Lunch with the FT: Johnny Apple

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The doyen of political reporters in the US, R.W. “Johnny” Apple, thinks John Kerry has a chance in November. For a reporter from The New York Times, a liberal newspaper, his response seems predictable.

”I didn’t think so before the debates and I still do not consider him the favourite. But I do think he has a chance,” he says.

Covering the presidential campaign will be Apple’s swan song, his last hurrah after more than 30 years as one of the most influential pundits in US politics. And he has agreed to meet at his friend Danny Meyer’s restaurant, the Union Square Cafe, to talk about the trade.

”American politics is quite unhealthy at the moment,” he says.

He should know. He has been pacing the ground in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and the other midwestern swing-states to take the pulse of that part of the country.

The mood was gloomy up until the first debate last month. “You didn’t have to ask Republicans about Kerry to get negative comments. The Democrats were all saying horrid things,” he says.

But Kerry performed well enough on the stump, when he met Bush in Florida, to spark some transformation in the tenor of the campaign. “I think Kerry could win. He looks every inch a commander-in- chief,” Apple says. “Bush did worse than expected in the debate and that’s the kind of evening that changes the dynamic.”

Covering politicians has changed, he says. “People are so much blander. There’s a camera sticking in everybody’s face all the time.” By way of comparison, consider that, according to Apple’s estimates, five reporters covered the Iowa caucuses in 1972; this year the number is closer to a thousand.

Who were his favourite candidates? Apple’s list is short and, with the exception of Bill Clinton, all his picks are dead. Ronald Reagan, “who knew how to chuckle and turn it back against the guy”. Hubert Humphrey, a man who “radiated joy” in Apple’s argot. Lyndon Baines Johnson, a great deal-maker. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who “did it on brains and charm with very little experience at a very young age”. And Clinton.

John McCain, a close friend whom Apple first got to know in Vietnam while covering the war, does not make the list. According to Apple, the rumour circulating earlier this year about a Kerry-McCain ticket was just “slow-day” journalism.

”Although nobody believes it, McCain is a Republican and he’s very loyal. There are those who cynically believe that he’s backing Bush because he wants to run in four years. I doubt that,” he says.

The smartest politicians? Nixon, the foreign-policy expert, he says, and Carter, a bachelor of science who took nuclear engineering classes at the US Naval Academy. But their intelligence - which in Carter’s case was “covered up with Southern molasses” - never amounted to much.

”I wish more people would keep in mind during this campaign that, while it’s true that Bush is less articulate, less well-read, less travelled and, to be blunt about it, less bright than Kerry, it’s not by any means necessarily true that brightness equates to quality in a president.” The formula for success is quite different. “You have to take people and cut them up into little pieces,” he says. “There’s the political skill. There’s the brains. There’s the sense of timing. There’s the ability to understand the possibility of it all.”

One thing Apple still finds extraordinary about presidents is “how good they can be at one thing and how bad they can be at another”. Consider Johnson and Nixon. Johnson’s domestic policy was formidable, while his foreign policy was poor. Nixon suffered from the reverse problem.

I first met Apple four years ago, while working for the Washington bureau of The New York Times. He had a big office at the back, his wardrobe consisted mainly of checked shirts, and he sounded like an announcer at the race track. When his last name popped up on the mailroom telephone’s caller-display, clerks fled - since responding frequently meant fetching cheeseburgers or ice cream. “If I don’t get my ice cream soon, son,” he told one, “I’m going to trade you to The Washington Times.”

He has lost weight since, and chose red grouper when the waiter came to take our order. Apple is in good form, dressed in a blue checked shirt and plaid jacket that don’t match. And he refuses to order dessert, despite an appeal from the waiter. “I couldn’t possibly,” he says.

He gushes about a variety of topics. His cottage in the Cotswolds. How beautiful the sheep there are. Croatian fish. His parents’ chance meeting at a Lutheran college. How delicious his tall, pink cocktail is. How we are in the peak season for tomatoes and corn, so it is better to eat them now rather than later. How he met Ernesto Illy - the Hungarian-German-Italian businessman responsible for the cups we are sipping from. “He tears around Italy wearing running shoes, and he really makes great coffee,” he says.

