Philip Gourevitch on “Flagging” Talking Points, Conflating Character and Personality, and Petty Press Fusses

Philip Gourevitch (courtesy
of The New Yorker)

Philip Gourevitch has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1997. He is the author of “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” (1998, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award) and “A Cold Case” (2001). Gourevitch spoke with Campaign Desk from the Democratic Convention in Boston as part of our continuing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators covering the election.

Liz Cox Barrett: You spent time with John Kerry for a lengthy New Yorker profile recently, and you observed him during the primaries as well. Based on your experiences, are there any prevailing storylines about the candidate that you think the press corps is getting wrong — or has missed entirely?

Philip Gourevitch: Kerry is an interestingly difficult character to cover because to a large extent it seems that people who are close to him are better at describing him or better at telling you about him than he is himself — at least to make him personally accessible. He is, in person, quite a bit the way he has been on the campaign trail, very much focused on discussing the issues and not wanting to or not knowing how always to make himself kind of familiar, warm, recognizable, which results in this notion that he’s shy and/or aloof. But it also can make the press at times get impatient with him, I think, because he’s not giving them/us what we’re after. …

I think it’s very interesting that in this election, the complaint from the press quite often is that Kerry has not made his story accessible to the public, he has not made himself familiar, that people don’t know who he is. Which is really interesting considering that the guy he’s running against has no story at all, and considering that we live in this age of the politician who must have the story, the anecdotal story. [Bush] is born to extraordinary privilege into an intensely insular, emotionally repressed, dynastic family. He grows up with extremely mediocre performances and seeming to have neither interests nor excellence in any field, except he’s a good partier in college and he seems to be able to collect people around him. He has some kind of power there in his ability to make connections with people. He drifts through his 20s. He becomes an alcoholic — and an ugly one. He failed serially at businesses. None of this is stuff [Bush] could ever mention again, nor is it ever mentioned except, supposedly, hostilely. In other words if you mention it, it’s considered hostile rather than a matter of fact and of record which all of it is. And then, the idea is, all of that is completely erased and redeemed through a conversion experience. It’s a very weird story. One doesn’t feel that one knows [Bush].

And yet everybody seems to agree, the conventional wisdom of the press is: George Bush, very likeable, even by people who don’t agree with him; John Kerry very hard to like, even for people who agree with him. This is an odd kind of contrast. …

If there’s another [press] fault, it’s the extent to which the criticism of Kerry strikes me as being driven by the Bush campaign, whereas the criticism of Bush is not driven by the Kerry campaign — it’s driven by the record, and the Kerry campaign has picked up a lot of it. Dean drove it at one point. Other people have driven it. …

There were those two articles recently on the Bush campaign’s war room, and they found that reporters, when asked, said yes, we had not picked up on these quibbles and these lines in speeches until those complaints were fed to us by the Bush people. So there’s a real difficulty in trying to discern in the press coverage what are the judgments or assessments of Kerry as Kerry without the Bush spin. It’s a tough one because the Bush spin is part of the equation — it’s not like you can totally subtract it — but identify it, please. You know, “in a line flagged by the Bush campaign, in a line flagged by the RNC.” …

[Another] big mistake I think the press makes: They call anything that isn’t a strict policy issue “character,” when often it’s personality. There’s a big difference. Character has to do with things like honesty and integrity and honor. I don’t think anybody can, for instance, begin to look at both [candidates’] records and say Bush’s character, or let’s say his service during the Vietnam war, or his sobriety, his business record, his way of sort of being really quite indifferent about all sorts of things, that these are character issues where he comes off looking great. He has a winning personality, apparently, with a lot of people. Kerry, on the other hand, his character may be conflicted in places but his problem is a personality problem.

Character is a very strong word. It suggests a kind of fundamental quality of the soul, of the sensibility, it’s almost like the stuff somebody’s made of. If you say this guy has a character problem, it doesn’t mean he’s hard to like. I’ve interviewed war criminals and mass murders, and they’re often exceedingly charming … So charm and character or personality and character are separate things, and I think the press probably conflates them in a way that is not useful or is misleading…

LCB: How do you approach a lengthy campaign-related piece, such as your John Kerry profile? What do you look for?

