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Meet Lou Cannon, Noozhawk’s Newest Political Columnist

The acclaimed presidential biographer talks Reagan, Bush, and the 2008 election that could go either way

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At home in Summerland, Lou Cannon is surrounded by a pictorial history of his three decades covering Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, the man with whom his journalism career is most intertwined. (Andrea Russell / Noozhawk photo)

With both presidential candidates earnestly pursuing undecided voters, the late-breaking bloc may well tip the 2008 election. Counting himself in the ranks of the undecideds is one of the most astute and knowledgeable political observers in the county, Summerland resident Lou Cannon.

This is a man who, during his 26-year stint as a reporter for The Washington Post, closely covered three presidents and earned numerous journalism awards. He is widely regarded as the world’s leading biographer of President Ronald Reagan.

Yet, little more than a month before Election Day, Cannon is still torn between 2008 presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama.

“There are things that I like about both, and there are things that I don’t like about both,” he said Friday, speaking by phone from his home in Summerland.

And, no, Cannon is not being coy.

Despite his commitment to objective political reporting, the 75-year-old Reno native isn’t one to keep his own historical presidential voting picks locked in a vault.

That said, Cannon also isn’t one to make political endorsements.

“I don’t try to tell people how to think,” he said. “I try to give them info on how to help them think.”

Although unafraid to criticize the merits of any given idea, political candidate or national leader, Cannon is at heart an analyst and observer, not a partisan cheerleader. Beginning today, he’ll be sharing his political insights in a monthly column for Noozhawk. Click here for the column.

The columns are made possible by Noozhawk’s partnership with the online State Net Capitol Journal, which monitors every legislative bill in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Congress, and for which Cannon has been a monthly contributor for nearly a year. He calls his column The Cannon Perspective.

Today’s piece, titled “The Turning of the Tide,” examines what polls indicate is the apparent recent waning of a surge in popularity for Democrats that began about the time President Bush‘s approval ratings fell to the basement a few years ago, where they remain. This tentative but evident ebbing of the Democratic Party’s momentum holds true not only for the presidential race, but also many statehouse and gubernatorial contests as well, Cannon reports.

“Generally, what I’m trying to do is find some issue that has a national theme — like health care, immigration, eminent domain — and talk about what the different states are doing,” he said. Also, “I’m trying to bring a historical perspective, because I’ve written nine books and covered national politics.”

As a kid growing up in Reno, Cannon was drawn to two professions: journalism and police work. Tragedy eventually narrowed his occupational aspirations to one, when a close friend of the family who worked as a detective was shot and killed.

For Cannon, journalism had always seemed like a natural fit.

“As a kid we’d play pickup football games, and I’d go write little stories about it,” Cannon remembers.

In high school and college (he attended the University of Nevada in Reno, now UNR, and later San Francisco State), Cannon worked as a sportswriter for Reno’s then-Nevada State Journal, but had to give it up when he was drafted into military service during the Korean War. (He never saw combat.) Upon his return to civilian life in the 1950s, Cannon did odd jobs in the Bay Area — driving a laundry truck, working as a vulcanizer in a tire shop — but pined for the newsroom. One day, while eating lunch and reading the classifieds in his truck, he saw an ad for a little Bay Area paper in Lafayette.

He applied, even though it paid about half of what he was earning at the time. Shortly after, an editor invited Cannon to take a story test, in which he was instructed to rearrange a bunch of scrambled fragments to create an article. He aced it. Thus began his charmed career, which took him up the journalistic food-chain paper by paper, to the now-defunct Newark Sun; the Contra Costa Times; the San Jose Mercury News; Ridder Publications, where he landed a job as a Washington correspondent, and finally, in 1972, to the Post, which had unsuccessfully tried to poach Cannon from Knight Ridder once before.

“The truth was maybe I was a little scared I wouldn’t cut it at the bigger pond,” said Cannon, reflecting on his initial reticence.

