By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Barack Obama, now the media's odds-on favorite to win the White House, is drawing effusive praise from the chattering classes.
"You'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this. . . . This is a huge moment," one commentator wrote.
An unreconstructed liberal? An African American hungering for a racial breakthrough? No, it was David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, and he's got plenty of company on the right.
The media overall are being swept up by a wave of Obamamania, in which normally hard-bitten journalists watch the orator in action and come away dazzled by his gifts. A New York Times piece Saturday compared the Illinois senator to JFK and Martin Luther King in the same paragraph. A Newsweek cover story out yesterday gushed that Obama, "tall and handsome and blessed with a weighty baritone, knows how to bring along a crowd while seeming to stay slightly above it." The journalistic scrutiny usually visited on instant front-runners has been replaced by something akin to a standing ovation.
What's more, the applause extends even to pundits on the right, many of whom routinely denigrate Democratic politicians and yet are strikingly warm toward Obama. There is gratitude, to be sure, that he seems poised to knock off their longtime bete noire, Hillary Clinton -- especially if he wins today's New Hampshire primary -- but also admiration for his inclusive approach to politics and for his sheer talent.
"Who's not proud of this kid?" says Amanda Carpenter, national political reporter for the conservative site Townhall.com. "He has a story people feel good about."
In the wake of Obama's remarks about unity on the night of his Iowa caucus victory Thursday, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman and self-described conservative, called it "one of the most remarkable speeches I've ever seen."
Bill Bennett, the conservative author, said on CNN that it was a "remarkable breakthrough" for "Barack Hussein Obama, a black man," to win in a "rural, white farming state." Rush Limbaugh added his voice on the radio, saying that Obama and Mike Huckabee, the Republican winner in Iowa, "had really uplifting, inspirational speeches."
The Weekly Standard called Obama "the classiest candidate on the Democratic side." Peggy Noonan, the former Ronald Reagan speechwriter, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Obama had won "with a classy campaign, an unruffled manner, and an appeal on the stump that said every day, through the lines: Look at who I am and see me, the change that you desire is right here, move on with me and we will bring it forward together."
What explains these cross-party kudos?
"There's clearly a matter of heart going on here," Bennett says after his morning radio show. "He's a cool guy, a handsome guy, has a fabulous voice. A leading Democratic candidate, a black man in America, and he does not talk about race, does not play the race card. It appeals to the better angels of all our natures."
Scarborough dismisses the notion that some conservatives are talking up Obama in the belief that he would be a weak general-election opponent. "I get e-mails from Republicans, who've never voted for a Democrat before, saying they were tearing up during his Iowa speech," he says from New Hampshire. "I don't think they're being calculated and cynical. This is so damn great for America."
The story line -- "a biracial kid with an absentee father whose improbable path carried him from Hawaii to Indonesia to Chicago to Washington," as Newsweek put it -- has a movie-of-the-week quality for news outlets. The New York Post's headline screamer yesterday, over a picture of Clinton, was "PANIC." By contrast, the Boston Herald's front page blared: "BARACK STAR."
Few liberal columnists are shedding tears over the difficulties of Clinton, who has no natural cheering section in the press. And African American writers -- The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson wrote that Obama's speech gave him "goose bumps" -- are understandably excited.
Not all conservatives have hitched a ride on the Barackwagon. "There's a lot about the Obama movement I find offensive," says National Review Editor Rich Lowry, who predicted two months ago that his campaign was going "nowhere." "There's a messianism -- 'I embody change' -- that if a Christian conservative was saying those things, people would be scared."
But even as a "self-absorbed" Obama spouts "airy cliches," Lowry says, he found himself standing on tiptoe at a recent Obama speech. "It's really something magical," he says. "You're almost not an American if you don't feel stirred by what his victory would represent symbolically. Here's a guy who 50 years ago couldn't have gone in certain restrooms and motels."
Obama's conciliatory tone may also be a factor. He speaks of transcending red and blue states with a coalition that includes Republicans and independents, while Clinton, who has been hammered by the right since her husband's 1992 campaign, boasts about battling the "Republican attack machine."
Some major conservative voices have paid only fleeting attention to Obama -- Fox's Bill O'Reilly says he "ran an excellent campaign in Iowa" and is "very charismatic" -- because they are more engaged in relishing Clinton's defeat. The Standard's cover story this week, with a shot of Bill and Hillary, is "The Fall of the House of Clinton." But that means Obama has been spared, at least for now, the kind of frontal assault that might otherwise greet a surging liberal Democrat.
For some conservative commentators, Obama, 46, embodies the turning of a different kind of page, as the candidate himself has argued. In an Atlantic cover story last month, right-leaning blogger Andrew Sullivan called Obama's candidacy "a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America -- finally -- past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the baby boom generation that has long engulfed all of us."
Even Huckabee, in ABC's Republican debate Saturday, acknowledged: "We have to recognize that what Senator Obama has done is touch at the core of something Americans want. . . . He has excited a lot of voters in this country. Let's pay respect for that."
Many journalists have a personal fondness for John McCain, who holds a narrow lead in the polls for New Hampshire's Republican primary, based on his round-the-clock accessibility going back to their rides on the Straight Talk Express in 1999 and 2000. Obama has few such relationships with national reporters, who are more in the role of passive observers of a stellar performer.
Politico columnist Roger Simon, in New Hampshire last weekend, contrasted "a compelling, almost mesmerizing, speech" by Obama, who offered few specifics, with an event in which "Clinton talked about issue after issue in almost mind-numbing detail" while part of the audience filtered out.
If Obama becomes the Democratic nominee, the conservative media are not likely to urge his election by acclamation. There will be plenty of emphasis on his liberal positions and, in an echo of Clinton's criticism, his lack of national experience.
"This is a guy probably to the left of Hillary," Bennett says.
"Do I think he's right on the issues? No," Carpenter says. "But there's a perception you can work with him."
Lowry sees Obama as an elusive target: "No one's really got anything on him because he hasn't really done anything yet. He doesn't have any battle scars. You can blast Obama for what I'd consider an outrageous left-wing statement and it just doesn't get conservatives charged up the way blasting Hillary does."