Howell Raines applies to the conventional-wisdom club

The ousted Times editor debuts as a pundit for the British Guardian with an old act.

Published June 4, 2004 7:04PM (EDT)

Before he was forced out as the New York Times' executive editor 12 months ago in the wake of the Jayson Blair journalism scandal, the working assumption among Times watchers was that following his glory days overseeing the newsroom, Howell Raines would be awarded a plum column on the paper's Op-Ed page where he would spend his later years pontificating about current events. This week, Raines made his debut as a pundit, but instead of writing for the Times, he appeared in the pages of London's Guardian newspaper, dissecting American politics. If Raines' first column, dripping with conventional wisdom and a disheartening obsession with political style over substance, is any indication of his work to come, the Times' Op-Ed page may have dodged a bullet.

It's not that the column, which disparages the current state of Sen. John Kerry's campaign, is necessarily out of bounds. It's the depressing level of smart-aleck discourse Raines opts for. Does he really want to operate down where mocking Kerry's looks (he compares the Democrat to "The Addams Family's" Lurch) is supposed to pass for smart insight?

For that matter, with the country in the grips of war, scandal and leadership crisis, do we need another cynical, name-calling pundit who thinks the presidential election is really about personality -- and, more specifically, about which candidate looks better on TV? One who's awed by the amount of misinformation the GOP spreads, while belittling Democrats for not being able to fend off the falsehoods? And who, years after his anti-Clinton Whitewater crusading proved to be yet another unfounded Times obsession, still cannot get over his morbid fixation with his fellow Southerner.

Raines is not new to the punditry forum. During much of the '90s he was chief of the Times' editorial page where he penned unsigned editorials. In this powerful role, Raines got out the torches and pitchforks for a number of targets undeserving of the Times' high dudgeon, from nonexistent Clinton corruption to witch-hunt victim Wen Ho Lee and the China spy "scandals." Two things have changed since Raines last wrote for a living, though. First, he has to attach his name to his own words, and second, political reporters and pundits are held to a much higher standard today. Thanks in large part to an army of online media critics and fact-checkers, the days when the Times, including its influential editorial page, could simply flog a groundless story like Whitewater for months, even years, without fear of repercussion, are long gone. (Just ask the Times' doomsday weapons expert Judith Miller.) It's not clear, however, that Raines, sloppy in his execution in the Guardian, realizes the times have changed.

Take his debut column, which amounts to a premature autopsy on the Kerry campaign and its supposedly fatal inability to formulate a message. Raines ignores the fact that Bush's approval ratings are in free-fall, plummeting nearly 20 percent since January, and that he's now trailing Kerry in a majority of the national polls. Raines, echoing a four-week-old Beltway C.W., is convinced it's Kerry who needs a makeover. (Should we just start the countdown now as to when Raines devotes column inches to that other simmering C.W. tempest -- how Bill Clinton's memoirs will steal the spotlight from Kerry this summer? Where C.W. spinmeister Howard Fineman, who recently passed judgment on this matter in Newsweek, goes, the likes of Raines are certain to belatedly follow.)

In his Guardian column, Raines continues hewing to last winter's conventional line, explaining to his British readers that "ever since Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980, presidential elections have been dominated by Republican expertise in finding a tiny crack -- real or imaginary -- in a candidate's public facade and expanding that fissure until the whole edifice crumbles." Then he warns, "Bush's formidable chiseller-in-chief, Karl Rove, has barely started tapping."

The fact is the Rove-led White House reelection operation has been "tapping" for several months, in plain view, spending nearly $80 million to wrap Bush in the 9/11 flag and tar Kerry as a dithering security risk. And despite this withering and record-breaking negative ad campaign, Kerry is not only still standing -- he's moving ahead in the polls.

Other head-scratchers follow:

  • "While Bush's poll figures look sickly to the unschooled eye, his 40 percent support level does contain some good news for him. It shows that his base of cultural and political conservatives is holding together -- so far."

    Does Raines really think that with five months to go before the election, the fact that Bush appears to enjoy firm support only among die-hard conservatives passes as "good news" for him?

  • "Kerry radiates the feeling that he is entitled to his sense of entitlement. Probably that comes from spending too much time with Teddy Kennedy, but it's a problem."

    The idea that Raines, whose ego was legendary inside the newspaper industry, is lecturing people about their sense of entitlement is rich. This is the same newsroom lord who once "ordered a news clerk to bring his office ficus tree out into the rain so it could be watered naturally," according to "The Trust," Alex S. Jones' and Susan E. Tifft's history of the Times. The book also notes that while he oversaw the Times' D.C. bureau in the '80s, "detractors turned his name into a verb: 'to Raines' means to have slaves and not admit it."

    Raines concludes that if Kerry can't effectively communicate to voters his vision for Iraq and the economy then his run at the White House is doomed. But again the former Times man refuses to let the facts get in his way. As the latest Time/CNN poll shows, more Americans already trust that Kerry will do a better job handling the war and the economy. It's unclear where Raines, who stubbornly ignores every recent poll of the U.S. electorate in his column, is getting his information about the mood of the voters. (Sadly, he confesses at one point to relying on conversations with political reporters to gauge how Kerry is connecting on the campaign trail.)

    The irony is that Raines mocks Kerry for not having a message, when it's clear Raines isn't even listening.

  • By Eric Boehlert

    Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

    MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

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