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The Unvetted Vetter

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Say this for Sen. Barack Obama: He is a lot quicker in these post-Jeremiah Wright days to walk away from controversy caused him by others. By the time he finished distancing himself from Jim Johnson, his former vice presidential vetter, Johnson must have felt like he was on Mars.

After Johnson was portrayed in the Wall Street Journal as having received favorable treatment from Countrywide Financial Corp., a mortgage company Obama has frequently attacked, the Democratic presidential candidate immediately labeled Johnson as being only "tangentially related to our campaign."

Shifting into overdrive, Obama added that "these aren't folks who are working for me," referring to Johnson and his two associates on the vice presidential vetting team, Caroline Kennedy and Eric Holder.

It was enough to make you wonder if the three had somehow broken into Obama's office, stolen his letterhead stationery and appointed themselves to interview the capital's good and great about who should join Obama on the Democratic ticket.

But that was not all. "First of all, I am not vetting my VP search committee for their mortgages. . . . I would have to hire the vetter to vet the vetters." He was equally dismissive of questions about Holder's role in Bill Clinton's 2001 pardon of financier Marc Rich.

Johnson got the message and yesterday announced his resignation from what I guess had become his non-job.

None of this had anything to do with Obama himself, the candidate argued forcefully. And at one level, he is absolutely right. This so far is only a media scandal, not a matter of law-breaking or obvious moral depravity.

Political capitals have distinctive flavors of media scandal. London periodically seizes on the drama of the seemingly happily married Cabinet secretary who is abruptly outed in the press by a hooker or a gay lover for profit or spite. Paris savors secret bank accounts in Luxembourg or Tokyo that somehow bring politicians and intelligence services together.

The current Washington media scandal usually involves an unseemly event or difficult-to-explain situation that lands its perpetrator in bubbling hot water for a while but is never clearly resolved. Scandal in Washington is something that allows us to talk about others maliciously while maintaining a clear conscience.

Or -- if the subject is Bush & Co. -- a sense of refreshed scandal allows us to state with new vigor the moral superiority and disdain we already feel and have stated over and over. That was the case with Johnson's immediate predecessor in the hot media bubble bath, Scott McClellan, the bumbling ex-press secretary for the Bush White House. McClellan's wide-eyed discovery via a best-selling memoir that he had been used for propaganda purposes by his bosses unleashed the armies of rehash and retribution.

Even if you like and admire the subject -- as many in Washington do with Johnson -- a certain schadenfreude settles over the policy community when the headlines singe but do not destroy a career.

The flap over Johnson's mortgages immediately revived investigative reporters' interest in his having served "on the board of five companies that granted lavish pay packages to their executives -- and often playing a key role in approving them," as the New York Times delicately put it in what appeared to be a warm-up pitch for additional digging.

It also brought new scrutiny to the curious decision by Obama to name Johnson to the job in the first place, given the candidate's fierce vows to transform Washington's insider culture and ways.

Johnson is a consummate political insider who, among other things, vetted vice presidential possibilities for John Kerry and played a key role in helping Walter Mondale settle on Geraldine Ferraro back in 1984 -- without, Johnson later told friends with impressive self-deprecating humor, ever imagining that her husband's business dealings could prove controversial in the campaign.

But what is important here is what this incident says about Obama, not about Johnson. The senator's initial reaction was to portray himself as too busy to keep up with the obscure financial doings of people who are not significant to the campaign and to belittle the media for asking him to "vet the vetters."

To treat Johnson, Holder and Kennedy suddenly as mere fact-checkers is as disingenuous as it is ungracious. Obama is clearly the most intelligent candidate of either party since Bill Clinton. But he can outsmart himself if he goes on expecting the media and the public to accept just about any explanation he gives.

Yes, he can.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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