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. …

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.