Alexandra Marks On Dean’s Downfall, Reporting On Her Former Boss, and “Firing” Lieberman

Alexandra Marks

Alexandra Marks is a New York-based senior correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor where she has worked for ten years (from 1991 to 1993, and from 1997 to the present). Today, Marks discusses Dean’s downfall, covering her former boss, and “firing” Lieberman.

Liz Cox Barrett: You spent a fair amount of time reporting on the Howard Dean campaign, before and during the primaries. What happened to his candidacy and was the media involved? And what’s your take on the media’s treatment of Judith Steinberg Dean?

Alexandra Marks: A lot of factors led to the downfall of the Dean campaign, but the media was very much one of those factors … Here was a candidate who went from almost nowhere to all over the national stage in a matter of a very few months and I don’t think he was accustomed to dealing with the national media. He was not accustomed to the harshness of the judgments and the speed with which judgments are made about individuals. He himself compounded the problem by — it’s pretty clear, he got to dislike the press … I don’t think his campaign responded to the media well.

And of course you have to mention the “I Have a Scream” speech … as Dean liked to say [to the press], you all played that 673 times in one week …

So the media was a factor but I think there were also real internal problems within the campaign. As much as you need a brilliant grassroots operation — as they had — when you’re running for national office you also have to have a top-down hierarchical command structure staffed by people who’ve done this before … It’s very important to maintain control of message. I mean half the time these wonderful little grassroots operations were often doing one thing while the campaign was doing something else. It was part of the beauty of the campaign and part of its downfall.

I think [Judith Steinberg Dean] was a lost opportunity. I think there was initially this sort of, who does she think she is that she doesn’t have to come out on the campaign trail? There were all these stories, some heralding her as the independent woman, others had this take of well, she should be out there with Dean. I thought it was interesting that the press made an issue of her choice to stay home. When she then joined the campaign trail, she did that interview with Diane Sawyer and got a lot of sort of positive media — she’s a wonderful asset, where has she been?

LCB: You’ve been on both sides, having left reporting in 1993 for an almost-two-year stint as Sen. John Kerry’s press secretary and then returning to reporting in 1995. This election season you’ve covered Kerry, as well as other candidates. Plenty of other people have also been on both sides — Sam Donaldson, George Stephanapoulos, Tim Russert. What would you say to critics of this type of “revolving door” who might question your ability to report fairly on a former boss?

AM: I have two responses. One, it was ten years ago so I feel pretty confident that I can be fair and balanced. The second thing is I think that working on Capitol Hill was a truly invaluable experience and it gave me insights into how politicians and political offices work. These experiences have improved and informed my reporting. That said, I also totally understand and respect the critics who would say even if it was ten years ago, you’re not pure. I respect that but I disagree. I’m not covering [Kerry] directly, I won’t write about Bush v. Kerry mano a mano but I’ll write about issues in Bush v. Kerry.

LCB: You joined the on-air reporting team at NBC News’ Washington bureau for part of 1996. What’s different about how campaign coverage is shaped for television news versus print?

AM: If you’re on the print side you think everything’s done for TV, and TV people think print people get all the respect … Eighty percent of people get their news from TV and politicians know that and so much of what goes on in a national campaign is picture-making, image-making … The Bush people are masters at this, how they frame his pictures, where they put him.

There’s been some good TV reporting. It’s the kind of detail that you’re able to get into in print, in terms of — say this [Bush campaign] ad about Kerry wanting to raise the gas tax 50 cents. It’s a really funny ad but it’s not quite true. You can get into that, all the nuances, in print. If you’re doing a one-minute-forty-second package for the nightly news you can touch on that but it won’t have the same impact as someone reading it. Television can be great for politicians but I don’t think it’s very good for politics in this country.

LCB: You’ve profiled Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton, Joe Lieberman. How do you prepare for a political profile? With political campaigns so controlled these days is it possible to get past the carefully packaged, cautious candidate spewing soundbytes?

AM: You just read everything that you can about them and then you spend as much time as you can with them, following them around. The benefit of doing it early on [in the election season] is that you do get access. Carol Moseley Braun and I sat down and had a cup of tea, I had breakfast with Al Sharpton. You’re able to be — it’s the cliché — a fly on the wall, you get to watch them. And you get to watch them at some of their less laudatory moments because they’re human. And you learn things about them as people that no matter how hard they try to say on their soundbyte when you watch someone in action, the truth of who they are ultimately resonates, it begins to emerge …

I also did the reporting for a John Kerry profile — even I was a little uncomfortable with that, even if it was ten years [ago that I worked with him]. But I got great access. This was after it was pretty clear he was going to be the nominee, and in that case you do a lot more talking to people who know him and are close to him. The closer the election, and the more that’s at stake, the further away [candidates] get from reporters.

LCB: If you were Donald Trump and all the Democratic primary candidates were vying to be your apprentice, who would you fire first and why?

AM: Yikes … I’ve got to say Joe Lieberman. I truly felt that he was out of step, particularly with Democratic primary voters. The more he opened his mouth the more clear it became. I felt bad for the guy, he’s a very nice person but right from the start I was like, “What country are you living in?”

Of course I’d love to have fired Al Sharpton because he was not taking it seriously, he was along for a great ego ride, although I had great respect for some of the things he was doing on the campaign trail. He was doing some really good stuff for kids.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.