Dick Polman on Contrarianism and Rubber Chicken

Dick Polman has covered politics for the Philadelphia Inquirer since the 1992 presidential campaign. This year, he became the paper’s national political correspondent, a title, he says, that allows him to “dispense with the talking heads” and do his own analysis. “Politics is a mixture of idealism and cynicism,” according to Polman, and political reporting records “how that idealism collides with the flaws in human nature.” This interview is part of Campaign Desk’s ongoing series of interviews with reporters and commentators about how the press is covering the election.

Susan Q. Stranahan: Is there an advantage to being a national political correspondent from Philadelphia?

Dick Polman: Working from Philadelphia (albeit with frequent train trips to D.C. and plane trips to everywhere else) is, on balance, a good thing. I don’t have an inside-the-Beltway perspective, and that makes it easier for me to stay in tune with my audience. Something that seems monumental in D.C. — like Bush’s new TV ads attacking John Kerry’s vote on aid to Iraq — translates, for my readers, into “Yecch, you mean that negative stuff is starting already?” So I try to concentrate on the stuff that really penetrates their everyday lives, and to explain some of the stuff that should be penetrating. I can’t develop the depth of insider sources that Beltway journalists can, so I make up for it in explanatory writing and commentary.

SQS: What’s the easiest bad habit for a political reporter to fall into?

DP: Reflecting and amplifying the latest conventional wisdom. We were all seemingly convinced last November that Howard Dean was the unstoppable Democrat, and that he’d be buried, a la Walter Mondale, by the invincible George Bush. That’s because we paid attention to the early polls, which often bear no relation to what people do in the voting booth. The latest conventional wisdom, of course, is that we’ll have a squeaker this November. I think we should all be required to write at least one contrarian story per week.

SQS: You’re a “shoe-leather” reporter. How do you accurately assess the mood of voters in a state?

DP: I do lots of research before I get on the plane; it’s what the movie studios call “pre-production.” I read the local papers online, collect local color and information on voting history, and, more importantly, I call my contacts on the ground — often party activists whom I’ve collected as sources over 12 years — and I ask, “What’s a bellwether town or district, and why? Who are the swing voters and what issues will move them?” The point is, you have to land with a plan, and skew all your actions toward that plan. Because there’s absolutely no time to spin your wheels.

SQS: What’s been the biggest surprise thus far in the campaign?

DP: Two surprises, actually: The rise of John Edwards, because even though I always knew he was a good stump speaker (I wrote about his 1998 Senate race), I didn’t think he would explode so quickly as a performance artist of Clintonian dimensions. And the second surprise: the willingness of the Philadelphia Inquirer this year to let me inject my own voice into my work, blatantly so. In a world of saturation news, this is another way for newspapers to carve their own niche.

SQS: If you could choose anything, what would you like to be doing in March, 2008?

DP: Covering the ‘08 primary. If John Kerry loses in November, I think we’ll have a battle between John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, and that would be a great show. What could be more blissful than more banquets in Cedar Rapids?

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.