The beginning of the ending

How good advice from (gasp!) an editor set up the setup

This is a story about a good story ending–good because of the way the ending is set up at two places along the story.

But it’s also a story about how to get edited: how all of us reporters need to learn, on occasion, to be a little less resistant.

When I decided to post the following story and describe my strategy, I was forced to recognize that only a slightly rocky encounter with an editor led me, indirectly, to the path of righteousness.

The beginning of the ending

The beginning of the ending

Here’s what happened:

On Sept. 24, I got grabbed from the Features section and was assigned an “impressionistic” portrait of one of the California gubernatorial-recall candidates, Cruz Bustamante, the only big-name Democrat in the race. AME Miriam Pawel wanted such portraits of each major recall candidate–a look at how they behaved in public, on the stump, at press conferences, photo-ops, etc.

I immediately thought this was a good idea but there wasn’t much time. The only full-scale debate of the campaign was that night. The story was due Sept. 29. And I really hadn’t paid much attention to Bustamante.

So I watched the debate that night on TV, caught him at a press conference, a high school gathering, another candidates forum and a fund-raising appearance (which involved mostly cooling my heels). And then I wrote a 50-inch piece that said, in effect: Bustamanate is running as a “regular” guy, but it’s his very regularity that makes him sort of a chump in public sometimes, which is why he’s lost his lead in the polls.

The story came out good, I thought, although the ending (about an underwhelming performance at a candidates forum) was weak.

One of the editors who read it, City Editor Sam Enriquez, made a suggestion. High up in the story, he thought, I needed to do a better job of characterizing the theme Bustamante was promoting. “He’s trying to be David against Goliath (Arnold Schwarzenegger),” Sam said. This was true but I rejected it, at first, because I thought it was corny; I insisted people would discern this truth as they read the story. But Sam was handling me well. He didn’t demand it, he just asked me to think about it, and as we talked a sentence came to mind, and I bounced it off him, and he nodded. As good editors do, he made it clear it was up to me to find the right language.

That would be one prong in the double-pronged ending setiup.

The other prong came along just as inadvertently, and in the same way I resisted it. Miriam wanted to hold the story a couple days. I argued against it because I’d have to keep monitoring Bustamante, which might force me to change the story–or, worse, see the entire story become irrelevant. The idea that the delay might make the story better was lost to my impatience.

But that’s exactly what happened. On one of those extra days, I watched Bustamante campaign more energetically, and it reminded me of two things: First, I had to be fair to the guy. And, second, no matter what the polls said, this was a volatile campaign. (I had this thought two days before the L.A. Times printed its front-page story about Arnold’s alleged pawing of women, making the campaign even more volatile.) In some ways, watching Bustamante on this day, it seemed fair to suggest that maybe he COULD be David and slay Goliath. But if I wanted to say that, I had to suggest that he could just as likely get clobbered, winding up as the opposite of David. Which forced me to think: Which icon would he then be compared to…and how should I set that up?

With that, here’s the published story, with my observations about it in caps:

LACK OF STAGE PRESENCE UNDERCUTS BUSTAMANTE
By Bob Baker
October 3, 2003

THE LEAD WAS NEVER IN DOUBT. AT ONE OF BUSTAMANTE’S PRESS CONFERENCES, I RAISED MY HAND TO ASK A DEBATE QUESTION AND HE SHOT ME DOWN.

“After the debate,” a reporter asked Cruz Bustamante at a recent news conference, “several critics described –”

“What?” Bustamante interrupted sarcastically. “There were critics?”

“– described you as condescending,” the reporter continued.

THE TRICK NOW WAS TO LINK THE ANECDOTE TO THE CENTRAL THEME:

The fact that the lieutenant governor could be condescending while being asked whether he is condescending may not cost him votes. (Given the public’s resentment of the media, it may gain him a few.) But that moment illustrates a certain tone-deafness that has dogged the Bustamante campaign, a campaign based on the idea that a regular guy could beat a privileged film star.

