Primary Storm Took Wind Out of An Electric Event

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A political earthquake struck on cue last night, as a previously obscure politician shoved aside Hillary Clinton and became the first African American to capture a major-party nomination for president.

But we've been tracking the tremors for so long that the ground felt like it already had shifted.

"The drama has drained out of it," says Walter Shapiro, Salon's Washington bureau chief. "I've been writing these pieces so long that I've started doing Nexis searches on my own sentences to make sure I'm not plagiarizing something on Hillary getting out of the race."

Barack Obama's victory may be historic, but even some black commentators have tired of the endless denouement. Callie Crossley, for example, is a Harvard media analyst, but "as a normal person, I think, 'Oh my God, I'm so sick of it I can hardly stand it.' And then I chastise myself." She says she clicks off any television story about delegate numbers.

"We're not even limping," Crossley says, "we're just dragging across the finish line, and everyone says, 'Oh, okay, whatever.' It feels redundant."

That's the thing about today's prediction-driven media culture: If a thousand pundits declare that Hillary is toast, then by the time she is charred around the edges it hardly seems like news. We've seen too many cable debates, newspaper analyses and blog postings about why Clinton won't drop out and whether she'll join the ticket to believe the outcome could be any different. After all, why would Time and Newsweek keep putting Obama on the cover if he weren't the unofficial nominee?

"The fact is," says CBS correspondent Jim Axelrod, "Obama has had this virtually insurmountable delegate lead for some time. That's what took the suspense away. When people get two or three days to let the whole thing sink in, they'll say, 'My God, this is huge.' "

Still, caution reigns in some quarters.

"I won't believe it till Denver," says Chuck Todd, NBC's political director, referring to the Democratic convention in August. Reached on a plane awaiting takeoff to New York for last night's show-closing Montana and South Dakota contests, he says: "The last three primary nights have been the definition of deja vu all over again. Pretty much since Texas, you kind of knew that this thing might be on its way to being over, but we kept reporting on it every week."

Trained in the art of wringing excitement from routine storms billed as "extreme weather," media outlets were pumping up the countdown: Would Obama sew up the required 2,118 delegates by last night's evening news? By the time the polls closed in Aberdeen and Butte? Or would he have to wait till this morning or even -- in a deflating development -- this afternoon ?

The thing briefly seemed over at 11:08 yesterday morning when the Associated Press, in an "urgent" report, cited two senior Clinton officials as saying that the New York senator "will concede" in her evening speech that Obama has the delegates for the nomination. "Clinton Acknowledges Reality," said a banner headline on Time.com's The Page.

But at 11:17, Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe called CNN to declare the report "100 percent incorrect," insisting that "the race goes on." Harold Ickes phoned MSNBC with the same knockdown moments later.

By 2:13 p.m. the AP was saying that Obama had "effectively clinched" the nomination, based on interviews with superdelegates who had not yet publicly announced their preference. But the news was more incremental on MSNBC, where anchor Monica Novotny announced half an hour later: "Senator Obama has picked up a superdelegate, so now he's at 27.5" needed for victory.

The jig seemed up by the 6:30 newscasts. ABC's Charlie Gibson said his network projected that Obama "will have the votes needed for the nomination," with reports on how he won and how she lost. The other anchors were more tentative. CBS's Katie Couric said it "now appears" Obama would win it that night, and NBC's Brian Williams said Obama would have the numbers "very soon."

An hour later, CNN put up a "Breaking News" banner: "Obama Needs 7 Delegates to Clinch Nomination." By 8 p.m., it was 5 delegates.

At the stroke of 9, as the polls closed in South Dakota, MSNBC and CNN made a great show of declaring Obama the Democratic nominee, even though, paradoxically, they deemed the state too close to call. The talk immediately turned to race, to the legacy of Jim Crow discrimination and Martin Luther King Jr., to the night's historic nature. Fox News stuck with a John McCain speech while the others broke away, and made no declaration afterward as Karl Rove and Chris Wallace analyzed the speech.

Despite the daylong talk that she might concede, Clinton, in her speech, said she had not decided what to do. She thanked the voters for hanging in "even when the pundits and the naysayers proclaimed week after week that this race was over" -- ignoring the fact that the selfsame pundits had just declared it over for good. And they seemed puzzled afterward by what MSNBC's Chris Matthews called the "surreal" moment. By then, Fox had agreed that Obama had wrapped it up.

The cable talkers were consumed by reports that Clinton had told New York lawmakers she would consider the No. 2 slot, although campaign spokesman Jay Carson says she merely offered to do whatever it takes to help the party. But the door was clearly left ajar. "Why do it today?" asked Fox News anchor Shepard Smith. "Why, on Barack Obama's day, steal his thunder?"

The contest dragged on through parts of three calendar years. The mainstream media always took Obama seriously, but it's easy to forget how unlikely it seemed that he could topple the former first lady in October 2006, when the freshman senator said on "Meet the Press" that he might drop his previous denials and make a White House run.

The New York Times said then that Obama's decision "would pose a major complication" to Clinton, "who is widely viewed as the dominant figure" in the field. "Having served just two years in the Senate and seven in the Illinois state Senate, Obama has a thin résumé upon which to build a presidential candidacy," said The Washington Post. On the "CBS Evening News," Gloria Borger asked: "Is it really time for Obama to run, or is it too far, too fast?"

In fact, Times columnist Bob Herbert said he would advise Obama to wait because with "a few more years in the Senate . . . he could build a formidable record." But the week before, Time had the audacity to put the Illinois senator on the cover with the headline "Why Barack Obama Could Be Our Next President."

At the moment, the endgame may be predictable, but its chroniclers say it still has entertainment value. "We have never seen the Clintons lose anything big before and the atmosphere may be fascinating in its own right, even if the outcome is foreordained," Shapiro says.

What next? Some journalists say they will immediately plunge into veepstakes handicapping and general-election coverage of Obama and John McCain. Others expect to take it easier, figuring that much of the public will tune out until the conventions.

And then there are those who sound almost wistful. "Who needs a breather?" says Lynn Sweet, the Chicago Sun-Times' Washington bureau chief, who first was given a copy of Obama's autobiography by an aide to the Chicago Democrat when he was seeking a House seat in 1999. She put it aside for four years.

"I know it sounds a little hokey, but I feel blessed to be in a position to record this history," Sweet says of covering her home-state candidate. "I feel like I'm on a journey."

NBC's Todd has mixed feelings. "I think we're all going to miss it," he says. "But I won't miss being on the Delta shuttle."

It wasn't hard to detect a note of relief in the voices of some road warriors.

"I'm on fumes," says CBS's Axelrod, who has been following Clinton around the country. "I looked my wife square in the eye and promised, 'Honey, I'll be home February 6th.' Now it's June. She's still waiting."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company