Friday, May 30, 2008

Political journalists prove not every alum's a banker

Half a dozen political reporters took a few hours off from covering the presidential campaign trail to talk about the candidates, the voters and the media in a panel discussion this afternoon.

Sponsored by the Princeton Alumni Weekly, the panel was a reminder to me that not all alums go into i-banking or law and evidence that my pursuit of a career in journalism might not be in vain. Held in the Frist Theatre, the crowd was bigger than the 239 seats in the auditorium and the only option for some people there Class of 1963, Class of 1972, Class of 1956 was to stand and listen until people with seats trickled out to go to other events. I didn't think that a bunch of reporters would get such a big audience and neither did PAW, apparently. A lot more people have an interest in reporting than I would have predicted, though I think that the topic of the talk drew more of a crowd than did these reporters' street cred, but both aspects were reasons I was there.

The panelists sat in approximate order of age from audience left to right:
  • Kathy Kiely '77, a political reporter at USA Today, a former news editor for The Daily Princetonian and a current 'Prince' trustee
  • Jim Kelly '76, managing editor of Time Inc. and former 'Prince' news editor
  • Todd Purdum '82, Vanity Fair national editor and until 2006 a New York Times reporter
  • Juliet Eilperin '92, a Washington Post staff writer who has been following Republicans on the campaign trail and is also a former 'Prince' managing editor
  • Rick Klein '98, ABC News senior political reporter, author of "The Note," a great daily political round-up, and former editor-in-chief of the 'Prince'
  • Andrew Romano '04, an associate editor of Newsweek and author of "Stumper," the magazine's political blog

Standing at a podium at the audience left of the stage, Joel Achenbach '82, a Washington Post staff writer and former 'Prince' opinion editor, moderated the discussion. He's author of the great Achenblog (I wish I had a name that worked as well with blog as his Epstiblog sounds like a disease or a philosophical argument; Blogstein could almost be a real name), where he writes about politics, as well as "science, history, sports, journalism, cool stuff that's in the news, and my own inexorable psychological disintegration."

The political discussion was a whole lot more intelligent than the back-and-forths on CNN, let alone on Fox News. I can't stand talking heads and spin doctors, but I appreciate reporters' views on politics in particular because they strive to eliminate their own personal biases from their work and instead cover candidates and issues without being fueled by partisanship. It's clear that they think Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) will be the Democratic nominee and that the election will come down to "the judgment and the character of the candidate," as Purdum said.

When Achenbach polled the panel with the yes-or-no question of whether Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) could still pull out the nomination, the four older reporters all said no, while Klein said it's "always a possibility." Romano added that while it is possible, it's "not going to happen."

So why is Clinton, the one-time presumptive nominee, essentially out of the race? One big reason is that her campaign didn't take Obama seriously until it was too late. Last year, Klein said, her campaign answered the question "How will she win?" with "She's already winning." The campaign made the "strategic mistake" of "assum[ing] this would be over on Super Tuesday" while the Obama camp prepared for the long haul, setting up sophisticated grassroots networks in caucus states ranging from Iowa to Idaho and Maine.

Another thing is Obama's broad appeal, to liberal intellectuals, African-Americans and independents, among others. Eilperin, who just got back to the East Coast from covering the McCain campaign in Los Angeles and Milwaukee earlier this week, said she thinks "Obama fits the moment we're in." While "Clinton's argument [is] that she knows how to play that old game of partisan politics," the sentiment among voters is pulling away from traditional candidates, the "maverick" McCain included. "It's a very interesting political moment," she reiterated.

Though McCain and Obama are almost three decades apart in age, they have a lot in common in not being the candidates of their respective parties' establishments. "Both parties have nominated candidates they weren't supposed to," Kiely said. In the fall, she added, they will face the "challenge of anti-establishment melding with the establishment."

Age, of course, is already a major issue in the race. McCain would be the oldest president to take office, while Obama would be the fourth-youngest. As the candidates have framed themselves in the primaries, the issues of judgment and experience resound. Obama argues for judgment, while McCain (and Clinton) say they have experience with the ups and downs of judgment that come with having lengthy voting records and decades of media attention.

Achenbach directed questions about age to Romano, the youngest of the panel members, who is just four years out of Princeton. "Is McCain too old? Is Obama too green, too inexperienced?" Romano's response was noncommittal but elicited a laugh from a crowd that was largely 40-plus if not 50- or 60-plus: "Well, I'm afraid to say too old," he said. Given his stamina on the campaign trail, doing six or seven campaign stops a day last fall while Rudy Giuliani was only doing one or two, the reporters don't think McCain is too old. When it comes to "energy and endurance ... this is a man who breaks all the molds," Kiely said. "He's not your average person."

Even so, McCain has some major physical handicaps to overcome, Purdum said. His injuries from the Vietnam War mean he can't lift his arms over his head to brush his hair, and he can't put on a jacket without help from an aide. That's without bringing his age and history of cancer into play.

The ages of the two presumptive candidates are a reason why their choices of running mates will be relevant. Though Klein said that there are two categories of people who could run with Obama, "Hillary and everyone else 35 and older," the panel's consensus was that Obama will choose someone a bit older than he is, white and male. Kiely suggested Wesley Clark, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) or Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), all of whom have experience in running for the Democratic nomination. Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania and a Clinton supporter, was another name the panel suggested, along with Virginians Jim Webb and Tim Kaine. Kelly's top two picks for McCain's running mate were Rob Portman, a former Ohio congressman "young but not too young" and, for his attention to social issues, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, someone who McCain's said lots of nasty things about in the past. We'll have to wait a while to see.

I'm interested in doing political reporting and would have liked to hear a bit more about the reporters' experiences on the trail with the candidates, as well as their general thoughts on the tremendous proliferation and evolution of political news that's happened in the last few years. There was some talk of it, but not enough, especially in the Q and A at the end of the event, where alums including Sally Frank '80 asked (made) politically charged questions (statements).


Anonymous said...

Achenbach mentioned this post on Achenblog: