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Wardrobe Wars

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008 8:31 AM

Drudge strikes again.

It's been all the rage online, a photo of Barack Obama dressed as a Somali elder during a visit to Kenya.

The headline: "Clinton Staffers Circulate 'Dressed' Obama."

Matt Drudge says he "obtained" an e-mail in which a Clinton campaign staffer asked: "Wouldn't we be seeing this on the cover of every magazine if it were HRC?"

So what is the take-away supposed to be? That Obama looks like an African tribesman? That the man with a Kenyan father isn't truly a red-blooded American? Politicos traveling abroad do this all the time.

Or is the message that the Hillary camp is so desperate it's using Drudge to slime Barack?

I think this is a tempest in a turban. I doubt it will hurt Obama in the slightest. And while some Clinton staffer might have peddled it, Hillary Clinton herself pooh-poohed the matter, saying she's done the same thing many times. (Still, the image was all over TV.)

Given the tightness of the race, in the wake of Hillary's "Shame on you, Barack Obama" speech, both sides were quick to react. Obama's David Plouffe:

"On the very day that Senator Clinton is giving a speech about restoring respect for America in the world, her campaign has engaged in the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we've seen from either party in this election. This is part of a disturbing pattern that led her county chairs to resign in Iowa, her campaign chairman to resign in New Hampshire, and it's exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties and diminishes respect for America in the world."

Hillary's Maggie Williams: "Enough. If Barack Obama's campaign wants to suggest that a photo of him wearing traditional Somali clothing is divisive, they should be ashamed. Hillary Clinton has worn the traditional clothing of countries she has visited and had those photos published widely. This is nothing more than an obvious and transparent attempt to distract from the serious issues confronting our country."

A good, strong statement--but not a denial.

The blog Sweetness & Light had earlier noted that the photo was posted on the conservative Free Republic site, picked up from the tabloid National Examiner, which used the false and bogus headline "Obama's Shocking Al Qaeda Link." (A previous National Examiner cover: "Bush Marriage Over! Laura Erupts After Drinking Binge.")

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder seems to view the flap as childish:

"We're at the stage of the campaign where both campaigns lose perspective and are willing to believe the absolute worst about each other on the basis of an assertion. And that Manichean perspective then cause said campaign to imputing the absolute worst motivations to their opponents. That's not how human beings work, but such psychological blind spots can be forgiven, I guess . . . Spending eight months locked in mortal combat will do that.

"Anyway, the Clinton campaign believes that the Obama campaign is cynically exploiting the Drudge fetish that news producers have in order to step on her big foreign policy speech today, and the Obama campaign believes that the Clinton campaign is actually sending out a funny-looking photo of Obama.

"Such charges are aided and abetted by stories like this one [by Politico], which uncritically accepts the premise of the photo and its origin.

"Could some dumb Clinton ally have sent the photo to Matt Drudge? Sure. Does that mean the campaign authorized its sending? Why would Matt Drudge be the recipient of such an oppo dump -- whatever the oppo dumb was supposed to signify."

By the way, the Clinton camp is increasingly going public with its complaints about the media. Spokesman Howard Wolfson said yesterday: "I think it is true that every time the Obama campaign in this campaign has attacked Senator Clinton in the worst kind of personal ways, attacked her veracity, attacked her credibility, said that she would say or do anything to get elected, the press has largely applauded him. When we have attempted to make contrasts with Senator Obama, we have been criticized for it."

Meanwhile, Politico says he "is establishing himself as the candidate who keeps the most distance from the national media," a description that matches my experience when traveling with the Obama campaign.

Poll time: Obama "has made substantial gains across most major demographic groups in the Democratic Party, including men and women, liberals and moderates, higher- and lower-income voters, and those with and without college degrees," says CBS/NYT. But while Democrats view Obama as best able to beat McCain, "Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is still viewed by more Democrats as better prepared for the job of president."

A USA Today poll says seven in 10 Dems expect Obama to be the nominee.

I'm not a fan of journalists suggesting that candidates bow out--why can't we just wait for the voters?--but Newsweek's Jonathan Alter does exactly that:

"If Hillary Clinton wanted a graceful exit, she'd drop out now--before the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries--and endorse Barack Obama. . . . [T]o withdraw this week would be the best thing imaginable for Hillary's political career. She won't, of course, and for reasons that help explain why she's in so much trouble in the first place. Withdrawing would be stupid if Hillary had a reasonable chance to win the nomination, but she doesn't."

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reports, her campaign is making it more explicit than ever:

"While the campaign is still confident that the senator can capture the nomination, 'if we lose in Texas and Ohio, Mrs. Clinton will have to make her decision as to whether she goes forward or not,' political adviser Harold Ickes told reporters at a breakfast meeting."

Campaigns almost always avoid this kind of talk, leading me to conclude that the Clintonites are trying to rally their supporters with this do-or-die line.

Should the New York Times make an off-lead story out of fears that Barack Obama might be assassinated? Obviously there are concerns, but trumpeting them this way--and mentioning RFK and MLK high up--makes me pretty uncomfortable.

At Captain's Quarters, Ed Morrissey is not pleased:

"Why does the Times, and other media outlets, even make this an issue? Will talking about this make Obama or anyone else one whit safer? Of course not. The Times makes it worse by releasing Obama's Secret Service code name, which has usually been considered confidential. Karl Rove recently refused to reveal his, and he no longer has Secret Service protection."

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, often mentioned as a John McCain veep pick, calls himself a "right-wing nut" in this Byron York piece:

"John McCain faces a dilemma when it comes to choosing a vice president. He needs a running mate who will be a contrast to him in a few key ways -- younger, more knowledgeable about economic issues, and, especially, more conservative. But if McCain selects a running mate whose conservative credentials are beyond dispute, he'll be choosing a candidate who likely disagrees with him on some issues of great importance to the Republican base."

Fred Barnes concedes that the GOP is in disarray--but finds reason for optimism:

"In 2008, the parties have reversed roles. You merely have to watch a Democratic presidential debate to realize Democrats are now the consensus party. On everything that matters--Iraq, taxes, immigration, health care, the war on terrorism--Democrats basically agree. Their debates sound like an echo chamber.

"In contrast, Republicans have become a party of squabbling ideological groups that John McCain must bring together if he is to win the presidency this fall. With McCain as their nominee--one with whom many conservatives have disagreements-- Republicans have become the coalition party.

"Oddly enough, this role reversal may help Republicans retain the White House in a year that, by most political yardsticks, favors Democrats. With McCain, Republicans have a presidential candidate less vulnerable to Democratic attacks than the Democratic nominee, especially if it's Barack Obama, is to Republican criticism."

One by one, commentators and bloggers are writing their Hillary obits. Andrew Sullivan, not surprisingly, is pretty harsh:

"We've learned something important these past couple of weeks. Clinton is a terrible manager of people. Coming into a campaign she had been planning for, what, two decades, she was so not ready on Day One, or even Day 300. Her White House, if we can glean anything from the campaign, would be a secretive nest of well-fed yes-people, an uncontrollable egomaniac spouse able and willing to bigfoot anyone if he wants to, a phalanx of flunkies who cannot tell the boss when things are wrong, and a drizzle of dreary hacks like Mark Penn. Her only genuine skill is pivoting off the Limbaugh machine (which is now as played out as its enemies). Her new weapon is apparently bursting into tears. I mean: really.

"It's staggering to me that she blew through so much money for close to nothing (apart from the donuts). Without that media meltdown in New Hampshire, she would have been forced to bow out much earlier. She didn't plan for contests after Super Tuesday. She barely planned for any before that. She was out-organized in Iowa and South Carolina, and engaged in the pettiest form of politics in Florida and Michigan. Her fundraising operation was very pre-Internet. She has no message that isn't about her and the Republicans. Her trump card -- Bill -- managed to foment a 27 point loss in South Carolina. The Clintons, we can now safely say, got lazy."

Looking ahead to fall, Time's Mark Halperin compiles a list of ways McCain can beat Obama that Hillary could not:

"1. Play the national security card without hesitation.

"2. Talk about the Iraq War without apologies or perceived contradiction.

"3. Go at Obama unambiguously from the right.

"4. Encourage interest groups, bloggers, and right-leaning media to explore Obama's past.