I EXPANDED THE NEXT TWO GRAFS AFTER MY TALK WITH SAM ENRIQUEZ. IN RETROSPECT I FELT THIS LANGUAGE DID A BETTER JOB OF ENCIRCLING THE STORY, GETTING YOU PREPARED FOR WHAT YOU WERE ABOUT TO READ. MY ORIGINAL VERSION DISDAINED FORESHADOWING IN THE BELIEF THAT MY SPECIFIC OBSERVATIONS WOULD BE ENOUGH TO HOLD THE READER. I CAME AWAY THINKING THAT WAS WRONG–OR THAT, AT LEAST, THIS WAS BETTER.

Bustamante is as regular as they come: grandson of Mexican immigrants, son of a Central Valley barber, someone who got into Fresno State via community college, where his classes included training to be a butcher. Short, pudgy, balding, not afraid to poke fun at his stature on the stump. Blessed with a mellifluous, unaccented voice and flawless diction. Fell into politics and worked his way up rung by rung.

Yet like so many regular guys, when the spotlight is on, Bustamante can’t dance. He has tended to stumble in moments when he needed to be fast on his feet. Though he likes to brag about his lack of calculated flash, that very failing has sabotaged him in key public moments. Bustamante wanted to be David to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Goliath. But David’s aim was true. Too often, Cruz Bustamante’s is not.

WITH THE INTRODUCTION COMPLETE, WE CAN MOVE TO ANOTHER KEY MOMENT–THE DEBATE.

The lieutenant governor’s determination to hold himself above the fray of last week’s raucous debate — essentially his coming-out party, watched by millions who knew almost nothing about him — was an act of overcompensation that left one TV commentator, former Democratic strategist Susan Estrich, wondering on the air if his campaign “gave him too much Valium.” Bustamante had the courage to tout his budget-balancing tax increases during the debate, but he came across not only as passive but — here comes that word again — condescending.

Take the moment when Arianna Huffington asked Bustamante if he would support canceling an expensive prison project so that state university tuition could be lowered. Bustamante, knowing that the prison construction money couldn’t be transferred, began: “Let me tell you, Arianna, you may not understand how the process works.”

“Oh please!” Huffington spat as if scolding an estranged husband. “You keep saying that to me, and it’s getting a little tired.”

When Schwarzenegger assailed Bustamante for cuts in textbooks, Bustamante shot back that he was the author of a major textbook bill, but prefaced the rejoinder with: “Arnold, I know that you probably don’t know, but … ” When Schwarzenegger argued that Democrats had an “addiction” to loose spending, Bustamante replied: “Well, that’s what happens when you simplify things.”

THERE WAS A THIRD SCHWARZENEGGER EXAMPLE BUT IT WAS SLICED AT THE LAST MINUTE IN THE BELIEF THAT TWO GAVE YOU THE IDEA, AND KEPT THE STORY MOVING.

In each case, there was no rancor or anger in his voice, a dissonance with his message. At other times in the evening, the lieutenant governor absorbed criticism of the Davis administration with a tight smile, or a nod, or a simple “That’s right.”

His performance brought these reviews: “A large lump” (Fox News’ Mort Kondracke); “A giant sleeping cat” (San Francisco Chronicle); “Drowned out” (Weekly Standard); “He would have a great career if radio were the dominant medium” (Washington Post’s David Broder); “Calm and collected but also rude in a passive-aggressive kind of way” (Sacramento Bee’s Daniel Weintraub); “Mister Blobby” (slate.com’s Mickey Kaus); “He receded” (Los Angeles Times’ Ronald Brownstein).

NOW TO THE CONTRAST BETWEEN THE DEBATE AND HIS SUPERIOR PERFORMANCE ON ANOTHER FRONT–ALBEIT ONE WITH VERY FEW VOTING-AGE SPECTATORS.

None of these pundits were in the South Gate High School auditorium three days later when a different Cruz Bustamante gave the keynote speech at an annual conference for students with college aspirations.

A swagger and a slight accent crept into his voice on that early Saturday morning. “I’m not gonna tell you a big ol’ speech like your parents give you,” he promised. “I’m gonna show you how you can make a million dollars.” Then he did the math, comparing incomes for high school and college graduates projected over 40 years. “Hmmm. You know. I think that’s a pretty good incentive.”

He told them his grandparents came from Zacatecas and Chihuahua. He told them about not speaking English until he was 5. (” ‘I want a pie,’ that was my repertoire. I liked them pies. You can see I liked them pies.”) He told them that his mom wanted him to be a priest and his dad wanted him to be a lawyer, but that he didn’t know what he wanted to be. He told them about changing his college major five times. He told them that what mattered was where they finished, not where they started — and that somewhere along the way they were going to mess up, and they should forgive themselves.

