BOB GARFIELD: This is from the front page of the New York Times, quote, "The Democrats are in serious trouble. Although Bush's approval ratings are low, the presumptive Democratic nominee can't get any traction -- his campaign continues to confront a cloud of doubts and reservations, and voters are complaining that he hasn't offered the country a clear vision for the future. That passage comes courtesy of Tim Grieve, senior writer for Salon, who used it in his story about the John Kerry campaign. Tim, welcome to the show.
TIM GRIEVE: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, the Times' quote was pretty alarming for the Democratic candidate, so what's the catch?
TIM GRIEVE: The catch is, the Times quote comes from 1992 when Bill Clinton was the Democratic candidate. [LAUGHTER] Sounds a lot like what the Times said this week about John Kerry too, though.
BOB GARFIELD: Clinton, I believe, went on to beat President George H. W. Bush, so what is the matter with the whole lot of us that we can only accentuate the negative and not look at, for example, Clinton's experience to see hope for even a struggling John Kerry?
TIM GRIEVE: I think the problem that the media has so far in this campaign is this effort at every point to take things in an equal way. You know, the Vietnam service question, for example, has been a constant presence in this campaign. It should be a sure winner for Kerry. Maybe it's Kerry's fault that it isn't a sure winner, but you also get things like U.S. News & World Report last week running a cover story that shows Bush and Kerry on the front of the cover with a headline that says 1971 was a defining moment for each of them.
BOB GARFIELD:The cover shows a gung-ho looking President Bush in uniform reporting to duty - precisely where we don't know - and a disheveled-looking John Kerry with an enormously bad haircut.
TIM GRIEVE: That's right. Kerry's hairstyle in 1971 hasn't held up quite as well as Bush's had, but the point is well-taken that you've got Kerry there in a suit - you've got Bush there in a military uniform, as if this is a close call or, or you know the tie goes to Bush. And in this case, if Bush can make this Vietnam issue something like a tie, geez, what a huge victory for him.
BOB GARFIELD:If the negativity and nay-saying is premature or just plain wrong, is there any reason to think that it will actually have an effect on the electorate?
TIM GRIEVE: That's the big question -- does this become a self-fulfilling prophecy -- and it didn't with Clinton - it did, to some degree, with Gore -and the question now is: what happens with John Kerry. One of the things that the press does wrong is it focuses so exclusively on these national poll numbers. National voting does not determine elections, and if you need proof of that, you can ask President Al Gore. The media really needs to start looking at the polling in individual swing states. If things change in those states, that makes a huge difference.
BOB GARFIELD:All right now, Tim, it's clear that you believe that the declarations of disaster are premature, but you're not suggesting that the guy is doing a great job, are you?
TIM GRIEVE: Look, John Kerry came from a place right at the end of the primaries where he was relatively unknown, had very little money, and was not a choice that a lot of Democrats made enthusiastically. Bush has spent nearly 60 million dollars on advertising. He has all the advantages of the incumbency, and as of this week, the race is still even. Given that the dynamic for this race, I don't think John Kerry ought to be unhappy with where he is.
BOB GARFIELD:Do you think this is just glibness on the part of the media that just don't have enough to do with six months to go before election day --that they're just looking for details to pick at?
TIM GRIEVE: I think there are holes in weeks where there are stories that need to be written, and this was a story line that made sense last week. There are also Democrats out there who are expressing these kinds of concerns about Kerry - who think, you know, he should be more energetic - who think he should be Howard Dean - and they provide just enough of a hook for these stories to get written.
BOB GARFIELD:But if Democrats are, in fact, out there panicking, either on the record or off, aren't the media doing exactly what they're supposed to do by informing the public of unease in inner Democratic circles?
TIM GRIEVE: Sure. There's - it, it's perfectly reasonable for the media to inform the public of the unease. It just gets a little overblown when you have stories on the front page in the New York Times talking about Democrats being scared and Kerry struggling to find a theme when Kerry is in fact in a - an extremely close race with the president of the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Tim, thanks very much.
TIM GRIEVE: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Tim Grieve is a senior writer for Salon.com. The magazine is based in San Francisco. He spoke to us from Sacramento.