Anchoring Obama's Trip

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008 9:45 AM

Barack Obama's upcoming swing through Europe and the Middle East is now guaranteed to be a major media event, certified by the presence of the three network anchors.

The Washington Post has learned that Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric will travel overseas next week, lured by the prospect of interviews with the presumed Democratic candidate. That means the NBC, ABC and CBS newscasts will originate from stops on the trip and undoubtedly play it up.

Sources in both television and politics confirmed that the Williams, Gibson and Couric interviews will be parceled out on successive nights in different countries. That means the Obama camp will have drawn the anchors halfway around the world by offering access. (Correspondents could have done the interviews instead, but a certain competitiveness sets in once one or two anchors agree to go.) The Post is withholding the scheduled locations for the interviews for security reasons.

Obama has been quite adept at working the media. He is on the cover of this week's Newsweek, again, after star turns on Us Weekly, "Access Hollywood" (with kids) and, not so happily, the New Yorker. And the contrast with the coverage of John McCain's campaign has been striking.

When McCain, in March, visited Britain, France and Israel and met with their leaders, no network anchors tagged along. NBC and ABC sent correspondents; CBS did not. McCain's trip to Colombia and Mexico two weeks ago was barely covered, although NBC and ABC sent correspondents.

The Obama trip was already likely to dominate the news. (We're starting to see headlines like this one in the L.A. Times: "Europe Awaits Obama with Open Arms.") With Brian, Charlie and Katie along, it's a slam dunk.

On to the war debate: Iraq and Afghanistan may have faded from the media radar screen, but with Americans still fighting and dying in both places, both are going to factor into what is ultimately a commander-in-chief decision.

Obama has had quite the rollout on Iraq this week. A NYT op-ed Monday, a speech and sitdowns with Larry King and Gwen Ifill yesterday. There was a time, say a year ago, when Iraq was considered a slam-dunk for the Democratic nominee. One surge later, that has changed. Yesterday's WP poll found that on Iraq policy, "Americans continue to side with Obama and McCain, his Republican rival, in roughly equal numbers, with 47 percent of those polled saying they trust McCain more to handle the war, and 45 percent having more faith in Obama." (It doesn't surprise me that McCain holds a 72-48 edge on who would be a good commander-in-chief: He's a war hero, and Obama is a newcomer with no military experience.)

My sense is that a majority of the public still wants out of Iraq, but faced with the reality of a post-Bush pullout, is nervous about how that would be accomplished and whether the country would become a terrorist haven. It's front and center in the campaign right now, and should be.

The Daily News notes that "Barack Obama's campaign scrubbed his presidential Web site over the weekend to remove criticism of the U.S. troop 'surge' in Iraq."

After yesterday's dueling speeches, the media focus to some extent is on McCain.

"Unveiling a new strategy on Afghanistan," says USA Today, "John McCain called for sending thousands more troops there as he clashed with Barack Obama about their divergent foreign policy visions . . .

"McCain has not previously advocated sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. When a reporter asked June 30 whether the United States had enough resources to fight a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda, McCain said yes."

Baltimore Sun: "One day after his Democratic rival proposed an escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Republican presidential candidate John McCain called for a surge of as many as 15,000 troops to address the deteriorating security situation there."

Boston Globe: "McCain, who earlier in the campaign suggested using more NATO and Afghan forces to fight the resurgent Taliban, said for the first time that he would support sending about 15,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while not specifying how many would come from the United States."

Well, I spoke too soon. The NYT leads with Barack, with McCain in the third graf:

"Senator Barack Obama said on Tuesday that the addition of tens of thousands of combat troops to Iraq last year had significantly reduced violence in the country. But he said that positive developments there had not changed his mind about the need to pull troops from Iraq so America could focus more on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan."

The Wall Street Journal also leads off with Obama:

"After a week of fending off Republican attacks on his Iraq-war position, Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday struck back.

"The Democratic presidential contender said the U.S. was pursuing a 'single-minded' foreign policy that has neglected the war against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups."

In National Review, Rich Lowry argues that Obama is ignoring reality:

"At some point, Democrats decided that facts didn't matter anymore in Iraq. And they nominated just the man to reflect the party's new anti-factual consensus on the war, a Barack Obama who has fixedly ignored changing conditions on the ground. It's gotten harder as the success of the surge has become undeniable, but -- despite some wobbles -- Obama is sticking to his plan for a 16-month timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. He musters dishonesty, evasion and straw-grasping to try to create a patina of respectability around a scandalously unserious position . . .

"Now that the civil war has all but ended, he wants to claim retroactive clairvoyance. In a New York Times op-ed laying out his position, Obama credits the heroism of our troops and new tactics with bringing down the violence. Our troops have always been heroic; what made the difference was the surge strategy that Obama lacked the military judgment -- or political courage -- to support . . .

"Politically, Obama has to notionally support defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq, so even after he's executed his 16-month withdrawal, he says there will be a 'residual force' of American troops to take on 'remnants of al-Qaida.' How can he be so sure there will only be 'remnants'? If there are, it will be because the surge Obama opposed has pushed al-Qaeda to the brink."

Power Line compiles interviews in which Obama said the surge wouldn't work.

Josh Marshall says the big news is the Republican's shift:

"Is everybody missing this? That McCain is now trying to catch up to Obama on Afghanistan? In fact, he's now adopting Obama's position.

"Obama has been saying for almost a year that more troops are needed in Afghanistan. McCain has said that wasn't the case, that Iraq was the central battleground in the war on terror. Moreover, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says that we need more troops in Afghanistan but we none are available unless we pull substantial numbers out of Iraq -- which McCain is ruling out.

"So let's all say it out loud: McCain is now copying Obama's position on Afghanistan."

