Barack the Invincible?
Thursday, July 31, 2008; 10:56 AM
Maybe I've been looking at the media's treatment of Barack Obama -- the relentless, often favorable and sometimes gushing coverage -- through the wrong end of the telescope.
Maybe -- though I'm not convinced -- what we write and report doesn't matter. Maybe Obama manages to float above it all, protected by a Teflon coating.
That, at any rate, is the theory being floated by Slate media critic Jack Shafer. And since I'm invoked, I feel the need to respond.
My cameo role involved a piece I wrote in March, cataloguing the negative subjects that had been chewed over in the media: Tony Rezko, William Ayers, 130 "present" votes in the Illinois legislature, a Senate compromise that favored a nuclear energy contributor and, of course, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
But I don't believe those stories had little or no impact on Obama; after that, you may recall, Hillary Clinton won most of the remaining primaries. Most likely, we haven't heard the end of the Wright issue. And the coverage of Obama has gotten much friendlier since he clinched the nomination, especially during last week's world tour.
Obama is a skilled counterpuncher; he can defuse an issue without losing his cool, either by calmly brushing it off or smothering it in nice-sounding words. It is an underrated skill in politics. Nothing seems to rattle the guy.
In fact, that supreme self-confidence is itself becoming an issue, which says to me the media is largely firing blanks these days. How dare he meet Merkel, Sarkozy and Brown before he's even been nominated? How dare he tell House Democrats that he's likely to win? (Have you seen many candidates who go around proclaiming they'll probably lose?) It makes for good sport, but if this is the worst thing the media can pin on Obama, he's in for an easy ride.
In the end, though, here's why the coverage matters: Obama is--or was--the least-known nominee since Jimmy Carter. Our impressions of him aren't fully formed. That's why he keeps trotting out his family for People, Us Weekly and "Access Hollywood." He knows the coverage is crucial in sharpening the gauzy image many Americans have of him, and he's right.
Here's the Shafer argument:
"What's unique about Obama and his candidacy is that almost none of the stuff the press throws at him sticks. Nor is the press alone in its inability to stick him. Hillary Clinton hurled rocks, knives, and acid at her rival even before the primaries and later upped the ante in desperation. She claimed that he was unprepared to serve as commander in chief and accused him of insulting gun owners and the religiously faithful. The eleventh-hour tactics may have won Clinton votes, but they failed to undermine Obama.
"You could call Obama the Teflon-coated candidate, but this would miss the fact that his slickness goes all the way to the core. What has gone unexplored until now is this: How did Barack Obama achieve superslipperiness without becoming greasy?
"In a 2006 profile in Men's Vogue by Jacob Weisberg, Obama acknowledges that every politician, himself included, has 'some of that reptilian side to him.' To win public office, a politician must power his scales, trim his nails, and tame his swinging tail . . .