He told them it was important for Latinos to be 35% of the doctors, lawyers and politicians, not just 35% of the population, “because then we know we’re pulling our own weight.” He told them to go to college for any reason — just do it, “because in the next three or four years the lightbulb in your head is gonna turn on.” He told them they would be competing with students from all over the nation to get into California universities. “Take up the challenge! Make your parents proud! Make sure you can compete with anybody!” They cheered.

NOW, WHEN SOMEBODY TELLS ME TO BE “IMPRESSIONISTIC,” I TAKE THEM AT THEIR WORD. THE NEXT GRAF WAS AN ATTEMPT TO LIVE UP TO THE ASSIGNMENT.

He was in tune, on message, passionate. The difference between this and the debate was that he was not having to react to anybody else or find facile ways of addressing workers’ compensation reform or electric power costs. Now he was telling the story of Cruz Bustamante, a story that resonated with a thousand faces who shared the same experience. It was easy to think that this 50-year-old politician, so often mocked for advancing simply because he was in the right place at the right time, could have made an inspiring college counselor.

THE SCHOOL ANECDOTE ALLOWED ME TO MOVE TO A RELATED TOPIC IN THE NEXT GRAF: HIS PERFORMANCE TENDS TO BE GOOD AS LONG AS HE DOESN’T HAVE TO AD LIB. THE FIRST EXAMPLE CAME FROM ANOTHER PRESS CONFERENCE DURING THE EXTRA DAYS MY STORY WAS HELD–REMINDING ME TO STOP BITCHING. (INSERTING THAT EXAMPLE FORCED ME TO TRIM THE SECOND EXAMPLE, THE SOLDIER’S WIFE, WHICH MADE THE STORY MOVE BETTER.)

In a controlled political environment, Bustamante is polished and grave. When Democratic presidential hopeful Gen. Wesley Clark endorsed him at a news conference Wednesday, the lieutenant governor thanked him by saying: “Your being here is an honor to me and my family.” At another news conference, where he proposed $30 million in grants to cash-strapped families of reservists in Iraq, Bustamante introduced an on-duty reservist’s wife, then stepped back from the microphone and put his hand lightly on the shoulder of the woman’s 9-year-old daughter, guiding her to stand next to her mother. He nodded almost imperceptibly as the mother talked about the hardships caused when her husband lost his job while overseas. Such families “are real things,” he said. “They are not props.”

NOW THE CONTRAST. THESE EXAMPLES CAME FROM MY GRACIOUS COLLEAGUE MATEA GOLD, WHO HAD BEEN TRAILING BUSTAMANTE IN PREVIOUS WEEKS.

It is when the staged portion of such news conferences end and the campaign questions begin that Bustamante often seems haughty. When he gets a politically difficult question, he sometimes evades it by turning it around on the questioner.

To a reporter in Fresno on Sept. 7 who quizzed him about whether he sees any difference in the way the state should treat legal and illegal immigrants: “Have you been out to the fields? I have. I grew up out there.”

To a San Francisco television reporter Sept. 16 who asked whether his massive contributions from Indian tribes puts him in “their back pocket”: “Are you in some corporate back pocket yourself? You’re here and you have programs on your station, you sell advertising. Are you in the oil companies’ back pockets?”

To a reporter in West Hollywood on Sept. 18 who asked if he expected his opposition to gay marriage to change: “I don’t know. Do you intend to evolve in any of your thinking in the future?”

I HAD FLOWN TO A PRIVATE FUND-RAISING EVENT AND GOTTEN NOTHING OUT OF IT–OR SO I THOUGHT. TRYING TO FIGURE OUT A WAY TO USE IT, I THOUGHT ABOUT THE DEMONSTRATORS I’D SEEN, AND BUSTAMANTE’S UNWILLINGNESS TO CONFRONT THEM…AND THE NEXT GRAF SURFACED:

As the campaign winds down and the money runs low, Bustamante has relied on new, private fund-raising gatherings. Last Friday he met with supporters at a Mexican food manufacturer in Fresno, a $200-a-head gathering that attracted about 100 people. The next day, after the South Gate High speech and a Huntington Park press conference, he flew to Salinas, where a smaller turnout awaited him at the home of the owner of a portable-toilet company. A handful of reporters waited in the driveway, but Bustamante declined to speak to them. He had two reasons: They kept asking about a judge’s order that the Bustamante campaign stop airing TV commercials with improperly accounted funds from Indian tribes. And in this same driveway stood nine young picket-waving Schwarzenegger supporters, shouting anti-Bustamante slogans (“Hey! Cruz Boost-Your-Taxes!”) at the host’s house for an hour and a half.

