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Remember that guy who came out of nowhere your junior year in high school? All of the girls gathered around the new man on campus so sleek, so shiny, so mysterious waiting for the next tidbit to fall off his lips so they could jackknife with glee. You stood there watching, suddenly so much spoiled lunch meat, wondering where the hell he came from.
Now you know how Jack Evans, Kevin Chavous, and Harold Brazil feel. They’re convinced Tony Williams, arriviste smartypants, is having his way with D.C. media and, by extension, the voters of Washington.
And they’re right halfway. Reporters and editors love Tony Williams, at least the idea of Tony Williams. There wasn’t a reporter in town who didn’t want to see God’s own accountant jump into a race full of longtime public servants. The Williams surge spawned interest in the election at a time when media outlets could no longer depend on Marion Barry to move papers. We always vote for the story.
The romance developed over time. In a government that couldn’t find or wouldn’t give up data, Williams seemed more than willing to treat public information like public information, earning the lasting gratitude of reporters all over town. At the same time, the former chief financial officer knocked out the kind of reportable successes that gave journalists a break from covering the grind of D.C. municipal dysfunction. Williams’ penchant for unchained metaphor and the occasional vicious sideswipe didn’t hurt, either.
More than a few reporters, including me, played peekaboo with the draft-Tony movement, calling for updates and looking for an exclusive. It beat the hell out of a summer watching three equally uninspiring councilmembers pull each other into the mud they’d all had a hand in creating.
And once he jumped in, he reaped huge pieces in Style, Metro, and the Washington Times. Even Washington City Paper blew some wind into his sails with a cover (his second, actually). There were plenty of chinks in the armor to write about he can be a stiff personally, a flake historically, and an arrogant little bugger to boot. His backdoor power grab with Congress was unseemly as hell he said he was sorry and some of the millions that went unaccounted for in the school system passed under his eyeshade. Still, Williams, a man with so little interest in elective office that he occasionally didn’t bother to vote, became a walking, talking bundle of wish fulfillment to many of the reporters in town.
“I think of Tony Williams as more of an idea than a candidate,” says Chavous supporter Beth Solomon. “He’s this superhero action figure that is totally a product of imagination. It’s as though they believe that wishing for a phenomenon that represents good government makes it so. All of this starry-eyed coverage misses a lot of what is wrong with this guy.”
The starry-eyed coverage, insists Brazil proponent Carl Rowan Jr., is part of a backlash against the sort of government that Williams’ opponents represent. “There is a visceral dislike of the city council candidates because the city council is held in such low regard, but that shouldn’t color the coverage of their opponent. We really don’t know who Tony Williams is.”
Mau-Mauing the media for giving Williams a bye disregards the fact that he had substantial support the day he came off the sidelines. The media didn’t invent Tony Williams; the hunger for a fresh face was extant before he ever entered the race. Media types weren’t the only ones fatigued by the hopeful claptrap and hopeless performance perpetrated by the councilmembers who wanted to be mayor.
The other campaigns are having none of that thinking, countering that the media seance with Williams has made it impossible to break through with their own message or countervailing information about the King of the Nerds. Leading the media blockade, say non-Williams partisans, are Post reporters Vernon Loeb and Michael Powell, who have written candidate profiles as well as issue-driven patdowns.
“The Chavous camp, where there is an incredibly heightened sense of paranoia, says that they want us to find something dark and dirty in Williams’ background, and when we don’t find it, therefore we favor Williams. It’s silly,” says Powell.
Loeb says he spent plenty of time looking into Williams, and the hippie-turned-Harvard-grad came up aces for the most part.
“I really took seriously the power this paper has in a campaign….I wrote four lengthy stories about the candidates’ records, and I applied exactly the same methodology to all of them. Their records speak for themselves.”
The Post cannot be accused of sparing muscle or space. It has spilled an oil tanker full of ink on this race in the past few weeks, with three separate storiesone on record, one on personality, and one day-in-the-life of the campaign for each of the four candidates. That’s 12 stories and hundreds of inches, just in the past few weeks. And the coverage has been all over the road. Brazil, of all people, came off as semiheroic in one story, Chavous was warmed up and deepened a great deal by his profile, Evans was lauded sincerely for his dauntlessness, and Williams, most especially in the biography sketch, came off as kind of a twit.
