BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It looks like General Wesley Clark picked an opportune moment to enter the race for the Democratic nomination for president. As President Bush's approval ratings continued to slide this week, a poll suggested that if the election were held now, Clark would narrowly defeat the president -- this despite an early and embarrassing Clark flip flop on whether he would have voted for the Iraq war. First the general said probably; then reversed himself to say absolutely not.
BOB GARFIELD:The press, of course, is attracted to political blunders. It's also attracted to political frontrunners, and that combination has resulted in some extremely skeptical coverage of the new candidate as reflected in Clark's first answer to a question in Thursday's debate.
WESLEY CLARK: Brian, if I've wern--learned one thing in my 9 days in politics-- [LAUGHTER] you better be careful with hypothetical questions.
BOB GARFIELD: In this week's National Journal, Bill Powers compared the general's first week in the race with, quote, "one of those nature channel shows where the unsuspecting little gazelle wanders out into the savannah and is immediately pounced on by a pack of starved hyenas." Bill, welcome back to the show.
BILL POWERS: Thanks, Bob. Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So for the last four or five presidential election cycles, the media have done a lot of hand-wringing about the way we cover races --focusing on the horse race instead of the issues, over-emphasizing blunders by the candidates and so on. Is there anything about the entry of Wesley Clark into the race that suggests the media have been chastened one iota?
BILL POWERS: There's something different about the debut of General Clark. There is a substance to the way the media have jumped on him that is very interesting. There's been this kind of instant rejection of him almost on a character basis that I've never seen before this early in a candidacy. And the first signal that was sent up was a front pager in the Washington Post, the day he announced his candidacy, which really, if you read between the lines suggested that he might not be fit for office. I had never seen a piece so troublingly negative -- troubling in terms of this guy's possibly being president -- on the day the person announced, and it had these shocking quotes from unnamed retired generals who had known him in the Pentagon saying basically don't trust this guy.
BOB GARFIELD:But I can't imagine any reporter having heard those quotations from inside sources who wouldn't use them in any profile either at the beginning of a race or thereafter. Was it therefore that unusual?
BILL POWERS: In the past there's generally been this sort of unofficial honeymoon period where you kind of get the positive stuff first and the pictures with the family and blah, blah, blah -- their record in governing such and such state or whatever. In this case, I think part of the reason may be that General Clark is a longtime Washington insider. Those quotes were not just stuff that some reporter picked up on the phone and had never heard before. Reporters have been talking to him for years. They know what they think of him, and they know what his colleagues think of him. It seems to me there was some kind of decision made that there was such a mass of this stuff that -- let's go with it. And it appeared not just in the Post and not just in the news columns of other outlets but in opinion columns right away -- Robert Novak, Richard Cohen, across the spectrum there have been these striking digs about this man's --basically his fiber as a person.
BOB GARFIELD:Does the fact that the media is simply paying so much attention and establishing him as the frontrunner through polls and punditry -- more important than any of the particulars of what the press might be saying? You know, kind of I don't care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right?
BILL POWERS: Yes. I mean the cover of Newsweek is a huge achievement for someone who has just announced. But I do think that these complaints about him and concerns about his character that are being raised are serious. In the middle of this week you even had retired General Shelton telling an audience that, that he wouldn't vote for the man.
BOB GARFIELD:Now your column this week says there's actually a disadvantage to being a frontrunner because immediately the media want to take you down. I mean what you're describing is a kind of blood lust. Are the media really bloodthirsty? Isn't there something a little bit more responsible going on?
BILL POWERS: I wouldn't put my money on that Bob. I mean I think they are bloodthirsty for the man on top because that's the eternal great story of journalism -- when you get that high in the polls that early and all of a sudden you're number one, the next big story is how you fell from that high position. That's the trouble with starting out in this way. It's almost as if the media has this unconscious belief that you didn't quite earn it.
BOB GARFIELD:Are the early reactions of the mainstream press something that General Clark cannot overcome? Is the theme now defined in perpetuity for the balance of the race for the nomination?
BILL POWERS: No. I don't think it's fatal at all. I mean we have numerous examples of candidates who have overcome really rejection by the mainstream press. I mean you can go back to Ronald Reagan when he was running for office. And, and Dean is the most recent example. I mean Dean was really a bit of a joke, really, in the media for a long, long time. So you can overcome this kind of media skepticism or outright rejection that Clark is seeing, although he is seeing a, a species of rejection that is quite intense so early in a candidacy, and I think it's going to be a struggle for him.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me ask you one more thing. General Clark, in addition to having become a major public figure during the Kosovo campaign, was a commentator for CNN during the bombing in Baghdad. Do you think his work as a pundit and his familiarity with the, the TV cameras is going to work to his benefit at all?
BILL POWERS: What happens is I think when you operate as a pundit as Clark did, you can kind of convince yourself that it would be easy to do that on a bigger stage, perhaps even as a presidential candidate, because after all what do they do but talk into the microphone. The difference is, when you're a presidential candidate you are held to a completely different standard than the one you're held to as a pundit. That's what happened to him. I mean he had that flip flop on the war resolution. Something like that, if he'd done it on television, wouldn't really have been held against him if he was just a pundit. But when you're a candidate, it's gigantic, and I -- you almost get the sense that he didn't realize that -- that you're not forgiven for these things when you've thrown your hat in the ring.
BOB GARFIELD: So if you had any advice for General Clark going forward, what would that be?
BILL POWERS:Well I hate to give candidates advice. I'm not in that business. But I would say that, you know, [LAUGHS] if you think you've seen wartime, wait till you deal with the media. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Bill. Well, as always, thank you very much.
BILL POWERS: Thank you, Bob. Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Bill powers writes about media for the National Journal.