Matthew Dallek: So Kerry's Being Dismissed Early? So Were Others Who Ended Up in the White House

Roundup: Historians' Take

Matthew Dallek, the author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics, in the LAT (May 9, 2004):

Ever since Sen. John F. Kerry effectively clinched the Democratic presidential nomination in March, the media have increasingly wondered out loud if he's up to the task of taking on President Bush. Some commentators have proclaimed that Kerry's campaign is sinking even before he's formally nominated. One conservative columnist called Kerry "a terrible, terrible, terrible candidate."

According to many pundits, Kerry's main flaw is his tendency to waffle, or flip-flop, on the issues. At last weekend's White House correspondents' dinner, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno summed up the perceived problem: "[Kerry] can become the first president in history ever to deliver the State of the Union -- and the rebuttal." The mounting misgivings about Kerry delight nervous Republicans at a time when Bush's ratings are being pummeled by news out of Iraq, and at least a few Democratic strategists are criticizing Kerry's campaign in newspapers.

But Kerry is not the first candidate to encounter a fusillade of doubts about his fitness as a presidential candidate early in a campaign. Recent history suggests that initial impressions of weakness didn't stop some notable candidates from going on to victory in November and changing America's politics and policies.

Take Richard Nixon. After losing the California governor's race to incumbent Pat Brown in 1962, Nixon angrily told reporters at a postelection press conference: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." Most reporters agreed that the former vice president's political career was finished.

In 1968, Nixon staged a comeback. Running for president, he thundered against campus radicals, decried civil rights agitators and promised to restore law and order to cities and suburbs. Millions of Southerners and other mostly white Americans heeded his call at the polls.

Yet many in the media failed to grasp the "new Nixon's" appeal during the campaign. Historian David Greenberg writes in "Nixon's Shadow" that "few reporters felt any warmth from Nixon, and the discomfort, not any political disagreement, fostered a distrust." The Washington press corps branded Nixon a highly secretive political operator. In the New Republic, one reporter complained in 1968: "[Nixon] is not going to ... tell us anywhere near as much as we need to know about him and the presidency he proposes to give us."

Weary of Nixon's obsession with burnishing his image, a Washington Post columnist charged that Nixon provided few, if any, answers to such issues as Vietnam and urban riots. Nixon, most reporters concluded, had refused to come clean about his real beliefs during the presidential campaign. But that didn't stop Nixon's resurgence.

In 1966, the press also got it wrong when it widely depicted Ronald Reagan as a lightweight and a right-wing crackpot. Though both images contained kernels of truth, they proved irrelevant to Reagan's landslide victory over Brown for the California governorship. When reporters roundly criticized Reagan for his tendency to simplistically rail against government, for his alignment with the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade and for his continued appearance as host of the TV show "Death Valley Days," they reinforced stereotypes that proved to be, in large part, misleading.

In the 1980 presidential campaign, the media repeated their mistakes. When Reagan told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that Vietnam, "in truth, was a noble cause," the media questioned Reagan's acumen on the stump. When Reagan mistakenly referred to Tuscumbia, Ala., as a home to the Ku Klux Klan -- President Carter had campaigned there -- the press renewed its assault on Reagan's fitness as a candidate.

"All of Reagan's stumbles were coming together to create a picture of a candidate in over his head," wrote Lou Cannon, Reagan's biographer. But this image of Reagan as an amiable dunce and right-wing leader couldn't account for the biggest story of that year -- how a conservative won the presidency.

In the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was also written off early by the media. Pundits right and left charged that Clinton had dodged the draft, cheated on his wife and dissembled when asked whether he had ever smoked marijuana. The furor threatened to end Clinton's career. Many articles on the presidential aspirant hyperbolically portrayed Clinton as a mealy-mouthed flip-flopper who possessed few core beliefs.

The media and commentators also shortchanged Clinton's New Democrat mission, which defined his campaign. Although reporters understandably wanted to investigate Clinton's past, amid a 24-hour news cycle many became obsessed with the personal at the expense of noticing Clinton's trailblazing politics.

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