Monday, January 28, 2008

L.A. Times Faces Critical Endorsement Decisions

For the Los Angeles Times and its often discredited publisher, David Hiller, this week is shaping up as a critical one in trying to regain public esteem. After the California debates this week, the Times has vowed to endorse candidates in the presidential nominating contests.

The question of the hour is whether it will try to lead, or fall into the trap of following, public opinion in the state.

On the Democratic side, will it go along with the latest polls in California and ratify the power grab of the Clintons by endorsing Sen. Hillary Clinton? Or will it try to lead toward an idealistic reformer, Sen. Barack Obama? With the endorsements of Sen. Edward Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy, Obama may surge in California, and especially in the Latino and white working communities. Will the L.A. Times surf the rising tide, or fight it?

On the Republican side, will the Times go with the great flip-flopper, former Gov. Mitt Romney, who would, like the Clintons, say or do anything to win the presidency? Or will the newspaper go with a man of principle, the war hero and independently-minded senator, John McCain?

I wish I could be confident as to what these decisions will be. The Times had a friendly editorial about Obama's South Carolina victory this morning, but that just might have been tacking against an intention to endorse Clinton. I hope not.

With some exceptions, such as Peter Wallsten, Peter Nicholas and state political columnist George Skelton, Times political coverage of the campaign thus far has not been as distinguished as either the New York Times or, particularly, the Washington Post. Just this morning, Janet Hook has an article which, par for her, is pessimistic about the Obama campaign, unimpressed with the momentum for him coming out of his victory in last Saturday's South Carolina Democratic primary.

Mark Barabak, the Times' lead political writer, has produced mostly pedestrian coverage. When reporters at other newspapers, caught on to quick shifts, such as the evolution of the campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and then, the Kennedy endorsements, Barabak was mostly without a clue until after things happened. There has, however, been an improvement recently in the blogging by Don Frederick. He is catching on, and beginning to keep up.

But Times coverage of the presidential race in the California primary has so far been rather sparse. When you consider that this state can be decisive, and its choices can determine the nominees, this is surprising. The Times has hardly mentioned that independents can vote in the Democratic primary, potentially a major boost for Obama.

Most critical, certainly in the matter of this week's endorsements, is Hiller's position. It is finally up to him to decide on the endorsements, traditionally the prerogative of publishers. In this case, also, the new Tribune Co. owner, Sam Zell, has repeatedly said there would be local autonomy on editorial policy, and, at the L.A. Times, that means Hiller.

The Times editorial pages editor, Jim Newton, who authored a tremendous book about the life of the late chief justice of the Supreme Court and California governor, Earl Warren, is sensitive to the issues, and can be presumed as a backer of progressive causes. But he will have to do what Hiller tells him to do in the matter of endorsing presidential candidates.

Hiller has been, so far, a fairly poor fit for Los Angeles, a liberal city that actually voted for Sen. George McGovern against Richard Nixon in 1972. Hiller, at least in his earlier incarnations, in Washington and Chicago, was a rightwing Republican, known for his friendships with Ken Starr and Donald Rumsfeld and even an advocate of putting Haitian and Cuban refugees in concentration camps.

In short, he has been the kind of man who perhaps would have been all with former President Bill Clinton, when he tried, unsuccessfully, to play the race card in South Carolina last week against Obama.

But in the endorsements this week, Hiller has a chance to redeem himself with a more independent position. He can pick the candidates, McCain and Obama, who have, in their lives, exemplified the kind of character we need, more than ever, in the presidency.

It was striking last week that, when Obama came to the L.A. Times to meet with the editorial board, the usually idealistic Times staff gave him a rapturous reception. There is no question who the staff favors, and it is not an extension of rancorous, divisive government in Washington that the Clintons, like the Bushes, have come to represent.

This is going to be interesting.

Meanwhile, the biggest actual primary test this week is in the Republican race in Florida, and the indications are it will be a close battle between Romney and McCain, with former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani perhaps finishing his lagging campaign by running a poor third.

Romney, ever the demagogue, was making the absurd claim that his experience in Massachusetts, where he raised taxes and still allowed a huge deficit to develop, proves he would be better at managing the economy than McCain.

Hooey! McCain simply would hire good economists, if he were elected. He would certainly be better disciplined on the economy than Romney was as a governor.

There is also a Democratic primary in Florida, but the state defied the Democratic National Committee and moved up its primary. The DNC then stripped Florida of its delegates and there was supposed to be an agreement among the Democratic candidates not to campaign in Florida.

However, Clinton has been doing some campaigning there, and will be in the state tomorrow night, expecting to run first, and is already calling for a restoration of the Florida delegates. Like Richard Nixon before them, the Clintons will always do whatever they can to win, no matter if it violates prior agreements. They are already preparing for a credentials fight at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer.


Sen. Kennedy's speech today endorsing Obama was stirring, but no one should dismiss the significance too of Caroline Kennedy, last surviving child of John F. Kennedy and an inspirational figure in her own right. I notice that, despite the fact her Obama endorsement in the New York Times Sunday was played, rather obscurely, on the last page of the Week in Review section, it still drew the most hits on the Times Web site. In fact, three of the top 10 hits yesterday were the pro-Obama endorsement of Caroline, and pro-Obama columns by Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd. This may show the leanings of the New York Times readership. Although the paper endorsed Hillary Clinton recently, the readers have been moving toward Obama.



Anonymous another old fool said...

Play a race card in South Carolina?
In a state with all those Black Democrats? The Clintons aren't stupid people. They already knew South Carolina was lost and going to Obama. Hillary didn't even hang around for the results and Bill dissed Obama by comparing him to Jesse Jackson. If Bill Clinton played the race card in South Carolina it was aimed at the Super Tuesday States.

1/28/2008 10:44 AM  
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