Politics in the Year of Danger

In politics, this has been The Year of Living Dangerously.

It has been the year of the risk, the shiver, the shudder, the thrill. All quickly felt. All quickly passing.

The media have driven it. Faced with an incumbent president running a careful and as yet uninspiring campaign, and a Republican field as dynamic as wet laundry drying on the line, the press has felt obliged to step up and fill the void.

You cannot point with certainty as to when it began, but it burst forth with full-on binge coverage of the Ames Straw Poll in August. The event, which started modestly in 1979 as a fundraiser designed to bamboozle the few Iowa voters who bothered to vote in the caucuses, has now blossomed into a multimillion-dollar extravaganza designed to bamboozle a national press corps begging to be bamboozled.

“The epicenter of the political universe!” one network called the straw poll. “We have learned that Ron Paul is serving hot dogs and baked beans in his tent!” one anchor breathlessly reported on another.

Michele Bachmann, a native Iowan who left the state when she was 12 and now represents a congressional district in neighboring Minnesota, told the crowd: “Everything you need to know in life, I learned in Iowa! I have always been grateful I am an Iowan! And it is time we had an Iowan in the White House!”

She won the straw poll. Which is located in Iowa. The media decided this was momentous, leading to a “reshaped” race, as one news organization put it. Bachmann shot up in the polls.

She could not hold on, however, because the media carousel was whirling too quickly.

Texan Rick Perry got a ride — he was handsome, he was a governor, and he had more hair than even Mitt Romney — until a debate performance indicated Perry might come from the shallow end of the gene pool.

Herman Cain was a real risk-taker. Having engaged in nothing more difficult in his business life than selling pizza to Americans, Cain armed himself with a catchy-sounding economic plan, burst onto the stage and moved to the top of the polls.

Alas, he turned out to be a risk-taker in his personal life, too, having forgotten that allegations of sexual harassment, groping and adultery are best left until after one is elected.

Which left … whom? The New Hampshire Union Leader, the largest circulation newspaper in the nation’s first primary state, came up with an answer Sunday. Eschewing its semi-native son, Mitt Romney, who lives in New Hampshire (though he was born in Michigan, was governor of Massachusetts and has a home in San Diego), the paper decided to live dangerously.

It endorsed Newt Gingrich, an exciting choice in that nobody ever knows what Newt Gingrich is going to say next, including Newt Gingrich.

The media reacted as if a second moon had been discovered circling the Earth. A sampling of reaction included “big,” “stunning,” “powerful,” “influential,” “significant” and a “jolt.”

How, then, was the endorsement decided upon? What was the process? The method by which this big, stunning jolt was decided?

Joe McQuaid picked the guy. Joe McQuaid is the publisher of the Union Leader, a paper that has no editorial board, and McQuaid picked Gingrich.

“We don’t really care how many votes we influence,” McQuaid once told me. “That’s why we endorsed Sam Yorty on the Democratic side in 1972, we endorsed John Ashbrook over Richard Nixon in 1972, we endorsed Pete du Pont in 1988 and Paul Fisher over John Kennedy in 1960.”

Paul Fisher?

“He invented a ballpoint pen that writes upside down,” McQuaid said. “I think the astronauts used it.”

McQuaid is a friend of mine. We met on a reporting trip during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and his paper occasionally runs my column as a way of showing conservatives that their contempt for liberals is well-placed.

Many news outlets have done stories pointing out that the Union Leader’s endorsement does not guarantee winning the New Hampshire primary. And so I called McQuaid and asked him if he cared that he might have picked a loser this time.

“We don’t say, ‘Let’s pick this one because it will improve our track record,’ ” McQuaid said. “We look for ideology, creative ideas — and some chance of winning.”

The endorsement will not get Gingrich more favorable news coverage than Romney, McQuaid said, though Gingrich is certain to get more nice editorials.

Yet editorials are just editorials, and wasn’t the paper living dangerously by picking a guy who was 24 points behind Romney in the polls at the time of the endorsement?

“I am under no assumption that because the great Union Leader said it’s Gingrich, that Romney should pack it in,” McQuaid said with uncharacteristic humility.

And the endorsement did seem a bit muted to me. Though on the front page, it was only eight short paragraphs and contained the line, “Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate.”

What was that about? I asked McQuaid.

If you can shrug over the telephone, McQuaid shrugged over the telephone. “He ain’t no Ronald Reagan,” McQuaid said.

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