David Lauter, 'Far More Sympathetic' to Bill Clinton, Named DC Bureau Chief of LA Times

This week, the Los Angeles Times promoted assistant managing editor David Lauter to the title of Washington Bureau Chief of all eight Tribune newspapers -- not just the Times, but the Chicago Tribune. They announced "He will play a key role in our coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign, for which he is especially well qualified, having run The Times’ coverage of the 1996 campaign. Among David’s responsibilities will be to establish a sharp upward trajectory for our new political blog, Politics Now, helmed by Jim Oliphant and Mike Memoli."

Lauter's previous turn as a political reporter in Washington was marked by other liberal journalists as very sympathetic to Bill Clinton. As Jacob Weisberg wrote in 1993 (here's a time-machine paragraph):

In the September issue of Vanity Fair, New Republic writer Jacob Weisberg turned the tables on the White House press corps when he got a chance to look behind the scenes. Weisberg found a few young corps members who believe in Clinton and "form a tight subculture within the White House press corps." Members include: Mark Halperin of ABC, Matthew Cooper of U.S. News & World Report, David Lauter of the Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey Birnbaum of The Wall Street Journal, Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post, and Adam Nagourney of USA Today. "Politically, they're all liberal and, despite the emotional wounds of the campaign, far more sympathetic to Clinton than the press corps as a whole."   

The liberal tilt is still there. In a recent alumni interview with the Yale Daily News , Lauter was asked what one question he would ask President Obama: "A good politician almost always has an answer for one question. But if I could ask just one, it would be whether he now thinks he made a mistake by not asking for a bigger stimulus package his first year."

On October 16, 1995, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz noted Lauter's sympathy for Bill Clinton was demonstrated early, helping Clinton establish a reputation for sensitivity toward women (believe it or not) by spreading a carefully circumscribed story about his defense of his mother against his stepfather:

In the first days of 1992, Clinton was barely known to most Americans. But the Arkansas governor was generating a favorable buzz in the incestuous community of political writers and party insiders. Joe Klein, then with New York magazine, was the first to trumpet this with a cover story whose headline posed the question that all profiles seek to answer: "Who Is This Guy?"

Part of the response was contained in a moving anecdote involving young Billy Clinton and his stepfather, Roger, a violent drunk who often beat his wife. "I just broke down the door of their room one night when they were having an encounter and told him that I was bigger than him now, and there would never be any more of this while I was there," the candidate recalled.

Klein says he first heard the story from Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley, and then asked the governor about it. "He said, 'You know, I've never talked about this before, but you've been fair to me so I'll do it.' It seemed a little bit stagey. But if it was planned on their part, it was done extremely subtly."

During the same period, Clinton and his mother were telling the same tale to David Lauter of the Los Angeles Times. Lauter did not underplay its significance.

"Thirty-two years later," his story began, "Virginia Kelley still remembers the scene 'as clear as day' . . . She watched as her son, still a boy but a head taller than his stepfather, walked over to the older man's chair . . . 'I don't know what I will do if you ever strike my mother again,' he said. 'I would advise you never to strike her again' . . .

"The bringing of peace to his mother's home was a shaping event for Bill Clinton, one that set a course for his life and his life's work . . ."

But it was not quite as simple as that. A couple of weeks later, David Maraniss of The Post reported on young Clinton's testimony in his mother and stepfather's divorce proceedings, which made Clinton sound considerably less heroic. "The last occasion in which I went to my mother's aid, he threatened to mash my face in if I took her part," the teenager testified. Clinton told Maraniss he had "blocked out" memories of this testimony.

In his recently published biography of Clinton, Maraniss unearthed new evidence that Roger Clinton continued to physically abuse and threaten his wife in the months after the much-touted confrontation with his stepson. The uplifting anecdote, so perfect for profile writers, was incomplete.

Still, the theme for the '92 campaign had been set. 

 Let's hope that doesn't underline what kind of coverage Lauter will be offering President Obama moving forward. Readers deserve better.

David Lauter
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