Summer has arrived -- finally. And everyone seems to be getting into a summertime frame of mind. That includes reporters, who aren't just covering former Gov. Howard Dean's (D-Vt.) announcement today that he's running for president -- they're also talking about his 17-year-old son's arrest after attempting to steal beer from a local country club. "He is going to have to pay the price," Dean said yesterday on Meet the Press. Covering a story about a kid getting in trouble is much more interesting for the media than covering a staged event we knew was months in the making. It also fits the media's summer attitude: We prefer stories that aren't serious, and tend to look for ones that will hold the public's more fickle summertime attention span.
Just as with most network sitcoms and dramas, members of the news media go on hiatus during the summer (barring a war or other major crisis). In the last few years, they've brought us great drama that made for fascinating television, but nothing that was really all that newsworthy: Chandra Levy's disappearance and her relationship with then-Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.), shark attacks, and the deaths of JFK Jr. and Princess Diana. This summer, we'll no doubt hear more breathless coverage about the Laci Peterson case, about fallen cosmetics heir Andrew Luster, and about the hot romance between Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.
Of course, that won't stop the nine Democratic presidential candidates from trying to make headlines. And it won't stop the political press (a special subset of the news media) from focusing on them and on the latest meaningless polls from Iowa, New Hampshire and other states. When Dean declares that he's running for president, he's guaranteed to attract our interest as political reporters. But is anyone outside of the Beltway listening? Perhaps that's why Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) has said he'll wait until at least September before deciding whether or not to run. He knows that Washington basically becomes irrelevant during the summer. (Although as I've written here before, a Biden candidacy would be irrelevant at any time of the year.)
Having a few months out of the general media spotlight might be good for the candidates. It will give them a chance to sharpen their criticism of President Bush, develop some good sound bites and possibly even provide a rationale for their candidacies. Why is Al Sharpton really running for president? Does Carol Moseley Braun honestly think she can win the White House? Does Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) want to be president, as he says, or just make the 2004 ticket, which he failed to do in 2000?
Some time off will also give the candidates a chance to deal with some of the problems plaguing their campaigns. For example, can Teresa Heinz Kerry finally give an interview where she doesn't put her foot in her mouth? (She recently told Newsweek about how she admires Nancy Reagan, a former first lady not known for her warmth.) Can Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) stop talking about his victory with Al Gore in 2000 over George W. Bush? (Gore wisely decided not to run; Lieberman should follow his lead and not discuss a race that most Americans are tired of hearing about.)
As every former student knows, the end of summer comes all too quickly. July 4 is next week; after that, the rest of the summer will pass at a dizzying pace. That's why the candidates should make the most they can out of this time. After all, a year from now, eight of them will be also-rans and one will be in the harsh spotlight of the general news media every day. This is the last grace period before the campaign really kicks into high gear.
If the candidates are smart, they'll use the time wisely.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.