Benedetto tries to humanize politicians

Although President Bush and Congress’ approval ratings are lower than ever, veteran USA Today reporter Richard Benedetto maintains the highest level of respect for politicians.

In his book, “Politicians Are People, Too,” Benedetto seems devoid of a cynicism pervasive in today’s political culture.

Instead, his target is different: the news media.

Benedetto, like many people, blames the media for making the general public skeptical of government and, namely, politicians. The media, Benedetto says, should rid itself of the notion that bad news sells.

The media’s role as a government watchdog is important, but people still need to hear the positive things that politicians have done, he argues. Benedetto claims that he gets more feedback from the readers when covers optimistic stories.

“Reporters should never lose sight of the fact that the reason why we perform the watchdog function is not to tear governments down and undermine public confidence in them, it is to point out wrongdoing so that it can be corrected and governments can work better,” Benedetto writes.

The liberal bias pervasive after the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s presidency has changed how the media operates, he contends. Benedetto says that many reporters have an axe to grind with the government. “The goal is better government, not another notch in the gunslinging reporter’s belt,” Benedetto says.

Benedetto partly blames professors for the media’s liberal bias. “If there is liberal bias in the media, the root cause could lie on college campuses today,” he postulates. “Many professors today are part of the Baby Boom generation that cut its teeth on politics opposing the Vietnam War.”

But the book is not all about the role of the media. Full of cute vignettes, Benedetto tells the story of his 35-year journalism career, from his job as a cub reporter in upstate New York to his post as a White House correspondent for the first truly national paper, USA Today.

He humanizes politicians in short, colorful stories covering countless campaigns and lawmakers. He’s ridden on Air Force One, jogged with President George H.W. Bush and advised Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on New York state politics. He knows that President George W. Bush wears Wrangler jeans, sips Shiner non-alcoholic beer straight from the bottle and is usually in a better mood when first lady Laura Bush is around.

At times, though, the book lacks flow. Benedetto’s transitions can be choppy. For instance, he shifts focus from one politician to another with the abrupt, “Another politician high on my good guy list is…”

But the book is easy to read and written in the bright, “news lite” style of USA Today.

It’s an autobiography of sorts, with charming chapter titles such as:  “’This isn’t the Yankees’ Dressing Room!’”, in which Benedetto recalls a time when politicians were so comfortable with reporters that during Mario Cuomo’s 1978 campaign for New York’s lieutenant governor, the candidate invited the author into the hotel room while he dressed for his next meeting.

And in the chapter, “You don’t boo the President of the United States,” Benedetto remembers that his Italian grandfather taught him the importance of respecting public officials.

Benedetto, as his book’s title suggests, would like to show the American public that politicians are fallible but should be respected: “I was taught that public service was a noble profession, not a haven for scoundrels and crooks. Politicians …were people who had made a choice to serve the public in various offices of government. And not all of them were in there just to make themselves and their friends rich, the public damned.”