To: Political Junkies
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Read Rick Berke
Several months ago, I began preparing a “Memo on the Margin” on my ten favorite political reporters, the folks I always read with complete confidence in their judgment, their balance, and their analytical acuity. I still may produce such a list one of these days, if I can ever get to 10, but just as I add one or two, one of my favorites goes sour and I have to demote him/her to the second string. Richard L. Berke of The New York Times has been on this “unpublished list” all this while, and I finally decided I had to tell you about how terrific he is, as we get deeper into this presidential election year. I’ve never met Berke, although I may have spoken to him a couple of times on the telephone these last three or four years, but I have a few dozen times e-mailed him congratulations on pieces he’s written that I thought were well ahead of the curve, mine included.
My highest praise goes to political reporters when, in addition to all their other attributes, I cannot tell, after reading their material over a serious stretch of track, whether they are liberals or conservatives, or vote Democratic or Republican. I may suspect such a reporter of harboring partisan feelings, but if they are obscured in other ways, I am satisfied they are getting me what I need to know. Journalists like Bob Novak or Mark Shields do not count in this kind of beauty contest, because they present themselves as reporter/commentators with a definite, anchored point of view. Rick Berke only surfaces as a reporter and I am happy to see he has not yet succumbed to the temptation of TV fame and fortune by going on NBC’s McLaughlin Group or CNN’s Crossfire or the PBS Newshour as a “commentator” -- forced to become partisan as a condition of employment.
Reporters like Berke are worth their weight in gold, because you can read them without having to discount their prejudices. They are pure communicators. Pure communicators! Among the best of this class who I have followed over time has been Howell Raines, the editor of the editorial page of the NYTimes. Of course Raines has revealed his partisan biases at this job, but had kept them well hidden when he was the national political reporter for the Times. This is one of the reasons why I think Raines is where he is...and may climb to the top of the NYT masthead when the top editor, Joe Lelyveld, retires. How old is Rick Berke? I’ve only seen him once on television and would make a wild guess that he is somewhere between 36 and 40. When I was a journalist, a political reporter for Dow Jones & Co., those were probably my best years, but I was not as good as Berke or Raines. They rated **** year after year, and by my own system, I only made it to *** one year.
Why this sudden effusion about Berke? Just one more nice little piece, nothing great, but typical of his constant pressure on the political envelope. Sunday’s "Week in Review" section led with a Berke news analysis: “What a Mind! In Politics, That’s Not What Matters.” Berke is the very first kid on the political block to see that the candidates for the White House are all trying to persuade the voters they may have low IQ’s, but are heavy on horse sense. Yes, I wrote this in the first chapter of The Way the World Works in 1978, and Aristotle wrote about it 2300 years ago in Politics. But these eternal verities are lost on the general run of media folk who operate on the assumption that wisdom is up and ignorance is down in the national pyramid of people. Berke says it is a close call. I agree.