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Lou Cannon and his son, Carl, size up Presidet Bush in their current book, Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy. (Andrea Russell / Noozhawk photo)

He more than cut it. The Post turned out to be a hand-in-glove match for Cannon: Over the years, he closely covered Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Reagan, and racked up at least a half-dozen awards.

In 1985, a survey by Washington Journalism Review, the forerunner of the American Journalism Review, named Cannon as “the best newspaper White House correspondent.” In 1988, he won the first Gerald R. Ford Prize for distinguished reporting on the Nixon, Ford and Reagan presidencies.

This year, Cannon released a book on Bush that he co-authored with his eldest son, Carl, who has extensively covered Bush and Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush over the years as a White House correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, National Journal and Reader’s Digest, where he currently works. (Carl, too, has won the Gerald R. Ford prize.)

Given the book’s title, one might mistake the Cannons for card-carrying Bush bashers: Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy.

But that would be unfair. After all, Lou Cannon voted for Bush in 2000.

However, Cannon believes Bush’s performance has been abysmal, and part of the book is dedicated to making the case that even though he has sought to model his presidency on Reagan, his leadership style and decision-making process in many ways bear scant resemblance to it.

For one thing, Cannon argues, Reagan would not have gone to war in Iraq, which Cannon believes has had the effect of alienating much of America.

“The whole idea of ‘If it’s important enough to do it, then it has to be a national undertaking’ completely eluded George W. Bush,” he said. “This hasn’t really been the country’s war.”

Also, Bush, unlike Reagan, rarely compromises with the other side, he said.

By contrast, Cannon said, Reagan was a practical politician who wasn’t afraid to reach across the aisle, and one who — unlike Bush — surrounded himself with a staff that possessed a healthy diversity of opinion.

Cannon said many people forget that Reagan — who signed the largest tax cut in history — also raised taxes when necessary, and is credited for saving Social Security.

“Yes, he was a conservative and, yes, he was ideological,” he said. “He had a vision, and places he wanted to move the country. But he wasn’t a dead-ender.”

Although Cannon is candid about his presidential picks, his voting history doesn’t shed much light on which party he prefers.

Back in 1980, when the country was swooning over the grandfatherly candidate who would later become the subject of five of Cannon’s acclaimed books, he voted not for the charismatic former California governor and movie star nor for the politically doomed incumbent, President Jimmy Carter. Instead, Cannon backed independent candidate John Anderson, whose name has all but faded from popular memory.

But by 1984, Reagan had impressed Cannon enough to win his vote. Eight years later, Cannon voted for Clinton. By 1996, Clinton fell out of Cannon’s favor and he voted for Sen. Bob Dole.

Four years later, Cannon chose Bush. Then, in 2004, he switched to Sen. John Kerry, who, in Cannon’s mind, was the lesser of two undesirables.

Cannon says he is thankful that this year, he feels he has two strong candidates from which to choose.

In Obama, Cannon sees a potential leader blessed with the rare ability to inspire.

“Not every president needs to be an inspirational president, but I think after the Clinton years — he was kind of a tawdry character — and this sort of catastrophe of the Bush administration, it would be nice to have someone who inspires people,” Cannon said.

In McCain, whom Cannon knows personally, he sees a potential leader who is strong on foreign policy and reform.

Cannon also sees fault in both candidates.

What worries Cannon about Obama is his lack of experience, particularly on foreign policy. Meanwhile, he sees McCain as potentially rash.

“He decides things kind of on personal, episodic grounds,” Cannon said of McCain. “Even when I agree with him, I’m not sure he has thought through his philosophy on a lot of issues, particularly domestic issues.”

In any event, as Nov. 4 draws near, Cannon believes this much: This time, unlike last, he will be casting a vote in favor of a good candidate, not against a bad one.

“Last time I voted against Bush,” he said. “I felt very much that he had let down our country. … This time I’m going to be voting for someone, and I won’t have to be holding my nose.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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