The sound of silence

Those supposedly issue-oriented candidates didn’t have all that much to say

It was one of those iconic ‘60s moments. Richard Nixon, bitter at losing the California governorship just two years after a narrow loss for the presidency, gave an election night speech that became famous as his “last press conference.” It was Nov. 6, 1962, and he unleashed an angry assault on journalists who “had a lot of fun” at his expense during his public career. Less well-remembered are the words with which he closed those harsh remarks:

“I believe in reading what my opponents say, and I hope that what I have said today will at least make television, radio and the press, first, recognize the great responsibility they have to report all the news, and second, recognize that they have a right and a responsibility, if they’re against a candidate, give him the shaft—but also recognize if they give him the shaft, put one lonely reporter on the campaign who will report what the candidate says now and then. Thank you, gentlemen, and good day.”

It’s a common complaint among candidates, that we reporters are more interested in political chit-chat about the horse race and campaign war chests than we are about the candidates’ stances on issues. In 2004, even a candidate’s son spoke out about the overemphasis on the trivial. Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark’s son pointed out that one of the biggest bursts of attention his father’s campaign got came when speeding tickets were issued to a three-car campaign caravan in Oklahoma.

“His stance on the issues or his qualifications for the job haven’t been talked about at all,” said Wesley II in February 2004. “You’ve got to talk about what the man stands for and what he’s done. Nobody does that.”

Truth to tell, reporters know perfectly well that they spend too little time on issues. After every campaign, journalism periodicals carry breast-beating and self-criticism. In 1981, for instance, Jeff Greenfield wrote of the 1980 campaign, “Convinced that the ‘real’ story was behind the scenes, the press as a rule spent tens of millions of dollars covering events that were supposed to provide Delphic clues to the unseeable future (‘who’s going to win?'), while giving short shrift to the flow of ideas and the underlying political terrain that—as it turned out—provided important clues about the nature of campaign ‘80.” That year’s campaign, Greenfield wrote in retrospect, was almost entirely about issues.

But then another campaign would come around, and reporters and their assignment desks always found the siren’s song of the trivial too alluring to resist.

We saw it happening again this year in our own state. The Democratic Party decided to make Nevada an early caucus state. In February, most of the major Democratic candidates appeared at a forum in Carson City, and after their on-stage appearances, all but Clinton held news conferences for reporters. They were asked about some national issues, some trivia, and very little about western issues. The whole idea of the Nevada caucuses had been to give a more diverse western population and its concerns a role in the early stages of presidential selection.

We decided to send a questionnaire out to the candidates on five Nevada issues—grazing fees, mining law, water transfers, Yucca Mountain, and the business meal deduction (a casino-related issue that we’ll deal with in our news section in a couple of issues). Because of the questionnaire format, it was an easy pitch for a candidate—no follow-up questions, for instance.

When the Republican Party of Nevada also decided to move its caucuses up, we sent out questionnaires to the eight leading GOP presidential candidates.

The quickest responses were no surprise—Hillary Clinton because Brendan Riley of the Associated Press had interviewed her early in the campaign and told me she was impressively prepared on Nevada issues, and McCain because as an Arizonan he was familiar with the issues we asked about. Barack Obama and Bill Richardson also fell into those categories. Edwards, who has run for president before, also responded quickly.

After those rapid responses, to our surprise, replies slowed to a crawl. Some candidates didn’t reply at all. Others gave us a flat no: “[A]s a matter of policy, we will not be participating in questionnaires,” said Fred Thompson spokesperson Darrel Ng.

If we got any encouragement at all, we followed up, trying to coax responses out of candidates. Shortly after the publication of our Democratic responses, one of Joe Biden’s local supporters wrote to us, “I know Senator Biden is right on many of our issues here in Nevada, and it would have benefited our campaign to be on your page.” I felt bad, knowing the heart that local volunteers give to campaigns, and wrote back to assure her that we made contact with the Biden campaign seven times through two different aides over a period of months. We got several promising replies but never actual answers to the questionnaire.

Two prominent Nevada Republican leaders helped us make better contacts with candidates they were supporting, and one of those initiatives succeeded.

But in the end, we got answers from five of eight Democrats and two of eight Republicans. Perhaps most disappointing was the lack of response from candidates who are all about issues, like Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul. Paul’s office asked us for an extension of time, which we granted. We never heard from them again, though we tried to make contact five times.

It seemed odd to us that candidates who say they want more attention paid to their positions would not have responded better. We contacted a veteran campaign reporter, syndicated columnist Jules Witcover, author of this year’s Very Strange Bedfellows and a dozen other books on presidential politics. He replied. This is what he said: “It astounds me that any of the presidential candidates would pass up the opportunity to reply to your questionnaire on key Nevada caucus issues, especially in view that they have spent such little time in the state. … Either some of them have already written off Nevada, or their issue response apparatus is a dismal one.”