Two of the best practitioners of the English language died this week: William F. Buckley Jr. and W.C. Heinz.

They could not have been more different writers.

Bill Buckley delighted in the complexities of the language; his erudite phrasing was over-the-top, but entertaining. Often he was just trying to score points over one of his adversaries on Firing Line. One of his favorite responses was: “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you actually believe what you are saying.”

Bill Heinz sought the simplicity of the language. As a newspaper reporter, distinguished war correspondent, sports columnist, freelance journalist and novelist, he wrote clean, spare prose, always trying to get to the essence. Hemingway was his hero and literary model. Once, when he had all but exhausted himself in writing a novel, his doctor told him: “Bill, if you don’t stop trying to be the greatest writer in the world, you’re going to kill yourself.” “I’m not trying to be the greatest writer in the world,” Bill answered. “I’m just trying to be the best writer I can be.”

In August, 2004, I spent an afternoon with Buckley at his lovely home overlooking Long Island Sound in Stamford, Connecticut. I’d come with a producer and camera crew from The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer to interview him about his decision to step down from the National Review. I was there on business, but Buckley could not have been more gracious and welcoming. He showed us around, invited us to share lunch, played his harpsichord for us and acted as though there was nothing he would rather do with his afternoon.

Buckley had converted an adjacent barn into an office. In the middle, all-but-hidden by memorabilia and books and files and clutter, was his computer. He was going to continue writing his newspaper column, he said, because it gave him three kinds of satisfaction. “One is creating something, one is being paid for it, and one is the feeling that I haven’t just been sitting on my ass all afternoon.”

Bill Heinz was an equally gracious host. He was a close friend of my father, the late sports columnist Red Smith, and I grew up listening to the two of them trade stories in the Heinz home or ours. My father recalled one time when he was in Cuba visiting Bill’s literary hero at his Finca Vigia, just outside Havana. Hemingway had just read Bill’s first novel, The Professional, about a prize fighter, and was full of praise for it.

“But damn,” Hemingway said of the main character, “I didn’t want Bill’s fighter to lose.” “You didn’t want him to lose?” my father said, incredulously. “How about Bill? When he started the book, he knew how he had to end it. But after he wrote the first line leading into the fight, he had to take a day off and walk in the woods to get up the courage to have his fighter knocked out.”

For Bill Heinz, writing was a contact sport.


“It is time to get real — get real about how we actually win this election,” Hillary Clinton told an audience in New York this week. “it is time to get real about the challenges facing America.”

“Get real,” is her new mantra.

The unspoken subtext is “don’t get your hopes up, don’t let charisma carry you away, don’t fall prey to that inspirational elixir Obama is selling.”

“Get real.” How lame is that as a rallying cry for a struggling campaign? It is such a downbeat, eat-your peas message. Which of her highly-paid advisers came up with that? It reinforces her negative image as an admonishing, lecturing, know-it-all.

Hillary Clinton may still pull off victories in Texas or Ohio on March 4. It is always a mistake to count out a Clinton in a campaign before the votes are in. And the reporters who are writing her political obituaries are getting dangerously ahead of the story.

But this much is already true about Clinton-for-President in ’08: it was her bad luck to have to compete against a candidate whose story is even more remarkable than hers.

She stood out against the Bidens and Dodds and Richardsons — all credible, conventional candidates — as the first woman frontrunner in a presidential race. But Barak Obama stands out even more, as a symbol of the nation’s deepest division and as individual who can help bridge that gap.

Obama is more than that, of course. He is enormously articulate and blessed with a dignified composure and inner calm that has carried him through 19 debates without a serious stumble. He also has a sense of humor, which helps.

He seems to have a near-perfect pitch when it comes to gauging the public mood. He senses, for example, that voters are sick and tired of the politics of character assassination. When Clinton attacks, striking out in last night’s debate with a crack about “change you can Xerox,” he shakes his head and turns the other cheek. Smart politics. She looks tough; he looks presidential.

It is Hillary’s fate that when she finally gets her chance at the brass ring, a truly different candidate is there to take it — and her specialness — away from her.


Having read the New York Times’ page-one piece this morning about John McCain’s alleged involvement with a young woman lobbyist during his 2000 campaign, and Bill Keller’s defense of it and The New Republic’s frothy story-behind-the-story, I can only conclude that the paper must be on very solid grounds.

I say this not because I know the inside story here — I don’t.

I say it because there is no way that a smart editor like Keller would go with a story based on two unnamed sources — former McCain aides now disaffected from him and his campaign — unless he had somehow independently satisfied himself that what they said was true.

