March 12, 2008

N.Y. Times Associate Editor Discusses Presidential Race

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On his way to Ithaca yesterday, Robert B. Semple Jr., New York Times associate editor and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, got a call from his wife. She told him that when he was speaking to students at Cornell, he should tell them not to give up on politics.
With recent news of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s (D-N.Y.) involvement with prostitution, many are losing hope in the way our government works. But Semple, in his lecture to students in Goldwin Smith’s Lewis Auditorium last night, tried to stay optimistic. As one of the editors who puts together editorials for The Times, he gave his perspective on the three remaining presidential candidates and challenges that each of them faces in the coming months.
With 45 years at The Times under his belt, Semple has witnessed a lot in the political arena.
“I came to The New York Times before the Kennedy assassination in 1963,” he said. “To give you a little bit of perspective, [Republican Presidential Candidate John] McCain (R-Ariz.) and I are pretty much the same age.”
[img_assist|nid=28773|title=Keeping up with The Times|desc=Associate Editor of The New York Times Robert B. Semple Jr. gives a talk about the 2008 presidential race yesterday in Goldwin Smith.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
On that note, Semple began with his analysis of McCain. He said that when The Times editorial board was deciding which Republican candidate to endorse before the NYS presidential primary, McCain was the only person who they could see in the White House. They viewed former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) as someone who changed his stances on issues too frequently, former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R-N.Y.) as a very stubborn and vindictive man and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) as a seemingly oddball candidate.
“Conventional wisdom has McCain tagged as an old-fashioned conservative. In his time in the Senate, though, he has been the Democrats’ best friend. He voted in favor of a bill that would offer citizenship to almost 12 million illegal aliens. He also opposed Bush’s tax cuts,” Semple said, adding that it is no wonder the right wing of his party fundamentally distrusts him.
However, Semple added that McCain’s biggest weaknesses are his history of staunchly supporting the War in Iraq, as well as his age.
Moving on to the Democrats, Semple spoke about Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) better qualities — her intelligence, organization, education on the issues and extraordinary resilience — but he also noted a trend that has surfaced since the beginning of her campaign.
“A lot of people just don’t seem to like Clinton very much,” he said. “There is an obvious sense of entitlement — [with her] it’s my way or the highway. This hurt her in the medical debate in former President [Bill] Clinton’s administration and it’s hurting her now.”
However, Semple recounted an incident in which he and several writers from The Times were speaking with Clinton and someone asked her why people do not like her. She responded that she had spent so much time trying to prove to people that she could be a president that she had not had time to work on her personality. Semple said that he found this to be very endearing, but that it did not make all of her problems go away.
The last candidate he discussed was Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). He said many on the editorial board liked Obama because they were tired of the same faces in politics, though they endorsed Clinton.
Semple spoke about the candidate’s strengths in his opposition to the war in Iraq, as well as his promises to fix the broken political system. His ability to inspire optimism and hope was also noted as an effective campaign tool.
“His strength is Hillary’s weakness. One represents the old and the other represents the new,” Semple remarked.
The associate editor, like many people before him, mentioned Obama’s lack of experience as one of the weaknesses voters will pick up on. However, Semple asserted that experience may not be the most important aspect of a campaign.
“When you look at FDR, he didn’t have much experience,” Semple said. “Experience, in my view, is overrated.”
Semple said he supports Obama, but he admitted that when he was speaking about it with The Times’ editorial board, he did not really know why.
“We’ve had 12 years of Bush’s as president and eight years of a Clinton,” he said. “[Hillary] Clinton is suffering from my fatigue with George Bush and my fatigue with politics as usual. I’m searching for a fresh face and fresh alternatives.”
After his talk, Semple left time for an extensive question and answer session where the conversation eventually found its way to the recent controversy involving Spitzer and the prostitution ring. The associate editor said that he had gotten to know Spitzer through work he had done with the environment and that the governor had done a terrific job working on clean air and clean water policies.
“This guy was on the verge of cleaning up one of the most corrupt governments in the country,” Semple said, adding that Spitzer came to The Times office a lot because he knew that they liked him.
He speculated that Spitzer was similar to Hillary in that he always had to have things his way. He recounted one of his conversations with the governor about his work as attorney general.
“He came in one day and I said, ‘What are all those people on Wall Street like?’ He said, ‘they are arrogant beyond belief.’ In a way he was arrogant beyond belief. He disrespected all of us.”
Steven Turell ’11 found Semple’s talk to be a great perspective on the upcoming elections.
“I thought it was very interesting that he has such influence over all of us, but that he doesn’t have all the secrets in the world,” he said. “It really shows how up in the air the election is.”
His friend, Scott Budow ’10, agreed that the lecture was surprisingly down to earth.
“Along the same lines, I found it was interesting,” Budow said. “But I thought that as a decently informed citizen, a lot of the information he was presenting I was already aware of. It showed that he was using the same information as all of us.”
Semple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for his work on environmental issues. His lecture was organized by the Greek Tri-Council.