"5. Make an issue of Obama's acknowledged drug use.

"6. Allow some supporters to risk being accused of using the race card when criticizing Obama.

"7. Exploit Michelle Obama's mistakes and address her controversial remarks with unrestricted censure.

"8. Play dirty without alienating his party."

Speaking of McCain, Politico has a good roundup of liberal bloggers-- Greg Sargent, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and others -- who put aside partisanship and criticized the NYT "affair" story.

Some of the papers that refused to run the story off the NYT wire are explaining themselves, Romenesko reports. The Tacoma News Tribune:

"We believe McCain's record and his relationship with lobbyists is a legitimate issue for coverage. But we thought raising the issue of a romantic relationship with a lobbyist required a level of proof and transparency that the New York Times story failed to provide."

Cleveland Plain Dealer: "The story offered up unsubstantiated innuendo about the relationship between McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman, pegged to anonymous former McCain staffers and vigorously denied by McCain and Iseman. The lobbyist 'news' was eight years old, wrapped around background information that was even older, in a 75-inch story." The paper ran the Washington Post account (which had no reference to romance) instead, but "that still did not satisfy the angry readers who called Thursday, arguing that by reporting it at all, The Plain Dealer was giving it credence."

McCain's war versus the Times aside, American Prospect's Ezra Klein floats an interesting theory on the warm relations between the senator and the media:

"There are a lot of dimensions to the press's adoration of McCain, but this is a significant one: The qualities we most admire in others are those we don't have, or fear we don't have, in ourselves. The press isn't impressed by smart, cerebral candidates because the press is full of smart, cerebral, people, who sort of believe they are smarter and more cerebral than the politicians they cover. There's almost a resentment there, and it comes out in the reporting which often tries to show that the reporter is smarter because they can take down the candidate. They can win the debate, poke flaws in the argument, identify inconsistencies.

"What very few (male) reporters feel comfortable with is their personal physical courage. Their ability to fare well in a bar fight, or make a credible threat to someone stalking their wife, or endure five years of torture in a Vietnamese prison camp. McCain has something that they don't understand, and that they want. And it's one reason they like him. Because not only does he possess those qualities, but he also appears to like them. And that validation from a tough guy is reassuring. Add in that they've not had any reason to go after him -- it's always easier to like a scrappy insurgent -- and you've got a recipe for a pretty adulatory relationship. The question is what happens now, when he's the nominee, and they have to go after him, and he stops liking them, and some of that angry toughness is turned against their friends."

That is the question, and we just got a little taste of it, with McCain's letter decrying the "liberal attack machine."

An online CNN poll on Obama's patriotism makes Americablog's John Aravosis blow a gasket:

"This is unforgivable. Questioning Senator Obama's patriotism? Why does CNN feel comfortable questioning Obama's patriotism? You don't see CNN questioning John McCain's patriotism, even though he let our troops down in Iraq and Afghanistan for years while they fought with insufficient manpower and equipment and VA benefits. I doubt CNN is going to be doing a poll about whether John McCain is crazy."

I hate online polls, and this one is an embarrassment.

Dick Polman weighs in on Nader Redux:

"In the apparent belief that he has not sufficiently damaged his own legacy, Ralph Nader now seems determined to wield the wrecking ball one more time. Having told himself - and the nation, on Meet the Press - that Americans are clamoring for a third-party candidate in 2008, Nader has decided to offer himself as the purist alternative. Even though, as Gallup makes clear, there is little empirical evidence that Americans are clamoring for a third-party candidate in 2008. Nader is the living embodiment of the Karl Marx dictum that 'history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.' "

I always thought that NYT columnists got to write whatever they wanted as long as they didn't break grammatical rules. But Paul Krugman reveals otherwise:

"I'm almost never censored at the Times. However, I was told that I couldn't use the lede I originally wrote for my column following the 2007 State of the Union address, in which Bush made ethanol the centerpiece of his energy strategy: 'Before the State of the Union address, there had been hints and hopes that President Bush would offer a serious plan to reduce our dependence on imported oil. Instead, however, he took refuge in alcohol.' "

Well, it does have an unmistakable double meaning.

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