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Campaign: the long and short of it

The way our now-called media hiked in Teddy Kennedy to spruce up the Iranian unhappiness made me think back 20 years to the strange platform caper of John Reed, who sort of sidled himself into the Maine governorship against the best intentions of our slanted press. They day President Carter spoke up sharply at his press conference was the day Senator Kennedy neglected to bite any dogs, and there was no reason to mention him, but there he was on my radio the next morning getting as much attention as the President. This is the technique of fetching out your favorite to wave him about in front of the other man's crowd, a technique that had the effect of putting President Carter in the claque of the enemy. Perhaps my fairly long career of journalism with publications of more than average principle has made me more sensitive to the tricks of the other kind of trade. Senator Kennedy, my radio told me, agreed with the statement of President Carter, a monumental news scoop in a nation where everybody also agreed. somebody, somewhere, had to make that decision, and thus the campaign is launched. If you aren't just sure what I mean, go back to the days of Taft-Eisenhower and find me a photograph of Taft that smiles and one of Eisenhower that scowls.

Back in 1959 John H. Reed was the Republican candidate for governor of Maine. Frank M. Coffin was his Democrat opponent. Mr. Coffin was an attorney, and a shorty. Mr. Reed was a farm boy out of Arroostook County, and a six-footer. Height is important; given no other reason for a choice, a voter is expected to go for the taller. Thus it was, and when the champions lined up certain of our Maine newspapers preempted the duties of the electorate and decided Mr. Coffin would be our next governor. There began a contrived kind of political reporting which, to those of us with perceptions, was more than obvious. At the time a friend of mine had a son who was "taking" journalism at a Midwest college, and I began clipping examples of this kind of reporting, pasting them up, and sending them to the boy with comments. I hoped it might be helpful in shaping his honesty. It was largely a matter of the way things were presented; one man would always address a large and enthusiastic crowd, the other would speak to "a partisan audience." Things got thicker as the campaign slanted along, and then one day there was a front-page photograph.

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Candidate Reed and Candidate Coffin had appeared the day before on the same platform, and this picture showed them together. The photographer had posed things at such an angle that Frank M. Coffin looked two feet taller than John H. Reed.

I didn't send that photograph out to Indiana; I sent it to John Reed and suggested he could study it with profit. And it so happened that about two weeks later the two candidates came together again. It was at a county fair, and as the big pig ribbons were being given to the 4-H boys and the prize pumpkins were being judged, the two men bided on the platform until they should be introduced for a few words. They leaned down to shake hands thrust up from the spectators, and they waved now and then. During all this Candidate Reed singled out the photographer and kept an eye on him. When, at last, the two candidates stood up, Candidate Reed was ready.

Candidate Coffin, of course, was never a party to any of this, and certainly didn't realize what was afoot. No more did the crowd. But Candidate Reed stayed alert, and every time the photographer got his angle and was about to snap his shutter Candidate Reed would shuffle, do an off-to-Buffalo, and move to the other side of the platform. John Reed was ever on his dignity, so this improbable schottische puzzled many folks at the fair -- it seemed the candidate was unduly frivolous at an unseemly moment. But a few of his workers circulated and explained what he was doing, so at least a few enlightened citizens knew what to look for next day in the papers.

Mr. Reed won the election, rather handily, and it may have been because he was the taller. Perhaps not. But some of us felt his victory was also a deserved defeat for snide journalism.


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