By Bill Boyarsky
Real politicians don’t quit. They are defeated, indicted, jailed, die or, in some jurisdictions, ousted by term limits. So don’t expect Hillary Clinton to surrender just yet.
When Willie L. Brown Jr., then the speaker of the California state Assembly, explained this character trait to me years ago, it made such perfect sense that it has shaped my judgment of political behavior ever since.
But some political reporters don’t seem to consider this kind of intangible as they advise Clinton that she should be a good sport and quit. Their advice, accompanied by analyses, relies on logic and common sense, two qualities that successful politicians lack when it comes to their own ambitions.
Logic should lead Sen. Clinton to take heed of what Jim VanderHei and Mike Allen wrote on the Web site Politico last month: “One big fact that has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning.”
Common sense argues that Clinton pay attention to columnist E.J. Dionne’s concern over the harm she is doing to herself: “The Clinton campaign needs to examine not what this fight has done to Obama but what it is doing to her.”
Naturally, Clinton is ignoring all this. Real politicians don’t worry about the harm they may inflict on themselves or even others when they are in pursuit of victory. One of my favorite stories of such determination was told by historian James MacGregor Burns in his book “Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom 1940-45.” Burns describes a fall day in 1944 when the gravely ill president, campaigning in New York for a fourth term, was determined to show he was healthy enough to serve. Roosevelt spoke in a drizzle in Ebbets Field:
“It was pouring by the time he was eased back into the car. He was given a rubdown and dry clothes at a nearby Coast Guard motor pool. Then the ordeal resumed.
“Its top still down by the president’s order, the limousine led a long cavalcade through Queens to the Bronx, then to Harlem and mid-Manhattan and down Broadway. ... The cold rain came down relentlessly, drenching the President’s upflung arm and sleeve, rolling off his fedora, circling the lines of the grin on his face, seeping into his coat and shirt. ... Hour after hour the procession continued in the downpour. People waited under umbrellas and soggy newspapers to catch a glimpse of the big smile. At his wife’s apartment in Washington Square he changed again and rested. That evening, the president spoke to the Foreign Policy Association in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue. ...”
That was a real politician. Only his death the following April removed Roosevelt from his job.
When I was a traveling campaign reporter for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, I was forever searching for clues to the candidates’ character and personality. The search was part of what drew me to political reporting. The candidates would have made great characters for a movie or a play that would end in either happiness or misery. There could be no other outcome.
Of course I was supposed to know something about policy—and I did. If needed, I could bore anyone with the details of budgets, the economy and health care, and write about them. I also knew about party committees, state and national chairmen, delegate rules and credential committees. But absorbing this information couldn’t compare to trying to find out whether the candidates had at least a portion of what Roosevelt demonstrated on that rainy New York day—a fighting heart.
The Los Angeles Times editors shared my interest and gave me and other writers the time and space to explore character and personality.
This sounds so old media as I sit here writing. I now write for two Web sites, Truthdig and LA Observed. I am lucky in that the editors of both appreciate thoughtfulness. But generally, the Internet, with its incessant demand for page views and “eyeballs,” wants quantity and speed. “Good enough” is the mantra of too much of the new media.
Traveling with the candidate—a great source for character examination—is in decline. Jacques Steinberg reported in The New York Times last month that the high prices the media must pay for a seat on a campaign air charter are becoming “too steep, in an era in which newspapers in particular are slashing costs and paring staff, and with no end in sight to a primary campaign that began more than a year ago.”
Back in the day, when I traveled on the campaign bus and plane, I could see the many disadvantages. I lived in the so-called campaign bubble, divorced from other events. But I learned a lot by listening, watching, talking to candidates, bouncing ideas off older and smarter reporters and well-connected campaign workers who were also smart and entertaining.
Today, this life is as antiquated as Jane Austen’s novels. Not many readers have time for them or for us practitioners of journalistic character studies. But Jane knew that character—good or bad—counts. I would have relied on her, more than the political writers, in explaining why Hillary Clinton won’t quit.
Flickr / Joe Crimmings Photography