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. With the Democratic presidential ticket now present and accounted for, this week the "Top John" made appearances in Boston and Philadelphia, while the other John stumped solo in Iowa. Meanwhile, President Bush defended the Iraq invasion in Tennessee and toured swing states in the Midwest. There wasn't much novelty in the substance of the speeches, but when it came to the ever-important war of images, it was clear that at least major element of the race is still up for grabs. According to Paul Waldman, editor in chief of the online political journal The Gadflyer, that element is the character flaw that will ultimately define John Kerry. Waldman says reporters always frame campaign coverage with the question: "What's this guy's biggest problem?"
PAUL WALDMAN: With Gore, it was that he was supposed to be dishonest, and with, with Bush it was supposed to be that he was dumb and inexperienced. Now when it comes to John Kerry, they really haven't honed it down to one thing. Part of the problem is that the Bush campaign has decided what the one thing they want people to be afraid of about John Kerry is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let's talk about that. First there was Kerry as "flip-flopper," and then recently Kerry as "pessimist," and then Kerry as "Massachusetts liberal out of touch with mainstream values."
GEORGE W. BUSH: Senator Kerry is rated as the most liberal member of the United States Senate. [CROWD RESPONDS NEGATIVELY] And he chose a fellow lawyer who is the fourth most liberal member of the United States Senate.
PAUL WALDMAN: It's an oldie but a goodie. This goes back to something that happens in election after election. There's kind of an aphorism that Republicans talk about values and Democrats talk about issues. They're going back to this idea that Kerry is from a, a place that's sort of alien to most Americans -- Massachusetts, where strange things are supposed to happen. [LAUGHTER] It's supposed to add up to the idea that Kerry and his ideology are something that's not quite American, that Kerry is somehow different and that George Bush represents their values.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But one thing that you've pointed out is that a new pattern seems to have emerged in the Democratic response to these charges. Instead of the thrust and parry of the traditional fencing match, the Kerry campaign, as you describe it, seems to be countering thrusts not with parries but with more thrusts, so when Kerry is charged as a "flip-flopper," Kerry says in return -- what?
PAUL WALDMAN: Well, instead of saying "No, I'm not a flip-flopper," he's turned the question back on Bush saying Bush is stubborn -- maybe doesn't flip-flop enough. That's what they've done with this values question. Now that John Kerry and John Edwards are talking all the time about values and putting traditionally Democratic issues -- not abortion and gay marriage but economics and health care in terms of values -- they've tried to change the question from "Do we want a values candidate or a non-values candidate?" to "Who has the better sets of values?"
JOHN KERRY: Let me tell you what values mean to John Edwards and me. Values means really creating the opportunity and fighting for good jobs that actually allow an American family for a week's work to be able to pay the bills and spend some time with your kids, and be able to do better in America. [APPLAUSE] Values mean actually getting ahead. It means fighting for tax cuts for the middle class families -- not just for the wealthiest people in America.
PAUL WALDMAN: It's a subtle rhetorical shift. It's basically just taking a couple of words like "values" and "morality," and throwing them on top of the same argument they'd be making anyway.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk for a moment about the addition of Edwards to the ticket. Besides helping to erase the shortlived strategy of labeling Kerry a "pessimist," there was just a tremendous burst of good vibrations on the part of much of the press corps last week. Do you think reporters have recovered from this fit of enthusiasm?
PAUL WALDMAN: It may have a day or two left. Everybody seemed to like John Edwards when he was on the trail. That applied to voters and also to reporters. They liked him for a number of reasons. First of all, he was just a nice guy, and he spent a good amount of time cultivating them and being nice to them. They also like him because he's a very skilled storyteller, and that makes for good copy. If I can give you a little example: when John Kerry was interviewed on 60 Minutes, he was asked a question about religion, and this is what he said. I'm going to quote: "Abraham Lincoln wisely avoided trying to invoke God on the side of the North or assist the South but prayed that he was on God's side. I think that's the lesson that John and I would bring to this -- we are both people of faith." Now he got this argument from John Edwards. But listen to what it sounds like when John Edwards tells it, as he did in a debate a few months ago, when he was still a presidential candidate. He says, and I quote, "There's a wonderful story about Abraham Lincoln during the middle of the Civil War, bringing in a group of leaders, and at the end of the meeting, one of the leaders says, 'Mr. President, can we pray? Can we please join in prayer that God is on our side?" And Abraham Lincoln's response was: "I won't join you in that prayer, but I'll join you in a prayer that we're on God's side." Now Edwards' telling has characters, it has context, it has a moment of tension, where Lincoln says he's not going to pray, and then it has the twist at the end. So reporters like the fact that John Edwards is a skillful storyteller, and they also love his kids-- [LAUGHTER] I think, and we see little references to young Jack and Emma Claire Edwards pop up all the time, even in--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well what could be more American than kids, Paul?
PAUL WALDMAN: Absolutely. And the fact that John Edwards is from the South has something to do with it too, because one of the sort of tropes of reporting these days is that being from the South and having a Southern accent is kind of a signal of authenticity. And you can see in stories they'll mention the fact that he has a southern accent, which will make him appealing to voters in the Midwest, [LAUGHTER] or in places like South Dakota. Now why would someone from South Dakota care that someone has a southern accent? Well, as far as reporters are concerned, that's a mark of authenticity that, that Edwards is "real" in a way that someone who comes from Massachusetts might not be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know there was a very interesting New York Times story this week. The New York Times took us inside the Bush/Cheney "War Room," so to speak. What do you think the lesson of that story was, both for readers and reporters?
PAUL WALDMAN: Well, I think reporters weren't necessarily being told much they didn't already know except for some of the nuts and bolts. The machine of spin and counterspin has gotten bigger and bigger and more sophisticated, but the stories that focus on those things don't really do much to help the average citizen who's looking to, you know, figure out who to vote for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doesn't it help them be more skeptical of the coverage, though?
PAUL WALDMAN: Well, there's a fine line, because much of the coverage plays into skepticism. The typical story will start with what I sometimes call the "spintro." It's [LAUGHTER] the introduction that lays out the other side's spin. So if Kerry goes to visit some working people, then the struggle will start by saying "In an attempt to show that he's not an out-of-touch elitist, [LAUGHTER] John Kerry went to go visit this shop floor." There's so much of that in campaign coverage -in the words of Todd Gitlin, who's a professor at NYU, it can make voters the cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement. [LAUGHTER] But it doesn't really help them very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it's basically -- you're on a continuous "yellow alert for spin."
PAUL WALDMAN: [LAUGHS] That's a good way to put it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
PAUL WALDMAN: It's been my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Paul Waldman is editor in chief of The Gadflyer, a liberal political journal.