A month shy of 70, Apple seems tired of travelling the country following politicians. A big concern for him is the “terrifying increase in partisanship”. “Washington has - with very few exceptions - settled down into armed camps,” he says.

So Apple now prefers the high life of good food and wine to getting on cramped campaign planes. “I have eased off to some degree,” he says. “I did the primaries. I do the convention and I do the elections. But no longer is politics my sole or even principal preoccupation.”

He is still gathering bylines around the globe, though. The UK, where he served as the London bureau chief for several years, is a favourite destination. “There are so many aspects of British life that I enjoyed,” he says. “I miss Sunday lunch. I loved watching families sitting around the table, talking it over, teasing each other relentlessly... I miss the capacity of the well-educated Englishman to manage his language.”

Food writing takes up a lot of his time now, and he plans to publish a collection of pieces. He and his wife Betsey have been debating whether to call it Apple’s Appetite or Apple Eats. The book will come out after the imminent publication of Apple’s America, his musings on favourite cities. His own top choice is Chicago, where he is living temporarily to observe his ninth campaign.

”Wonderful broccoli rabe,” he tells the waiter. Intimidated by his flowery descriptions of heirloom tomatoes and silver queen corn, I try to avoid discussing the food in any more detail. “I’m so pedestrian,” I say. “Well, you’re from New Jersey, for Christ’s sake,” he shoots back.

He spends about five minutes discussing Italian wines with the chef - his friend Michael Romano. For white he favours northern wines, while reds he would rather buy in Puglia. “I don’t like wine as an occasional indulgence. I like it as a constant companion.”

Not a bad line for the son of a grocer who grew up in Akron, Ohio, was booted out of Princeton, and got himself fired from The Wall Street Journal, “a ferociously constipated place to work”, for, he says, being irreverent. (He didn’t know what commodities were when he first began covering them.)

At the age of 13, he decided that he would go to work for The New York Times, after reading the paper at the library to get the results for the 1948 Olympics, which were not listed by the Akron Beacon Journal. “When I want to find something out, I’m relentless.” After three days of this ritual, he began noticing the bylines. “Jack Raymond in Belgrade. Osgood Caruthers in Cairo. Albion Ross in Johannesburg,” he lists eagerly, drawing on a near-photographic memory even after that frosty pink cocktail and a glass of white wine. “The names were so fabulous.”

”Well, I figured out what I’m going to do,” he told his mother. “I’m going to be a foreign correspondent for The New York Times.” She had never heard of the publication.

He joined the newspaper 41 years ago, and moved from covering politics in Albany, New York, to serving as bureau chief in Saigon, Lagos, Nairobi, London and Moscow. During that time he covered the Vietnam war, the Iranian revolution and the fall of communism.

Yet he still feels insecure about writing. “I think, ‘Christ, I can’t write this story. I don’t have an idea,’” he says. “I worry that some day someone may wake up and decide this has all been a terrible mistake.”

He is cynical about the future of the newspaper business. “The Des Moines Register, the Milwaukee Journal, the Louisville Courier Journal. Those were terrific papers and they aren’t anymore,” he says. “There’s a lot of dumbing down of the trade. USA Today, which was once sneered at by most journalists, has become one of the most interesting papers in the country.”

Despite his misgivings, Apple still looks at the world with the enthusiasm of a child. Eagerly, he talks about his forthcoming birthday party, which he plans to hold in Paris. Scores of pals will come, including old ones such as Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker writer who has become something of a diarist for Apple since penning a witty profile of him for the New Yorker last year. Trillin- who insists he only follows Apple around on special occasions - plans to write up the party in Gourmet magazine.

After finishing a cup of coffee, Apple leaves, eager, after two hours, to move on to the next activity.

”Please be kind,” he says.

Ellen Kelleher is an FT reporter in New York.

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