By Jeffrey L. Katz
Jeffrey L. Katz is an editor for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."
When the Washington Post unleashes two of its marquee reporters on a six-month project, you can expect it to draw attention. And when they produce a 40,000-word, seven-part series on a national figure such as Vice President Dan Quayle, you can expect it to have an impact.
The recent Quayle series did draw plenty of attention – but more for its sheer weight than for its conclusions.
The series began January 5 with the not-so-earth-shattering news that Quayle had positioned himself to be chosen vice president. That seems beside the point: Washington is filled with ambitious politicians who are always striving to get ahead. The most relevant question about any vice president is whether he is qualified to serve as president. President Bush underscored that when he got sick in Tokyo somewhere between parts four and five of the Quayle series. Bush's illness only seemed to sharpen criticism that the series by Bob Woodward and David S. Broder had come up short – not in its verbiage, of course, but in offering any insights.
As the Post itself noted, most members of its own national staff thought the project treated Quayle too favorably, and other members of the media agreed. The New York Times called the series "gently written." Time saw it as "scarcely laying a kid glove" on Quayle. CBS News anchor Dan Rather and hosts of two network morning shows commented on the series' favorable treatment of Quayle. Washington's City Paper called it "the authorized biography."
Such comments ignored some interesting aspects of the series that gave the Quayle portrait depth: Quayle's inability to look at anything in other than political terms, including the lessons to be drawn from Watergate and Vietnam; Marilyn Quayle's determination to advance her husband's career, which led her to tear up an unflattering photograph of him; the Quayles' outspoken criticism of James Baker III; and the fact that although Quayle was much in evidence at the White House, it's unclear whether he had any impact on administrative policies.
But the project didn't satisfy those who expect revelations from two of the nation's best reporters, especially when they conducted 20 interviews with Quayle and over 200 with others.
The sheer length of the series may have impeded its effectiveness. The New Republic conceded that Quayle is a little smarter than people think but wondered whether "the leading journalists in the country need to fell a minor woodland to make the point." Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, says while the serious approach reinforced some impressions of Quayle, "I think you could have taken him seriously in about one-fourth of the space."
Leonard Downie Jr., the Post's executive editor, says the series' length was part of its "experimental nature." Downie says that although "we did not find, because it doesn't exist, some sort of malfeasance here, what we did find was a rather complex texture" of performance and behavior by Quayle that justified the detail.
The series grew out of a conversation last year over lunch, when Downie and Woodward talked about applying the reporting methods Woodward used in his book on military leadership, "The Commanders," to other institutions. Recalling the pau-city of serious reporting on Bush until well into his 1988 campaign, Downie says they agreed to study Quayle "before some crisis, before the '96 campaign, before the president might be seriously ill, God forbid."
Some readers did appreciate the closer look. Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who criticized press treatment of Quayle in his 1991 book, "Feeding Frenzy," derides Washington reporters who say they didn't learn anything from reading about Quayle's performance. Sabato says he'd like to ask those reporters, "Then why didn't you write it? It was news to those poor souls like myself who have the misfortune to live outside of the Beltway."
So how will this massive project affect Quayle? William Schneider, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, praises the reporting but says it won't change many perceptions. Portraying Quayle as a shrewd political operative might get him treated more seriously in Washington, Schneider says, but it doesn't dispel the public's broader misgivings about Quayle's lack of stature, knowledge and understanding of issues.
Criticism that the series was too soft is perhaps unfounded. But its findings hardly merited 40,000 words, either. ###