Ashley Halsey, District political editor at the Post, says that there are always noises from other campaigns after the other guy catches fire.
“On any given day, one candidate or another will see something in the paper with which they can find fault, but I think any objective examination of the continuum of our coverage over the course of the campaign will prove that we have been fair and evenhanded,” says Halsey.
Halsey had a solid set of facts behind him until last week. The Post came up with a story about Williams’ decision to pay severance last year to Frederick King, former D.C. lottery director, after his misuse of government credit cards. The scoop was front-page material because it put a serious dent in the notion of the mayoral front-runner as an avatar of financial rectitude and guardian of the public trust. It landed on the inside of Metro, no doubt bumped by a sizzling story about a GOP split in the Howard County executive race. Whoo-whee. As is often the case in journalism, the story was victimized by bad timing, breaking as it did just a couple of days before the Post planned to endorse Williams. (It might help explain the remarkable tepidness of the endorsement, as well.)
People at the Post will tell you there is a huge firewall between the news and opinion shops, but institutional cant is subtle, sometimes so subtle that editors aren’t sure why they are burying a story that belongs on the front page.
Another important Williams story ended up even deeper in the backwater of Metro. In his campaign literature, Williams proudly trumpets his four-year tour with the U.S. Air Force. In fact, he served less than three and was honorably discharged after he made a stand as a conscientious objector. In the resume-stretching tradition of the District, the prolongation of military tenure is misdemeanor stuff, but there is something really, really disgusting about Williams’ using the military as a political chit after he left the service because he had moral objections to the way it does business.
“I am not saying that makes him a bad person,” says Rowan, “but I think it’s something that should be looked at hard. If we want a fresh face, let’s do the due diligence on the fresh face and see what’s behind it.”
And if you really wanted to go deep into conspiracy theory, way out there where the Plan is cooked up, you could get worked up about an Aug. 30 Post poll. Williams clocked in at 38 percent in the poll, to Chavous’ 19 percent. It added fuel to the Williams bandwagon by suggesting that he had more than twice the support of his nearest rival. Too bad it was wrong. Because of a problem with the weighting given various constituencies in the poll, it underestimated Chavous by a point and overestimated Williams by a point. Chavous was actually 17 points behind Williams not a pretty picture, but not a death knell, either. It was within the margin of error for the poll and was corrected immediately, but many thought that the damage had already been done.
Williams’ opponents have also managed to weave Washington City Paper into their media conspiracy theories. City Paper published a hard hit on Kevin Chavous several weeks ago written by Jonetta Rose Barras. Chavous supporters pointed out that the day after the story was published, Barras endorsed Williams in her Washington Times column. In letters and phone calls, they charged that Barras had been in the tank for Williams from the get-go and shouldn’t have been assigned to put a hit on Chavous.
They should have checked the record: Barras’ sweet tooth for Williams is of fairly recent vintage. In both her Times columns and features for City Paper, she had relentlessly attacked Williams’ use of consultants, his spendy ways within his own department, and his quiet appetite for power. As an experienced political reporter, she arrived at her choice of Williams as a choice among relative evils. Chavous and his posse are still hanging on to the notion that Barras is part of a media elite determined to pick the next mayor. Channel 4’s Tom Sherwood thinks that’s silly:
“This is the same bunch that tried to bash Barry so bad that he couldn’t get elected to anything, and nobody paid attention to [the media] then. Why should they be able to elect Tony? People are smarter than that. Has Tony gotten a free ride? No. Has he gotten a nice ride? Yes.”
WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin says that Chavous and his cohorts should check the mirror when they complain about Williams’ graceful waltz through the minefield of a mayoral campaign.
“There is no conspiracy. The three other candidates did not do what they could have done to define Williams. All of the candidates should have been out there the minute he got into the race, reminding voters that Williams went behind the backs of District leaders and tried to make a separate deal with Congress. You know, ‘If you want Lauch Faircloth to be the next mayor of the District, then just cast your vote for Tony Williams,’” says Plotkin.
“It reminds me of one of Lyndon Johnson’s early campaigns. He suggested his opponent committed unnatural acts with a chicken. His advisers reminded him that it wasn’t true. And Johnson responded, ‘I know it’s not true, but make him deny it.’”