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Silent Times

TO THE EVER-SHRINKING LIST of the aggravatingly undecided, you can add the Los Angeles Times. The Times won’t take a stand on who should be the most powerful leader on Earth, although it will advise you on Superior Court Judicial Office No. 29.

The Times has not endorsed since it went for Richard Nixon in 1972, the last in a line of favored Republicans. New editorial-page honcho Michael Kinsley, who took over this summer, had talked publicly of changing that custom as recently as late last month, when quoted in an Editor & Publisher article.

So what happened?

Kinsley is up-front about his own plans to vote for Kerry, but said the editorial leadership couldn’t muster sufficient enthusiasm for either candidate to break precedent. The tradition would surely be shelved, he said, when “There will be an election, some century, where one of the candidates truly excites so many people that we want to endorse him or her. In this case, it would have been like everybody else: ‘On balance, we prefer X or Y.’”

But don’t voters have to make that very distinction?

“It was a tradition,” Kinsley said. “And they decided before I got there to keep it.” Kinsley said he was less adamant when he learned that the previous editorial-page editor had been included in the discussion.

In 1992, an editor justified this policy with the monopoly excuse. two competing newspapers are in a market, one can do Clinton and the other Bush, and you have a vigorous debate,” said Tom Plate as quoted in a USA Today article. “We really feel, as the dominant newspaper in Southern California, we’re a paper for Democrats and Republicans, not a partisan paper.”

It’s also true that, in the 1970s, the Times’ editorial brain trust, under the leadership of publisher Otis Chandler, was pushing the newspaper beyond its roots as a provincial, pro-business, unthinking pro-Republican mouthpiece. Thus, avoiding a presidential endorsement meant, arguably, avoiding a Republican endorsement.

Given the Times’ leftward evolution in the years since, it might make sense to be so bold as to endorse John Kerry. That’s the pick an attentive reader would predict based on trenchant editorial musings about Bush such as the one titled “Is He a Dope?”

To be sure, many Kerry supporters share the Times’ lack of passion for Kerry, but Kinsley’s comments could be taken to imply that Bush-or-Kerry doesn’t matter that much. Which suggests philosophical consonance with Ralph Nader or perhaps Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik. The Times’ decision also avoids the issue of whether George Bush has mucked up enough things to deserve to be fired — and whether keeping Bush on the job might be dangerous as well as not preferred.

“I don’t really defend the logic of this non-endorsement policy,” said Kinsley. At the same time, he added, endorsements have a greater influence in local elections and in their ability to influence thinking about specific issues. “I’m not saying that’s a reason not to endorse, but it is a reason not to feel strongly about it — let me put it that way.”

It is indeed fair to ask, in this election, at this point, how many voters would go Bush or Kerry because the L.A. Times said so.

Not one, as it turns out, because the Times itself isn’t choosing.