He wouldn’t take their word for it. His reporters must have come up with corroborating support from others. The cost to him and the paper would be too great if it was wrong. He knew going in that this was going to provoke a firestorm.

The thrust of the report is simple: the two former aides say they went to John McCain and warned him that if he continued to be seen frequently with Vicki Iseman, a young, blonde lobbyist 30 years his junior, it was going to jeopardize his presidential ambitions. The Times’ story also quoted John Weaver, a close McCain confidant, as saying that he met with Ms Iseman at a café in Union Station and urged her to stay away from the Senator.

Today Senator McCain said that he had not been cautioned by aides about appearing with Ms Iseman, whose clients included telecommunications firms with important business before McCain’s Commerce Committee, and had never had an improper relationship with her. He also said he did not know of Mr. Weaver’s reported contacts with Ms. Iseman.

So there it sits as of this writing.

The New Republic, incidentally, has almost nothing to support its lighter-than-air account of the newsroom debates over the story at The Times prior to publication. Of course there was debate prior to running such a story. The suggestion that The Times would feel forced to run the piece because of The New Republic’s queries is silly.

That was the least of their worries


Eugene Robinson, arguably the best columnist writing in America today, posed a two-part question in his column this morning in The Washington Post:

“Are the news media being beastly to Hillary Clinton? Are political reporters and commentators… basically in the tank for Barack Obama?”

Gene’s answer: no and no.

My view: yes and yes.

The coverage of Hillary during this campaign has been across-the-board critical, especially since she began losing after New Hampshire. She may have brought much of the negative reporting on herself, sometimes with the help of her husband. Able and articulate as she is, Hillary can be as polarizing among the media as she is with the public.

And her campaign has taken the tough-love approach with the reporters who cover it, frequently ostracizing those they think are critical or hostile. That kind of aggressive press-relations strategy may sometimes be justified, but it rarely effective. Reporters are supposed to be objective and professional. But they are human. They resent the cold shoulder, even if they understand the campaign’s motivation.

The result is coverage that is viscerally harsh: her laugh is often described as a “cackle.” Her stump speech is dismissed as dry and tiresomely programmatic. She is accused of projecting a sense of entitlement, as though the presidency should be hers by default, that it is somehow now her turn to be president. When she makes changes in her campaign hierarchy, she is described as “desperate.”

Chris Matthews argues on MSNBC that Hillary “bugs a lot of guys, I mean, really bugs people — like maybe me on occasion.” Further, he has theorized that she has got as far as she has as a candidate only because of a sympathy vote, because “her husband messed around.”

Is that misogynistic? Perhaps. Is it unfair? Probably. Is it crude? Of course. Is Chris on to something? Maybe.

But whatever the case, Hillary and her supporters have reason to complain about the tone of their press notices, if not the substance. Of course, when a front-runner begins to stumble, the coverage is always more critical. And reporters are as subject to Clinton-fatigue as anyone else. But the attacks on Hillary have seemed over-the-top in recent weeks. A barely-suppressed glee often creeps into the commentary when Hillary loses another primary or caucus.

By contrast, has the coverage of Obama been overly sympathetic? Have reporters romanticized the junior Senator from Illinois? Have they glamorized him and his wife? Did they exaggerate the significance of Ted Kennedy’s endorsement? Have they given him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his meager experience?

Of course they have.

His rise to front-runner is described as meteoric, his speeches as mesmerizing, his crowds as enraptured, his charisma as boundless. Obama is characterized as the second-coming of JFK, etc. etc. It is all a bit much.

What is behind this enthusiasm? It is not so much personal preference or political bias. It is this: Reporters love a good story, and Obamamania is as good as they come. There has not been such drama and excitement in a presidential race in years. Reporters are suckers for a story that writes itself.

Last summer, the astute National Journal reporter Carl Cannon argued in an Aspen Institute panel that the media were missing the significance of Obama’s candidacy, failing to grasp the inherent newsworthiness of his rise from obscurity to the national scene. Carl was right then, but nobody is missing it now, and the result is coverage that is often just short of gushing.

In the end, the contrasting tone of the reporting in the Democratic race may not determine the outcome. But it will influence it. Bill Clinton is right when he angrily protests that “the political press has avowedly played a role in this election.”

In his frustration and fury, Clinton probably doesn’t understand the real motivation or comprehend what is behind the critical coverage of his wife and the fawning, sometimes cheerleading reporting of the Obama phenomenon.

But he is on to something.