Friday, Aug. 21, 2009 | Bob Kittle was laid off as editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial page on Aug. 12. His conservative editorial voice had been a San Diego institution since 1986, one both loved and hated. To many, Kittle was the Union-Tribune. He was its public face, its voice in the community.
His own political philosophy came of age while working as Washington, D.C. correspondent for the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and later covering Congress for U.S. News and World Report. He worked there for seven years, covering the 1980 Reagan campaign and, later, the White House. He says his philosophy shifted then and formed the baseline for editorial stances he took at the Union-Tribune, where he started in 1986. He views himself as moderately conservative — opposed to big government but socially progressive.
We sat down with the 56-year-old Dunbar, W. Va., native to talk about his future and the newspaper’s, his feuds, what his detractors say about him, his penchant for bow ties and whether he’ll run for office.
I’m curious how you’ve defined your role in San Diego.
I think the editorial page should be a catalyst for good, strong, honest public discussion of issues. And I think it has been. I think it’s been influential because it’s gone to the core of issues and illuminated them.
My own philosophy is that an editorial has two purposes: To educate and persuade. In that order. You ought to be educated by the editorial, you may not be persuaded. We’re just one more voice in the public debate. We’re there to keep the public focused on the right issues and the important facts of the issue. It’s the editorialist’s job to sort out the facts, analyze things and come up with the right approach to public policy.
One of the criticisms of you has been the idea that you’ve misrepresented facts.
It’s just not true. I saw Donna Frye’s comments (in this story.). The reality is that when they were running for mayor, I invited Donna Frye and Jerry Sanders to come in and meet with the editorial board together.
In that session, Donna, for the first time ever publicly, said she thought the solution to the pension plan problem was a tax increase. She said it. She brought it up. I hammered her in editorials that this was the wrong way to go. She tried to back away from it, tried to say later that it was a last resort, tried to run away from it. But she proposed it. The editorials illuminating her view on raising taxes really sank her campaign. When she walked out of the room, I said, “She just handed the election to Jerry Sanders.” That wasn’t misrepresenting anything.
You wrote an editorial questioning the legality of (former City Attorney) Mike Aguirre’s subordinates giving money to his election campaign. And at the same time, Jim Madaffer, a Republican, had the same issue. But you didn’t write about that.
Someone called me and pointed out this was going on. This person referred me to the city charter, which prohibits it. I called Aguirre, he refused to talk to me. I talked to April Boling, an accountant who handles campaigns, she said she wouldn’t be surprised if others did the same.
But I included a line in the editorial based on my conversation with April that it was unclear whether others had done the same thing. I didn’t know. Aguirre’s view was that state law trumps the charter. Perhaps he’s right. It would’ve been included in the editorial if he’d talked to me.
You’ve been a divisive figure. Anyone in the city who follows politics has an opinion about you. I’m curious what you attribute that to?
If anything, it’s attributable to the influence of the editorial page. If I had no influence, I don’t think anybody would care. I’d be another screeching voice — and there are plenty in San Diego that no one pays attention to.
Have you lost that influence now?
I don’t know. The editorial page provided a forum for expressing a lot of views. I’m trying to move on to a new challenge. I’m not sure what it will be. But what I want to do is find a new position to work for the betterment of San Diego. This is my adopted city. I love this city. I think it has enormous potential it hasn’t lived up to. I hope to have a forum where I can work for the betterment of San Diego.
I hadn’t thought I would ask you this, but just the way you answered that — are you going to run for office?
No. That is absolutely something I would never do. I’m too smart for that.
Did the layoff come as a surprise? Did you see it coming?
It did surprise me, because I didn’t know there was another round of layoffs coming. It concerns me. I have to wonder about the commitment the new owners have to San Diego. For 141 years, this newspaper was owned by a publisher who lived in the community and fought for the betterment of San Diego. John D. Spreckels fought to move San Diego into the 20th century. Jim Copley and his father before him were champions of improving San Diego. Helen Copley carried on that tradition. The editorial page had been used for over a century to fight for a better San Diego. That’s what attracted me to the newspaper.
You didn’t mention David Copley’s name.
David seemed to have had a different agenda. I don’t think David Copley ever felt comfortable as the publisher of the newspaper. It’s not what he wanted in his life, it’s what his mother wanted for him. And so he set out in his own direction.
Do you think the editorial page has kept up with the times in San Diego, the shifting demographics of the city?
Absolutely. The city is much less Republican than it used to be, but it continues to elect Republican mayors, the county elects five Republican supervisors.
The editorial page is an organic, living thing. The editorial board’s views change with everybody else’s. On the issue of gay marriage, 10 years ago most of the country recoiled at the idea. The editorial page would have, too. But as the world changes, the editorial page changes with it. An awful lot of editorials we’ve spent a lot of attention on aren’t left-right issues: the pension problem, the seals.
We were never a hard, ideological page like the Wall Street Journal is perceived to be. We could be unpredictable on a lot of occasions.
What’s the story behind the bow tie?
I was wearing bow ties before I got here, and I just like them. I really was not trying to make a statement, but people made a lot of it, maybe because bow ties were less common in San Diego than in Washington, where I came from. No one seemed to notice in Washington. I gave up long ties many years ago. I just found the bow ties more convenient, I liked them better. Maybe because they were different. But it wasn’t the statement everybody seems to think it was.
How do you perceive its perception?
I just kind of laugh about it. People call me Bow Tie Bob and all that. It becomes something to denigrate me because I wear bow ties. Some people are personal, and nasty, and that’s just life.
A friend sent me an article from Rolling Stone several years ago that said conservatives don’t rebel, they follow the established patterns, they don’t think outside the box, they’re creatures of conformity and the most that a conservative will do is wear a bow tie — a bow tie is the nose ring of a conservative.
Talking about the establishment. When I talked to Aguirre about you, he said: I was anti-establishment, Bob represented the establishment, so our clash was inevitable. You endorsed Aguirre in 2004. Not to rehash what was at times noise, but I’m curious for your perspective about that interplay.
Aguirre is history so I don’t have a whole lot to say about him. We clashed over policy differences and some things that he did that were unscrupulous. Some of his tactics were deplorable.
Curious whether there are stances you took that you regret — other than the Aguirre endorsement. Broaden it out.
There were some. We certainly endorsed candidates who disappointed us. But I often say: The choice isn’t between the perfect candidate and the guy we endorsed, it’s between two imperfect candidates. Even Duke Cunningham, before we learned of his criminality, his opponents weren’t as good as him.
Some people commented on our site that you were the guy who gave us Duke Cunningham.
We endorsed him. But the newspaper and the Washington bureau uncovered his criminal activity. We wrote editorial after editorial urging a full investigation and prosecution, urging that he get a good long sentence, that he not be pardoned when he had the audacity to seek a pardon. The voters gave us Duke Cunningham. We did endorse him, there’s no running from that.
Do you sense a shift in editorial direction and in the politics of the newspaper’s editorial page?It’s hard to tell. What I worry about is a retreat. The disturbing question that has to be asked is: Under new ownership that is not based in San Diego, that’s based in Beverly Hills or in New York, whether there’s a commitment to San Diego.
I worry that for Platinum Equity this is strictly a matter for a New York analyst to look at the numbers, keep making cuts and squeeze the paper down so it turns a profit and then sell it for more than their investment. I worry that the newspaper’s historic commitment to the betterment of San Diego is in retreat. There does have to be a restructuring of the newspaper, there’s no doubt about that.
Is Karin Winner (the newspaper’s editor) the right person to lead that effort forward?
I’m not going to comment on that.