To the New Republic, Senator O's alleged flip-flop is a creation of . . . the media:

"Yes, it's stop-the-presses enormous: Barack Obama has affirmed a position that he has held for months. Granted, the press was right to notice that Obama had shifted the accent in his Iraq talk -- no doubt marketing himself to a broader audience. But the fine print of his pronouncements and policy papers has always contained nuances and caveats, reasons why he might slow down a pullout and keep troops in Iraq over a longer horizon . . .

"That flip-flopping has become the most damning accusation against a politician speaks to the poverty of the political process. Here's how the system currently works: As candidates prepare to enter the race, they devise a foreign policy platform. Then, for the next two years, they must resolutely defend that platform. Any deviation from their original position papers will be treated by their opponents -- and, in turn, by the press -- as a deep character flaw, evidence that a candidate will do whatever it takes to win the presidency . . .

"And, while Obama has clearly reframed his Iraq position with an eye toward November, he also has good substantive reasons for backing away from some of his past rhetoric. The improvements within Iraq are real. Although they may not presage a liberal democracy or justify the permanent presence of our troops, Obama would be a fool if he didn't take these new trends into account. The dynamic within Iraq has changed since he initially conceived his policy during the bloodiest days of sectarian warfare. And there's certainly no reason why he should be rewarded for continuing to argue his Iraq stance as if nothing is different."

But the New Republic fails to convince . . . John Judis, of the New Republic:

"I'll take the side of the much-despised media on this question. If you look at Obama's statement in Fargo, there are two things that stand out: first, Obama has stepped away from an absolute timeline for withdrawal; but secondly -- and this is the key consideration -- he makes withdrawal contingent on Iraq being 'stable.' As far as I can tell, that's entirely new, and sets the bar for withdrawal higher than it has been."

A NYT poll finds a big-time racial split in attitudes toward the candidates:

"Black voters were far more likely than whites to say that Mr. Obama cares about the needs and problems of people like them, and more likely to describe him as patriotic. Whites were more likely than blacks to say that Mr. Obama says what he thinks people want to hear, rather than what he truly believes. And about half of black voters said race relations would get better in an Obama administration, compared with 29 percent of whites.

"About 40 percent of blacks said that Mr. McCain, if elected president, would favor whites over blacks should he win the election.

"There was even racial dissension over Mr. Obama's wife, Michelle: She was viewed favorably by 58 percent of black voters, compared with 24 percent of white voters."

Talk about a Rorschach test. Those are sobering numbers.

On the New Yorker cover flap, Obama himself has now weighed in, telling Larry King: "I do think in attempting to satirize something, they probably fueled some misconceptions instead."

After 24 hours of denunciations of the New Yorker, a counternarrative has emerged, which is essentially: Y ou all need to get a sense of humor. Slate's Jack Shafer beats the media:

"I can understand how the campaigns, which drilled themselves in the umbrage dance during the primaries, might have acted reflexively to the magazine cover, but what excuse do the journalists and bloggers who condemned The New Yorker have?

"Although every critic of the New Yorker understood the simple satire of the cover, the most fretful of them worried that the illustration would be misread by the ignorant masses who don't subscribe to the magazine. Los Angeles Times blogger Andrew Malcolm wrote, 'That's the problem with satire. A lot of people won't get the joke. Or won't want to. And will use it for non-humorous purposes, which isn't the New Yorker's fault.' Malcolm continues in this vein, calling it a 'problem' that 'there's no caption on the cover to ensure that everyone' will understand the punch line.

"Here's ABC News' Jake Tapper singing the harmony line:

" Intent factors into these matters, of course, but no Upper East Side liberal -- no matter how superior they feel their intellect is -- should assume that just because they're mocking such ridiculousness, the illustration won't feed into the same beast in emails and other media. It's a recruitment poster for the right-wing.

"Calling on the press to protect the common man from the potential corruptions of satire is a strange, paternalistic assignment for any journalist to give his peers, but that appears to be what The New Yorker's detractors desire. I don't know whether to be crushed by that realization or elated by the notion that one of the most elite journals in the land has faith that Joe Sixpack can figure out a damned picture for himself."

Salon's Gary Kamiya goes so far as to quote Rush Limbaugh:

"It's official: The Bush era has made liberals so terrified of right-wing smears it has caused them to completely lose their sense of humor.

"Much as I hate to repeat one of Rush Limbaugh's flat, stale and unprofitable applause lines, that's the only conclusion I can draw after witnessing the left-wing blogosphere's bizarre reaction to the New Yorker cover depicting Barack Obama in the Oval Office as a dishdasha-clad Muslim terrorist, exchanging a 'terrorist fist jab' with Michelle Obama, who is dressed like a latter-day Angela Davis with huge 'fro, combat boots, assault rifle and bandolier of bullets -- while Osama bin Laden looks approvingly on from a picture frame and an American flag burns merrily in the presidential fireplace. To judge from the reaction of much of the left, you'd think that New Yorker editor David Remnick had morphed into some kind of hideous hybrid of Roger Ailes and Roland Barthes and was waging an insidious Semiotic War against Obama.

"I don't know what lugubrious planet these people are on, but I definitely don't want any of them writing material for Jon Stewart . . .

"The more brain-dead among the posters on left-wing blogs angrily denounce the New Yorker cover as itself racist. Merely to acknowledge racism, for them, is to be racist . . . Not a single work of satire could ever pass this paranoid test."

To make sure those on the right know how it feels, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer runs an imaginary National Review cover with a doddering McCain in a wheelchair, being ministered to by a pill-popping Cindy. Yuck.

Finally, a Portfolio profile of Katharine Weymouth includes this observation from The Washington Post publisher: "The numbers in our business suck."

Not much to argue with there.

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