IT WAS ONLY AFTER I FILED THE STORY AND WAS CARPING ABOUT THE EDITORS HOLDING IT THAT I RAN INTO A PHOTO OP THAT MADE ME THINK ABOUT REVISING MY ENDING. BUSTAMANTE, ANSWERING QUESTIONS AFTER THE PHOTO OP, SEEMED FIERY. I DIDN’T FEEL CONFIDENT ENOUGH TO SIMPLY WRITE HIM OFF AS A LOSER.

I ALREADY KNEW MY ENDING COULD ALLUDE TO THE WAY BUSTAMANTE HOPED TO BE REMEMBERED, AS “DAVID,” BECAUSE I’D MADE REFERENCE TO THAT UP HIGH IN THE STORY. BUT WHO MIGHT HISTORY COMPARE HIM TO IF HE GOT WIPED OUT ON ELECTION DAY?

I HAD BEEN THINKING OF MICHAEL DUKAKIS, ANOTHER FAILED CANDIDATE SABOTAGED BY A LACK OF PUBLIC PASSION. I WOULD PLANT THE SEED FOR THAT REFERENCE IN THE NEXT GRAF. THE FACT THAT BUSTAMANTE WOULD NOT COME OUT OF THE HOUSE TO TALK TO REPORTERS WAS WORTH THIS OBSERVATION:

Perhaps a politician as facile as Bill Clinton could have walked up to antagonists and won an argument in front of the cameras. Perhaps a politician as angry as Howard Dean could have challenged them for the simple visceral pleasure of it. Cruz Bustamante is neither a debater nor a demonstrably angry man. He bears a closer resemblance to another Democratic politician with a low-wattage campaign personality, Michael Dukakis, who became convincingly intense only during the final, desperate days of his losing 1988 presidential race.

Bustamante stayed inside the home and left in a staff-driven car, flashing a thumbs-up to the driveway crowd.

NOW I MOVED TOWARD THE ENDING.

On Sunday, a new poll showed Schwarzenegger with a 15 percentage point lead over Bustamante. By the time Bustamante hit the streets on Tuesday between fund-raising appeals, his demeanor was absolutely zesty, as though he had nothing to lose. He staged a photo op, greeting the largely Spanish-speaking denizens of downtown L.A.’s Grand Central Market. His exhortations were crisp (“Vamos a ganar!”), the sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up, his brow was perspiring. His campaign said its internal polls showed Bustamante in a 31%-31% dead heat with Schwarzenegger. But it was easier to believe that desperation, rather than optimism, had finally broken the chains of the candidate’s inhibitions.

“This campaign is live! It is absolutely live!” he told a dozen reporters who encircled him after his tour of the market, sounding far more like the candidate at South Gate High than the candidate at last week’s debate. He defended accepting contributions from Native American tribes. (“They’re standing up for me because I stood up for them.”) He called Schwarzenegger a hypocrite for complaining about Bustamante’s “special-interest” contributions while accepting corporate donations. He belittled Schwarzenegger for a “campaign of ‘trust-me’ politics. I have a campaign of ideas.” He spoke his final words almost pleadingly into the TV cameras: Be skeptical of the Schwarzenegger campaign’s generalities. “Make them give you a full platform.”

HERE IS THE PAYOFF

He went back to shaking hands and saying hello in Spanish. The next day a Los Angeles Times poll would find him eight points behind, and despite the odds, it still seemed fair to wonder: Was this David? Or Dukakis?

Epilogue: The story ran on A-1. Three days later, when I finally realized the genesis of my ending, I walked over to Sam Enriquez and thanked him. Cruz Bustamante turned out to be Dukakis, not David: Arnold kicked his ass, as we say on Muscle Beach, 48% to 32%.