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Journalists quake with uncertainty about Perot

Reading an editorial about Ross Perot in the Times on Friday, I noticed this assertion in the first sentence:

When the long-awaited announcement came at 4 p.m. Thursday in Dallas, the political ground did not tremble.

But here was the first sentence of a editorial about Perot published the same day in the Tampa Tribune:

Ross Perot made the political ground tremble Thursday when he announced he will re-enter the race for president.

Well, which is it?

Did Ross Perot make the political ground tremble, or didn't he?

You would think that the trembling of political ground would be hard to mistake.

I demanded an explanation for this glaring discrepancy from Phil Gailey, the Times' editorial page editor.

Gailey asserted that Perot would have little effect on the outcome of the race. In fact, the polls had been barely affected by his entry.

"We stand by our seismological assessment," Gailey said, puffing his pipe.

This is how editorial page editors talk. I also happen to know that the editorial page editors of both newspapers puff pipes.

Ed Roberts, the editorial page editor of the Tribune, told me that Perot would force the other two candidates to deal with the issues, and would radically change the debates. This certainly qualifies as trembling ground, he said.

"I think Phil Gailey needs new instrumentation," Roberts said.

Considering it a draw so far, I sought clarification from the giants of the industry. Perhaps other major American newspapers had noticed the phenomenon, or as President Bush might describe it, "this trembling thing."

R.W. Apple Jr., an important writer for the New York Times, at first blush seemed to take the side of the Tribune.

Perot, Apple wrote on Page 1, "shook the scaffolding of American politics" by entering the race.

I figured that if the scaffolding of American politics had been shaken, then certainly the political ground had trembled.

But Apple went on to say that Perot's announcement "was only an aftershock compared with the major earthquakes he caused earlier this year."

So the New York Times also was inconclusive. It depends on whether "an aftershock" qualifies as the trembling of political ground.

Besides, as Gailey pointed out, it is possible to shake a scaffolding even if the ground is rock steady, although you could argue, in reply, that rocks are not steady if they are part of a trembling political ground.

The Wall Street Journal eschewed the question of trembling entirely, but it did use the word "eschew" in the second paragraph of its Perot story.

Perhaps terrified by the temblor of Perot's entry, the Journal spewed forth an amazing array of metaphors in just a few lines, saying Perot had "shaken up American politics," "thrown another wild card into the election," and that his entry "scrambles the campaign."

This shaking, scrambling and wild-card throwing, the Journal said, would probably help "the beleaguered President Bush," who "needs a jolt from any source if he is to have a real chance to win."

"Beleaguered" is an accepted journalistic word which translates as, "A guy we write lots of bad stuff about," but "jolt" as a cliche is usually better saved for stories concerning electricity, for instance, and executions.

A possible explanation for this trembling controversy, of course, is that Perot caused the political ground to tremble in downtown Tampa, but not in downtown St. Petersburg. No doubt the competing chambers of commerce can make hay with this.

It may be that the media conspiracy simply broke down that day. As you know, we transmit the "angle of the day" among ourselves so we all march in lockstep, and it could be that some hapless typist somewhere confused trembling with not trembling. We will try to do better.

One thing is certain. (Of course, this suggests that other things are not certain, which I am certain is not true.) It is too early to know whether the political ground is trembling. As I always say, it remains to be seen. Time will tell. Better yet, make that: Time alone will tell.

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