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As Obama Aide, Reporter Dons Flack Jacket

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- As Barack Obama started fielding questions at a hospital here last week, Linda Douglass stood off to the left, scribbling in a reporter's notebook, as she has in every presidential campaign since 1980.

It wasn't until 20 minutes later, when she shouted, "Last question!" that her former colleagues were reminded of her new role as a traveling spokeswoman who will be the public face -- a female face in this post-Hillary period -- of the campaign.

After three decades as a television correspondent, Douglass is now on the inside -- but still not getting all the answers. She recalls Obama telling her that he would not talk to her, let alone the outside world, about the vice-presidential selection process, saying: "We're locking it down, we're buttoning it up."

Which is fine with Douglass: "That was so the people who are trying to claw me every day won't get anything. I expect to be kept in the dark."

Douglass, 60, who did her share of clawing while working for ABC and CBS, may be the highest-profile TV reporter to jump into presidential politics since NBC's Ron Nessen became Gerald Ford's White House press secretary in 1974. In the modern era of sound-bite warfare, campaign spokesmen tend to be political operatives or, in a few cases, former media commentators, such as Tony Snow, President Bush's third press secretary.

Given her background, is Douglass, who covered John McCain's 2000 campaign, prepared to slam the presumed Republican nominee?

"I do like McCain and the people around him, and I consider him still to be a friend," she says. "But I have fundamental differences with John McCain on the issues and always have. I don't have any problem criticizing John McCain."

Describing her disagreements with the Arizona senator -- on the Iraq war, health care and the Bush tax cuts -- Douglass says: "It was no secret to the reporters around me that I have Democratic-leaning views. But they said I was always fair."

Douglass lives in Georgetown with her husband, lawyer John Phillips. He is an Obama donor, but it was she who was first intrigued by the freshman lawmaker in 2005, when she was covering the Senate for ABC. "I'd come home and say, 'This guy is really impressive. He's got an unusually calm demeanor. He's very smart and strikes me as someone with good judgment.' "

Douglass briefly offered Obama some debate advice in early 2007, while she was teaching at Harvard but before she joined National Journal. It wasn't until a 45-minute job interview with Obama last month that she decided to leave journalism for good.

"The thing that really made me feel at peace with the decision is this conversation we had about telling the truth," she says. "He wants me to tell the truth. Coming from a background in journalism as opposed to PR, that was really the thing I wanted to hear."

At first, "I was afraid I'd slip into on-one-hand/on-the-other-hand mode. I think reporters are constantly struggling with themselves to suppress their own opinions." Because she believes in Obama's message, Douglass says, "for me this is really liberating."

Douglass consulted Mike McCurry, a White House press secretary for Bill Clinton, for advice. "He told me," she said, "that you really have to dump your own opinions out of your head" to properly spout the candidate's views.

McCurry likens the switch to a film critic who is handed a camera and told to make a movie. "She wants to do it in a different way from the spinners of the past," he says. "She wants to get away from the rat-a-tat-tat back-and-forth and keep focused on what journalists need to get the job done."

GOP strategist Dan Schnur, a spokesman for McCain's 2000 campaign, says that Douglass was known for being fair but that the transition may be difficult. "The more us communication types are trained in spin, the more different we become from the reporters who are covering our candidates," he says.

Obama's closest confidant, David Axelrod, says Douglass is already an asset. "She's very fluent in national issues," he says. "Obviously she understands network television from the inside out."

During the long slog through the primaries, Obama earned a reputation for keeping the press at a distance and still holds a news conference only once a week -- compared with McCain's near-daily interaction with reporters -- although the Democrat sometimes takes questions on the fly. "He likes to talk to reporters; he told me that," Douglass says. "He's going to be plenty accessible."

Obama is still feeling his way with the national media. He has hesitated to agree to an Associated Press proposal for a "body watch" -- a pool of reporters who shadow him at all times, even when he is on vacation -- in part out of concern for his daughters' privacy.

The Illinois senator may have unrealistic expectations about news management. In telling reporters on his plane that he would no longer discuss his search for a running mate, he said that if they heard "secondhand accounts, rumors, gossip about this election process, you can take it from me that it is wrong." Of course, details usually leak out, and they are sometimes accurate.

With Hillary Clinton's withdrawal, the campaign entered a new phase last week. Gone are the brutal, eight-stop days that exhausted both the candidate and his press corps. The new schedule is one or two events a day, perhaps a fundraiser, and selected interviews.

The media intensity has faded a bit as well. With news organizations having obliterated their budgets covering the nonstop Democratic primary, NBC's Lee Cowan was the only television correspondent on last week's Obama swing through North Carolina and Missouri, and reporters for just four newspapers -- the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune -- tagged along.

Douglass's first television appearance as a newly minted flack took place on her old network, ABC, the morning after Obama clinched the nomination. The campaign plane had landed at 3 a.m. in Chicago, where Douglass has taken an apartment next door to campaign headquarters, and she was the leadoff interview on "Good Morning America."

After saying, "All right, Linda, the niceties are over," anchor Chris Cuomo asked whether Obama might pick Clinton or another woman as his running mate. Douglass deflected the question -- "There is no short list, there is no long list" -- and pivoted to her talking points, ticking off "the very sharp contrasts" with McCain in "health care and whether the tax cuts go to the rich, as John McCain wants, or to the middle class, as Barack Obama wants, and getting out of Iraq."

Behind the scenes, Douglass tries to dig out answers to reporters' questions. "I bug everyone all day. I'm driving our staff crazy," she says. She also preps Obama for interviews and news conferences, such as Tuesday's session in St. Louis, when she and Axelrod helped him craft a response to McCain's attack on his tax policy hours earlier.

But there are limits to Douglass's clout, as she learned when she twice tried to end the news conference and Obama didn't stop taking questions.

"If he wants to keep talking, he'll keep talking," she says.

A Clintonite's Choice

Fox News's newest contributor, to be announced today, may surprise the liberal crowd: former Clinton White House lawyer Lanny Davis.

"Fox has always treated me with respect and given me a chance to express my point of view," Davis says of the network that the Democratic candidates refused to grant a debate out of concern that it favors Republicans. He will be a frequent guest, along with such Fox stalwarts as Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich.

A relentless surrogate for Hillary Clinton, Davis says, he felt "ganged up on" during appearances on the other cable channels. He says that Clinton was "demonized" by MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, and that CNN's primary-night panels were tilted toward the Obama side.

"Does Fox have a conservative slant on some of their programs? Yes," Davis says. "They're giving me a chance to provide a counterpoint, and that's all I can ask."

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

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