PG: In the Kerry profile, I really wanted to look at him as a foreign policy candidate. That was the rubric I thought of. I thought, well, [foreign policy] is a really central issue in this campaign and it hasn’t been before … My question was, well, everyone talked about electability, suddenly the consensus was Kerry had the highest electability. Generally, that meant that the feeling was of all the candidates, Kerry was best qualified by experience and disposition and so on to be commander-in-chief. So I thought, well, how does he really think about those things? Because even as things went to hell in Iraq in the spring, there was this kind of conventional wisdom in the press that for Bush national security, and specifically the war in Iraq … were unassailable strengths. So I was interested in seeing specifically how does Kerry think about these things, how does he go beyond a criticism of Bush to defining his own position?

One of the things a New Yorker piece allows one is a kind of greater length and depth in exploring some figure in a profile … It’s an attempt to bring certain things together, juxtapositions, bring out contrasts, ask certain kinds of questions of people around them that allow those things to come into focus for reader. …

I went for foreign policy because I think it’s what makes this particular election singular. This is not something Americans — voters or candidates — are accustomed to being steeped in, in a presidential campaign. If you look at past campaigns, [foreign policy] is something people speak about really quite generally, vaguely. It’s kind of an issue for the experts, it’s not the defining and central issue that it has come to be in this campaign.

LCB: How does reporting on the presidential campaigns compare to reporting on, say, genocide in Rwanda in the mid-90s? And which is the press worse at covering?

PG: I like to go places abroad most of the time that are big important stories that I feel for some reason are not getting the attention they deserve. I never went to Iraq, I never went to Bosnia, I didn’t go to Afghanistan. These seemed to be things that were not lacking for American press attention. Whereas when I went to Rwanda I was really the only full-time journalist there from a non-wire service for months at a time. That’s a whole country whose problems shift over the borders into neighboring countries. There was a sense of really having it to oneself, having a different opportunity and burden. Here, you’ve got a bazillion reporters, the press is part of the story, it’s performed for press — the whole campaign — and you are just one of many, many, many reporters. On the other hand, it is a tremendously important story this year…

It’s really fascinating to be reminded that in 2000 the biggest complaint of disaffected voters was that there was really no way to tell the two candidates apart. Nader’s popularity was based on this idea that they were the same. You could read very respectable newspapers, virtually every newspaper in the country had at least somebody or other who was more or less saying this as a regular refrain — eh, these guys, one way or the other, they’re both moderate centrists, etc. Big mistake. But there was this feeling also that people liked it that way, there was this idea that the center of American politics should be a matter of gray shading.

Well, this time around you have two campaigns that are really painting a strong contrast, and that’s interesting. And I think that affects a lot how one covers it. The partisanship is more or less inescapable, the extent to which a kind of toxic, inflamed, extreme set of positions is often there, the way that these wedge issues work alongside really big issues. American campaigns have just an incredible amount of frivolity about them. Even in a serious time like this there is a lot of nonsense and diversion. You’ve got all this stuff —whether it’s this silliness of Teresa Heinz’s “shove it” remark … I’m trying to think of five of the petty fusses that we’ve had this time around. Does Kerry or does Kerry not drive an SUV. Who cares? It’s stupid of him to say it’s his family’s car or something, but is this an important question when the question is whether or not we were taken to war on false pretenses? And how come this Abu Ghraib story has disappeared? Or the way that a wedge issue like gay marriage got sort of thrown out there for no apparent reason except to try to create some political capital out of it … These are interesting issues but they often get lost in this fog of the day-to-day parade of the campaign. I guess one of the things that is challenging to me is to try to figure out how to look at those issues in ways that still have some drama, narrative and actually something to discuss.

