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Split Decision

How the 'Times' almost didn't back Hillary

On January 25, the New York Times endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton. At the time, the 1,100-word editorial stood out for both its tepidness and early appearance, coming near the front-end of the primary season. The piece ran in the paper the Friday before Super Tuesday, instead of in the Times’s symbolically-important Sunday edition. Though the Times hailed Clinton, writing, “we are hugely impressed by the depth of her knowledge, by the force of her intellect and by the breadth of, yes, her experience,” it also extolled the virtues of Barack Obama, noting “on the major issues, there is no real gulf separating the two.” The editors wrote: “By choosing Mrs. Clinton, we are not denying Mr. Obama’s appeal or his gifts.”

According to Times sources, the paper almost didn’t back Clinton. The divisions within the Gray Lady’s editorial board mirrored the deep divide that has split Democrats in this tightly contested campaign. The 20-member board had initially leaned toward Obama, Times sources say. But in January, after the board had debated the endorsement in two separate sessions, Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. decided to favor Clinton. Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, declining to comment on the internal debate, acknowledged that the vote was a difficult one. “It was a really hard one, no question about it,” Rosenthal told me. “We talked about this within our board for hours. It was a very lively, interesting discussion. Several members of the board said it was the best discussion they’ve had.”

As the primary season steams towards Ohio and Texas on March 4, some at the Times are now questioning the editorial board’s judgment. “We’re on the wrong side of history,” one Times staffer said. Indeed, the Times stands apart from the majority of major American newspapers. Obama has racked up endorsements from more than 100 newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times Company-owned Boston Globe, the Newark Star-Ledger, as well as the four biggest dailies in Texas and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (Here are lists of Clinton and Obama’s respective newspaper endorsements.) “The endorsement didn’t win me any friends,” Rosenthal admitted to me.

At the Times, Obama received a lukewarm reception when he first visited the paper’s editorial board last spring, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting. Some staffers who attended the Q&A were disappointed with Obama’s delivery and what some viewed as measured responses to thorny policy questions. Arthur Sulzberger didn’t even attend.

When Obama returned to the Times on November 28 for his second meeting with the paper’s editorial board, held in a 13th floor conference room at the Times’s new 8th Avenue skyscraper, his reception was much warmer. In a column, Maureen Dowd described the excitement over his arrival, writing that “young female assistants lined the halls on Wednesday to watch him glide into a second meeting with editorial board writers and editors.” Shortly after 3:00 p.m., Sulzberger opened the meeting, attended by more than 20 board members, editors and Times columnists including Dowd, Frank Rich, and Nicholas Kristof. Sulzberger told Obama that he heard the candidate was underwhelming at his first interview, according to people with knowledge of the meeting. An awkward pall descended over the room for a moment, though Obama took the exchange in stride. Later in the Q&A, he made light of Sulzberger’s quip. “Some folks like this even if it doesn’t meet the approval of the editorial board,” he responded to one question, a person who attended recalled. About 20 minutes before the meeting ended, Sulzberger got up and left the room. (A Times spokesperson says, "It is wrong to suggest any question Arthur posed was flippant or done as a joke.")

Clinton visited the Times on January 14 for her only meeting with the editorial board, after rescheduling her visit several times. Following Clinton’s meeting, the editorial board debated the endorsement in two heated sessions, before Sulzberger tipped the scales in her favor. Some have noted that one source of Sulzberger’s support for Clinton might be his close friendship with Steve Rattner, the former Times reporter-turned-private equity financier who is a prominent Clinton donor (and Sulzberger’s gym buddy). Through a spokesperson, Sulzberger said, “Our endorsements represent the best thinking of the editorial board and we do not comment on them beyond what we say to our readers.”

In any event, the Times’s editorial page has continued to demonstrate its split allegiances. On February 4, Rosenthal wrote a much-talked about bylined “Editorial Observer” piece, after attending an Obama rally in California. “Forty-eight hours before the closest thing America has ever had to a national primary, four extraordinary women put on the best campaign rally I've seen in 20 years of covering presidential politics,” Rosenthal wrote at the opening of the piece. “Certainly, in that moment at the rally, the Obama campaign seemed to have a monopoly on what is hip, young and glamorous,” he gushed, concluding: “The Times editorial board has endorsed Mrs. Clinton's candidacy, and we are enthusiastic about her ability to be a great president. But candidates have to win in order to serve. Attending the rally here, we hoped Mrs. Clinton and her team were also watching and listening, very attentively.”

Rosenthal told me he didn’t clear the piece with Sulzberger or the editorial board, and was inspired to write it spontaneously in “world speed record” time after attending the rally with Maureen Dowd. He dismissed the suggestion that his piece signaled that the Times was hedging its editorial support for Clinton. “It wasn’t buyer’s remorse, it wasn’t a waffle,” he said. “People have a misconception about endorsements. When we endorse a candidate, we’re not joining their campaign.”

Gabriel Sherman is a special correspondent for The New Republic.