Republicans targeted John Kerry ’66 for flip-flopping on issues during the 2004 presidential campaign, but his apparent indecisiveness extended off the stump and into the press cabin of his charter jet.
“I asked him what his cocktail of choice was on the plane once and he said he didn’t know and that he wasn’t sure,” said Jodi Wilgoren ’92, who covered the Kerry campaign for The New York Times.
The moment distills Kerry’s problems conversing comfortably and authentically with the press corps and communicating a clear message to voters, which Wilgoren said kept him from winning the presidency.
“People just never got Kerry,” she said. “He was unable to explain the essence of his persona and unwilling to talk about himself personally. I watched him speak everyday and am still unsure of what he is about.”
Wilgoren, The Times’ Chicago bureau chief, spoke about her career as a journalist and her experiences covering the Howard Dean ’71 and Kerry political campaigns at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea on Wednesday afternoon. Introduced as someone with “one of those dream jobs,” Wilgoren, speaking to a overflow crowd of about 50 students, emphasized her penchant for the quirky details of the politicians she covers as emblematic of the candidates’ greater political success.
Wilgoren said it was exciting to cover her first presidential campaign as The Times’ traveling beat reporter with Dean in the primary campaign and later with Kerry through the general election.
“Covering Dean was great,” she said. “Something different was always happening. It was a really innovative campaign, unlike Kerry’s, which was more traditional.”
Wilgoren talked about a front-page profile she wrote of Dean’s wife, Judith Steinberg, which explained her unusual lack of involvement in her husband’s campaign.
“Voters are very interested in the spouses’ of candidates,” Wilgoren said. “Your spouse is an important reflection of who you are.”
While Wilgoren said she was able to remain emotionally distanced from the candidates she covered, she said she still watches out for any news involving Kerry or Dean because their campaigns for president have been an important part of her life as a journalist.
Wilgoren, who served as a managing editor of The Yale Daily News during her undergraduate years, knew that she wanted to be a journalist since she began working for her high school paper. She said she sees herself as an “observer rather than an actor,” a characteristic she said is crucial for mainstream journalists.
After graduating from Yale, Wilgoren worked for The Los Angeles Times before taking a job at The New York Times in the fall of 1998 — a move she said was the result of an “intersection of luck and talent.” She worked as a national educational correspondent before moving to the Chicago bureau.
Several students who attended the tea said they appreciated Wilgoren’s candor in discussing the campaigns.
“I agreed with her commitment to the idea that a presidential candidate should have a clear message,” Sam Penziner ’07 said.
Lindsay Ullman ’08, who said she closely followed Wilgoren’s coverage, said she found her points about Kerry’s personality particularly interesting.
“I had never really thought a lot about the connection between personal quirks and character traits in a politician and the kind of leader he would turn out to be,” Ullman said.