation’s most public forum short of Oprah’s couch, he’s back to his old tricks, pushing a regular diet of frivolous campaign squabbles, TV ads, and direct mailings. He also teases the implications of upcoming Obama campaign appearances by, yes, Oprah Winfrey.

For Halperin, like White before, it seems repenting is a step well short of reforming.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.