Political Pundits on How to Win the White House

Drudge items often quote from his roster of breathless White House insiders, top media "suits," or highly placed campaign aides, all furtively but authoritatively telling Matt Drudge the way it is. Does Drudge really get on the phone and converse with such people? Some in the Old Media speculate that he takes his tips from a single source by phone or e-mail, then creates hyperventilated quotes based on (entirely plausible) speculation about what someone somewhere probably is saying. The assumption that Drudge is casually embroidering his stories -- what would be career-ending fraud for an Old Media journalist or author -- has not caused reporters to remove Drudge from their daily reading. Whatever. It's just Drudge. And maybe he's got something there. As Jim Dyke knew, any superiority reporters and editors feel toward Drudge does not inhibit them from pouncing on his best items.

Within hours, the Cristophe story was everywhere. Rush Limbaugh chortled over it for an hour on his radio show. Later in the day, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan gave the website credit ("We learn from Drudge this morning . . .") on his MSNBC cable show. Kerry's team knew they had a genuine problem on their hands when they saw the next day's newspapers ?lled with accounts of "Senator Kerry's Bad Hair Day," as one newspaper put it. A Kerry spokeswoman noted indignantly that Drudge had erred: The senator did not pay $150 for his haircut, only $75 -- Cristophe charges less for men. This gave Drudge a new hook. Why, he crowed, was the would-be president patronizing an establishment that practices sexism? Inevitably, the whole fuss caught the attention of Jay Leno. By the end of the week he was joking on The Tonight Show that the "winds were so strong yesterday" in Massachusetts that "John Kerry's hair actually moved." Acknowledging that the line was a little lame, Leno explained, "You see, he's running for president -- I wanted to get the ?rst joke in."

Leno's tone suggested the ruckus over Kerry's hair was all in good fun. And a sensible person might have paused to wonder how a candidate's hair possibly could have any impact on a presidential race in an era of war, terrorism, and looming global calamity. But the Cristophe story was a serious portent of a much larger problem for Kerry, with which he would live almost daily for the next two years.

Presidential campaigns are about storytelling. A winning presidential campaign presents the candidate's life story to voters. A losing campaign allows someone else to frame that story. In 1992, Bill Clinton's race vividly exempli?ed the phenomenon of competing narratives. There was plenty in Clinton's life to support his self-description as "The Man from Hope": an exceptional young fellow who grew up with few advantages but through brains and cheerful hard work had made a difference for his struggling Southern state. There was also plenty in that life to justify his opponents' description of "Slick Willie": a double-talking, temporizing, womanizing opportunist, whose private life and public record raised troubling questions about how he might behave in the White House.

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