It’s tough because there really is a lot of white noise. And the white noise is not the press’ fault alone, the press gets caught up in it, but it’s generated often by the campaigns trying to avoid the more complicated nitty gritty of things. Then there’s always this kind of presumption of the incredible stupidity of American voter, which I don’t think is fair by the way — it’s a fault of the press. There’s always this sort of notion that people aren’t paying attention, they won’t pay attention. Of course people won’t pay attention if you give them stupid reporting. It seems to be a very strange equation: people aren’t interested in foreign policy, therefore we will talk about it in extremely simplistic, boiled-down ways that make it absolutely useless to pay attention. And then people say, “see, they don’t want to hear about it.” There’s an assumption about where America’s attention is. When you go out on the campaign trail, whether they’re highly informed or modestly informed, people are really, really engaged and wanting to talk about foreign policy this time. Foreign policy, war making, how to respond to the age of terror as it’s called, all these things are rather front and center on the minds of not just guys at the Council on Foreign Relations, but the guys in swing states and in blue collar jobs. That’s interesting.

LCB: With 15,000 media types swarming all over the FleetCenter and everything so carefully choreographed and scripted, how do you find anything original and interesting to write about [at the Democratic National Convention]?

PG: I’m not even trying. I’m not writing this week — I’m lucky I don’t have to write from the convention directly. I’m using it as a place to pick up some threads for some other stuff.

The conventions are much better on TV if you want to hear the speeches, see the speakers’ faces. If you want to feel how speeches work with the audience, then it’s very helpful to be in the room — to feel the difference between Ted Kennedy and Barack Obama. There was a lot of affection for Ted Kennedy in that hall, but his speech didn’t strike a lot of chords, it didn’t really energize the room. Barack Obama, for whom there was a lot of expectation, there was real surge, there was an excitement. And if you’re at home watching you can say wow, that was a really good speech, but you don’t quite feel that unless you’re there. And that’s the sort of thing I’m trying to get, to tune into how it’s all fitting together for pieces on other subjects. …

I might write from the [Republican] convention as well, to look at the two together, to get a sense of the texture of the party, who are the party activists, how does the party kind of identify itself. That’s something you get by wandering around these things and looking at the schedule of all the bizarre side breakfasts and parties and dinners. I don’t go to these things because you can’t do anything. They’re deafeningly loud, you’re crushed in with other people. You wander around [instead], you get a sense of who’s here, why are they here, what are they thinking, all of that’s very useful.

There’s obviously too much press on this thing … I’ve heard different statistics, but three or four reporters to every one delegate or any other kind of attendee. That’s crazy to me. But of course it’s a big gigantic television show. I think it’s much better on television because you are on a TV set. The entire FleetCenter is — and this is nothing new — a gigantic TV set being made to reach people in the hall but also to somehow broadcast to the world or whoever may be paying attention. …

The candidacy of the challenger is a strange thing because it’s very much limited to words. He can’t do anything. He can’t go out and implement the policy or go hold some talks with North Korea. So what he’s got is a speech. And a show … A lot matters right there in terms of the kind of momentum and energy and satisfaction that the Democratic party is going to find coming out of the convention. Even as [the press] stands around and say[s], well, nothing’s going on, something is going on.

LCB: What is the most absurd/surprising/memorable thing you’ve witnessed at the Democratic Convention thus far, ideally involving a member of the press?

PG: There was an extremely blonde, busty and sort of got-up young lady in one of the front rows of one of delegations’ sections on the floor. And she seemed to be getting an enormous amount of interviews. She had the sort of cheerleader look. It’s kind of hilarious how you could probably scan that audience and pick out 15 people who are going to get interviewed more than anyone else. It’s because they’re visually arresting in one way or another, whether they arrest the male reporters or they are wearing a funny hat or they have 378 different lapel buttons pasted all over them or something like that. They are going to be the person who everyone wants to stop and get on their local camera.

I do think the single most bizarre thing here is the idea that there’s no news here so it will not be on the networks. And the whole thing is designed in a network versus cable program. You can tell where the juice is because it’s set up to go on for the right time for the network hour. And that creates this sense of several separate levels of the convention itself. You can feel that in the hall, it’s sort of like, you’re the warm up act and now it’s show time.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.