Kyle works in the shoe department at ZCMI. He discovered in the process of selling me some 10 1/2 Converses that I worked at the Deseret News. Tell me, he said, isn't the Quayle thing overdone? Kyle's in the National Guard and he doesn't appreciate the attention it's getting in the press these days.
The woman on the phone earlier in the day was more blunt. "You've lost all your credibility with me," she said. "How can I believe there's really a bad fire up at Yellowstone when you go on like this over a non-issue? Maybe there's only a few scattered brush fires."Brush fires and Dan Quayle. A melancholy linkage between a natural disaster and the the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee. In a way, I had to agree with both critics. Yes, it does seem overdone. And yes, we put our credibility on the line by overplaying something the public sees as trivial.
But this column each week is supposed to be about the media, and clearly one of the big stories of the past week has been how the media has reacted to Dan Quayle. I suspect that most people would agree with Vice President Bush, who earlier accused the media of being in a "feeding frenzy." As you witness the candidate, surrounded by intense, shouting reporters thrusting microphones in his face, all asking variations of the same question, it's easy to see the comparison.
At some point you ask yourself, What do they want? What possible answer could he give them that they would accept, and then go away and leave it alone?
We've seen this before, of course. Gary Hart, who could well be standing where Michael Dukakis now stands, endured his agony before the press - not once, but twice. The press was boorish then, too. Joe Biden fell from the Democratic race when he couldn't answer questions about plagiarism. A U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Douglas Ginsburg, withdrew after a radio reporter said he had used marijuana after entering practice. Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham cultivated a positive dislike for the media's persistence.
But the question is, Why does the press act like this? From my limited perspective I can offer a few thoughts, but no satisfactory answer.
First, I don't think you can charge it off to a conspiracy, as many people would like. Maybe the press does sometimes act like lemmings, but it does so without being told to.
Next, I think the press continues to be obnoxious, if that is the word, as long as it generally feels that the whole story hasn't come out. In Dan Quayle's case, it seems to feel that his explanations don't quite make it.
Also, once a person comes under this kind of intense scrutiny, events develop a life of their own. One story leads to another: One revelation inspires a second, one informant breeds a twin. And because very few of us manage to come through this life without making at least a few enemies, there is always someone willing to talk.
Finally, you can't ignore the intense competitiveness of the media. In a headlong rush to be first, to find the biggest story, reporters get caught up in the event and become vulnerable to charges that they have become the story themselves.
Is there any way to avoid this kind of thing? Maybe. After some years in the business, I have concluded that those who fare best with the press are those who keep things out in the open. They see the press, if not as an outright ally, at least as a necessary part of things. The most successful politicians I've known are those who at least give the impression that they are being candid, and whose statements are not likely to be found wrong. When they make a mistake, they say so.
So what can we say to Dan Quayle? I honestly don't know. Suppose he said, "Look, it was a tough time to be 20. No one wanted to go to Vietnam. My dad helped me. I was lucky to get in the Guard, where my chances of not going to Vietnam were at least better than being drafted. A lot of us joined for that reason. But that was half a lifetime ago." I don't know if that's the truth, but I sense that's what the press wants to hear.
And then we can get on with reporting the real news of this presidential campaign: What do Michael Dukakis and George Bush want to do with this country?
This kind of thing goes on in Western countries. Some countries are worse than ours, I'm told. It's noisy, bothersome, boisterous, sometimes unfair. Often it irritates me, too, but I wouldn't trade it for any other way I can imagine.