Thursday, October 16, 2008

How desperately does Chicago Tribune want to endorse the McCain campaign?

For the past eight decades, the Chicago Tribune has been the so-called “voice of Midwestern Republicanism” based in a city that is a bastion of the Democratic Party.

The newspaper in the days of Col. Robert R. McCormick used to give knee-jerk endorsements to Republicans running for president. Even though the colonel’s isolationist rhetoric is now considered ridiculous at Tribune Tower, that presidential endorsement habit remains.

NOT EVEN WHEN favorite son Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952 and 1956 was the Tribune able to think of backing a Democrat to work in the Oval Office.

The Tribune is the paper that thinks the country would have been better off with two terms of George Bush the elder, that Barry Goldwater should have been president in 1964 and that Richard Nixon should NOT have been president in 1968 and 1972 – because he should have won the election back in 1960.

Yet despite having such history motivating its endorsements for president, there are some people who wonder if the people on Michigan Avenue will seriously consider a radical concept – endorsing hometown Democrat Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Now let me say up front that I don’t have any inside knowledge of the Tribune’s editorial board. I have only met editorial page editor Bruce Dold a couple of times in my life, and I really don’t know him. So a lot of what follows in this commentary is guesswork.

YET WHEN I think of the brain trust behind the Tribune’s editorial page, I can’t help but envision a crew that watched Wednesday’s final debate between Obama and Republican opponent John McCain looking for a sign, ANY sign, that could be used to justify giving the senator from Arizona their support.

I still remember the day that newspapers across the nation had their front pages covered with stories and graphics about Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.

The Tribune also included on their editorial page that day (Aug. 29, 2008, to be exact) an editorial headlined, “Scoring Obama’s speech,” in which the newspaper offered its thoughts about the speech.

The newspaper basically thought Obama failed because his speech that night was geared toward appealing to the Democratic faithful, rather than persuading undecided voters. I remember reading that editorial and thinking to myself that I was reading a rough draft of the late October editorial endorsing McCain.

HOW ELSE TO interpret the line about “Obama’s reluctance to stray from traditional Democratic orthodoxy flummoxes the voters who matter most,” or “Obama’s reluctance Thursday night to move beyond his customary generalities about his soaring goals – and tell undecided voters with new specificity what changes he would offer.”

It set up the idea that Democrats and the dreaded Liberals were the reason for this nation’s problems, and a vote for Obama is a refusal to challenge the problem. Only a vote for McCain would confront the problems.

That very editorial put it bluntly in saying:

“We wish Obama had championed even one controversial reform to liberate children doomed to loser schools. That would have shown that he can confront powerful unions and, by extension, other liberal interest groups.”

PERHAPS I’M READING too much into a two-month-old editorial, or am underestimating the influence of highly unscientific reader surveys that show Tribune readers overwhelmingly prefer Obama. There’s also the possibility that the Tribune will take into account the nasty tone that Campaign ’08 has taken on with the charges vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has made on behalf of the McCain campaign (and which McCain himself threatened to bring up during their final debate).

The Tribune’s sister newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, went so far in an editorial published this week to ding the McCain campaign for just that rhetoric.

“We are far more troubled by what we know about McCain than what we don’t know about Obama,” the Times wrote, adding, “On the question of who best can reunite us, however, we cannot put our faith in a man who has done so much to drive us apart.”

Is the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper that hasn’t endorsed anyone for president in a general election since 1972 (they liked hometown boy Dick Nixon) preparing to back Barack? Or is owner Sam Zell (who also owns the Tribune) prepared to let his own conservative politics prevail upon the editorial board’s position.

OR IS IT possible that Tribune Co. will hedge its bets? Wouldn’t it be truly bizarre if the Los Angeles Times went for Obama, while the Tribune backed McCain?

It would be a way of the company throwing each campaign some support so that they could claim after Election Day that they were behind the winner, although I’m sure the journalists at the respective newspapers would claim it is merely evidence that the two papers have separate identities and remain independent of each other.

Of course, there’s always the reality of the situation. Newspaper endorsement editorials do not carry the same weight they once did, back in an era when people picked which newspaper they read based on the ideology it peddled.

Now, too many people want to believe that facts can be dished out without a bias (even though what many really want is for the facts to be spewed exclusively with THEIR bias).

ENDORSEMENTS ARE MORE about creating the perception of a wave of support. A candidate will take the list of newspapers giving their editorial page support and use it as the factual basis of a campaign ad that is meant to persuade people to make one final donation to help give the candidates enough cash to get through to Election Day.

So in a sense, there are very few people who are counting on the Chicago Tribune to tell them who to vote for come Nov. 4. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the group most intensely watching to see the Tribune endorsement is the editorial board at the Chicago Sun-Times.

I have always gotten the sense that the Sun-Times endorsements are more about shock value and drawing attention to the paper, which they hope translates to more copies sold. At times, it seems like they endorse whomever the Tribune hates.

Could that be why the Sun-Times is against “con-con,” while the Tribune favors a constitutional convention?

AND IF THE Tribune were to buck tradition and decide to support Obama, would we see the Sun-Times suddenly decide that McCain’s “the man!”

If they did, it would go a long way toward backing up some of the intense “Sarah Palin love” that columnist Mike Sneed has shown in her column in recent weeks.


EDITOR’S NOTES: This is the editorial I suspect of being a rough draft of the eventual “vote for McCain” (,0,214184.story) endorsement by the Chicago Tribune.

Is the Tribune’s sister newspaper on the verge of backing Barack? And would such an act ( mean anything in terms of understanding the Tribune’s endorsement behavior?

I’m not alone ( in anticipating ( just what the Tribune might do in coming weeks.

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