Archive: Bill Plante

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Veteran CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante brings a top political expert into the Smoke-Filled Room each week to answer your questions. Since January, CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante has been meeting weekly with political insiders and conveying your queries to them. Now it’s his turn to do the answering.

Pat: When news division resources are limited, who decides how much money will be spent covering infomercials for the political parties, otherwise known as conventions? Who decides whether or not to offer Presidential candidates time for a debate, separate from the Presidential Debate Commission which is funded by the major parties and corporations? How do you decide how much of the convention you’ll televise?

Plante:Pat, those decisions are made by the executives in the news division and the corporation that owns CBS. They have to decide if whether or not they will make the network time available, whether there will be enough viewers to support the advertising, or whether they can make more money by selling advertising for regular programming. The clear answer is that there are not enough people interested in watching the conventions. So they use regular programming and they give the conventions about an hour a night, maybe two hours on the last night of the convention. There are plenty of alternatives on the cable networks for the people who really want to see gavel-to-gavel convention coverage.

The same thinking applies to offering the Presidential candidates time for debates. This is negotiated in conjunction with the Presidential Debate Committee. Pat notes the presidential debate commission is funded by the major parties and corporations – actually that is not entirely true. There’s also a good deal of foundation money in it and not a great deal of corporate money. The Presidential Debate Commissions negotiate for a time and place and with the candidates for a format for the debates. The networks in the past have offered their own time individually for the candidates. The candidates usually prefer to accept just one debate commitment for a series of debates.

The overall question of how much political coverage appears on commercial television is really driven by who’s willing to watch. And the answer is, not too many people.

Tanya: The Republicans are making a concerted effort to present a positive campaign image. So far the Democrats, including President Clinton, seem to be doing a lot of negative campaigning. Do you think this will continue, and to what extent - particularly at their convention?

Plante: I can tell you right now that the Gore people do not want President Clinton to shoot from the hip as he did the other day. He thought he was joking when he talked about Bush wanting to be President just because he was governor of a big state and because hi daddy was President. President Clinton probably wasn’t thinking of that as a barb – he was probably thinking of it as more of a joke. But as we know, it really got the goat of President Bush, George W.’s father, who threatened to tell how he really feels.

That’s the last thing either campaign wants to become the issue. For the Gore people, it focuses the issue on President Clinton. There are some high negative ratings about his personal behavior, although his performance ratings as President are pretty good. The Bush people don’t want to focus on that either. I don’t think you’re going to see that kind of personal negative campaigning.

What you will see at the Democrat’s convention is a lot of focus on issues. Issues which the Republicans are trying to take for their own, like social social security, health care and education. The Democrats are going to be saying “they don’t even begin to know what they’re talking about, we can do this better.”

Joe W.: Who do you think Gore will pick as his running mate, and why?

Plante: The Gore people are doing what the Republicans did last week – they’re floating names. Early today (Thursday) they let it be known that there were just six people on Vice President Gore’s list. He’ll make the announcement next Tuesday down in Nashville.

The six names on the list were Jeanne Shaheen, Governor of New Hampshire, Richard Gephardt, of Missouri, who is the House Minority Leader, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Kerry from Massachusetts and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Later in the day, it became pretty clear from talking to people around Gore that they’re floating this so those names will get out. To be a little bit skeptical about the whole thing, they want to have the name of a female on the list. That’s Governor Shaheen. She has told them she doesn’t want it. They put her name out anyway, presumably, primarily because she’s a female. You might think the same thing about Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, because he is Jewish. Richard Gephardt doesn’t want it either. He is anxious to be the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives – the Speaker of the House. He hopes the Democrats can take back the House in this election. He hasn’t even submitted the financial information required to check him out, although presumably he would pass that easily because he did run for President himself, eight years ago. So it’s not likely that any of those three people will be picked.

Of the other three, Sen. Edwards of North Carolina is a relative newcomer - only in the Senate two years. Gov. Bayh of Indiana, is a youthful Democrat from a state that probably wouldn’t go to the Democrats in any event - might not even if he was on the ticket. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is from a particulary liberal state, but he also served in Vietnam, so then the Democrats could have a relatively young ticket. Both of the people on the ticket would have served in Vietnam in contrast to the Republicans, of which neither served, although Cheney was the Defense Secretary under George Bush.

The names are leaking out. I suspect we’ll know before the announcement on Tuesday and I suspect that it will be either Sen. John Kerry or Gov. Bayh of Indiana.

Jeremy: Bush has been leading in the polls for quite some time and he’s now getting a substantial boost from the convention. Do you think he now has an insurmountable lead?

Plante: Absolutely not. The nominee in every convention gets a bit of a boost from those who watch. It’s an opportunity for four days of largely uncritical coverage where the party and their nominee can be seen at their best. The same thing will happen for Gore. Bush has run a very good campaign, a very positive campaign, a very together campaign – everybody’s on the same message. That’s had an effect in the polls. He’s doing very well. Gore, I expect, will pick up. I think this will be a very close race, all the way down to the wire, a race likely to be decided in the Midwest or at least in the belt of states that stretches from New Jersey through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Missouri.

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Mike V.: You’ve covered a lot of campaigns during your career. What has changed over the years, and are the changes good or bad?

Plante: The changes are interesting. There’s much more information available about what drives politics, including the money. It’s much easier now with communications and computers to get that kind of information both about people and about money. There is more coverage than ever before. And even though tere may not be larger audiences, it is possible, if you’re interested, to find whatever you’re looking for on cable, on the Internet, on broadcast networks.

But politics has become more manipulative. The people who make political commercials have found new ways to push the public’s buttons. I won’t say that all negative campaigning is bad because negative campaigning carries a message too – it is meant to. And it is meant to bring out the worst in the other fellow. It’s a lot more complicated because of the communications and technology than it was in the past. That’s probably, on balance, to the good.

Edelin: Besides bunging jumping, what’s the most interesting thing about covering the White House?

Plante: The most interesting thing about being at the White House is having a sort of front row seat while history is being made. It doesn’t matter if there’s a Republican or a Democrat in the Oval Office – it doesn’t matter who it is. The President is at the front lines, the cutting edge, of situations both normal and extraordinary. Those of us who are there everyday get to watch this develop and get to be present while it’s happening. It also means a lot of very interesting travel. Presidents go all over the world these days and we generally go with them. It’s a chance to see history being made and I love it.

About Bill Plante
Bill Plante is a three-time Emmy Award winner who joined the CBS News Washington Bureau in 1976. He has been covering national elections since 1968. In 1984, he was part of a CBS News team that captured an Emmy for coverage of Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign. Plante is one of the most knowledgeable and respected political correspondents in Washington. (He'll do just about anything, including bungee jumping, to get a good story.)