Politics & Policy

Cut From The Raines Cloth

No change at the Times.

Attorney General John Ashcroft talks like an ayatollah, Republican Sen. James Inhofe is an intolerant, xenophobic ultrapatriot, and retired Republican Sen. Phil Gramm is just plain mean. And, oh yeah, Al Gore won the 2000 election but had it snatched away by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. That’s the mindset of newly appointed Times executive editor Bill Keller, based on the reading of two years’ worth of Keller columns for the Times.

To his credit, Keller has worked his way up the Times ranks. After joining the paper’s Washington bureau in 1984, he went to Moscow and ended up heading the bureau there (winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1989). Yet his reporting from Moscow betrayed a weakness for liberal labeling bias, the kind where a reporter, after identifying the bad guy on the scene, labels him a conservative.

In Keller’s case, that led to strange sentences like this one from a December 24, 1990, story: “One reason Mr. Gorbachev has kept his post as General Secretary of the Communist Party along with the presidency, aides say, is to retain control of the party’s network in the military. But part of the implicit bargain is that he pay close attention to conservative Communist opinion.” (Aren’t conservatives the ones constantly criticized for being overzealous anti-Communists?)

Keller eventually became Times managing editor in 1997, second in command to executive editor Joseph Lelyveld. Losing out to Howell Raines in 2001 in his bid to succeed Lelyveld, Keller received a twice-a-month column as a consolation prize, which he has taken full advantage of, bashing conservatives on the domestic front and President Bush on foreign affairs.

Any columnist writing on a regular basis is bound to commit something to print that will sound regrettable in retrospect. Yet in a span of less than two years, Keller reliably manufactured eyebrow-raising statements. In his new job, will Keller be able to do what Raines either could not or would not — temper his ideological leanings? It would be impressive, because while Raines was indeed a liberal activist, Keller may have even less love for conservatives.

Here is Keller’s charming description of Republican Sen. James Inhofe from “America’s Most Wanting,” his column of November 2, 2002: “Mr. Inhofe is a dimmer version of Jesse Helms — an intolerant, xenophobic, might-makes-right ultrapatriot.”

In “Mr. T., Mr. G and Mr. H,” from January 12, 2002, Keller likens three Republican senators to the Taliban: “Senators Helms, Gramm and Thurmond have in common the fact that they harnessed their collective century of seniority to the Taliban wing of the American right.”

A reluctant hawk, Keller backed the Iraq war in the most condescending way imaginable. His February 8 column sported the headline “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club.” In a March 22 piece titled “Why Colin Powell Should Go,” Keller huffed: “Even if you believe that this war is justified, the route to it has been an ugly display of American opportunism and bullying, dissembling and dissonance.” Keller then recycled the “conservatives are frightening” cliché: “I can’t count the number of times in the past two years I’ve heard — occasionally from my own lips — the observation that the Bush administration would be a much scarier outfit without Colin Powell.”

Most recently, in a column penned after the Supreme Court upheld racial preferences in college admissions, Keller backed race discrimination while getting in a cheap shot at Justice Clarence Thomas: “‘A cynic,’ protested The Wall Street Journal, ‘might conclude that yesterday’s decisions mean universities can still racially discriminate, as long as they’re not too obvious about it.’ Yes, just so. The editorial might have added that this is pretty much what the first President Bush did when he appointed a black jurist of questionable distinction to the Supreme Court, insisting all the while that it had nothing to do with race.”

By Keller’s lights, Al Gore is an environmental visionary who had the presidency stolen from him by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. On August 10, 2002, Keller wrote: “[Gore] was a visionary on the environment. His alarums about global warming have now been confirmed by President Bush’s own Environmental Protection Agency — and, oh yes, by the melting of Alaska.”

Keller admits Gore’s “calculating repositioning” made him less likable to voters and says: “In short, he ran a bone-headed campaign.” But then Keller adds: “A bone-headed campaign he WON, don’t forget. He got 537,179 more popular votes, and only lost the Electoral College thanks to a lot of well-documented funny business. The best estimate of the various investigative post-mortems was that an honest statewide recount would have awarded Florida to Mr. Gore and denied Antonin Scalia the role of American kingmaker.”

Really now? Keller’s easy conviction that “Gore won” is contradicted by his paper’s own reporting. On November 12, 2001, Times reporters Ford Fessenden and John Broder reported on a review of the Florida vote conducted for a consortium of news organizations: “A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.”

Can Republicans and conservatives expect a fair shake from this man? Since Keller apparently doesn’t consider Bush a legitimately elected president, there’s plenty of room for doubt.

Clay Waters is director of Times Watch, a project of the Media Research Center.

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