By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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 . . .
"Obama's poise and discipline allow him to resist whatever bait the press and politicians dangle in front of him. When he does address scandalous material, he generally does so to his advantage. In June, when the Web and cable news advanced false rumors that Michelle Obama had called white people 'whitey' on a videotape, Obama squelched the gossip with a denial and, as Ben Smith of Politico reported, put the press on notice by questioning the appropriateness of the question. Smears undermine a politician only when they appeal to voters' pre-existing idea of what sort of person a politician is. Seeing as the pre-existing idea of Obama is so positive, the Obama-haters have had trouble portraying him either as a literal bomb thrower, like William Ayers, or a figurative one, like the Rev. Wright. When the smear artists dress him up as a radical or as 'madrassa'-educated, the ploys only backfire."
The latest John McCain assault is to play the Britney card:
"After spending much of the summer searching for an effective line of attack against Senator Barack Obama," says the New York Times, "Senator John McCain is beginning a newly aggressive campaign to define Mr. Obama as arrogant, out of touch and unprepared for the presidency.
"On Wednesday alone, the McCain campaign released a new advertisement suggesting -- and not in a good way -- that Mr. Obama was a celebrity along the lines of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Republicans tried to portray Mr. Obama as a candidate who believed the race was all about him, relying on what Democrats said was a completely inaccurate quotation." (The quote was reported by The Washington Post from a closed-door session with Hill Dems.)
But the Boston Globe cautions: "The taunting commercials also risk backlash if they are seen at odds with McCain's repeated pledges to run a civil campaign on the issues.
"Independent analysts have said that several assertions in the ads are based on questionable claims or outright falsehoods. In the TV spots, McCain suggests that Obama is responsible for rising gas prices and that Obama canceled a trip to visit wounded troops because he couldn't bring the media along - assertions strongly disputed by the Obama campaign."
The New York Post's fair-and-balanced headline: " ' Barack the Bimbo.' "
Josh Marshall faults The WP, CNN, AP and others for adopting the cockiness narrative:
"Here we have a candidate, John McCain, who is running on a record of straight talk and honorable campaigning running a campaign made up mainly of charges reporters are now more or less acknowledging are lies. But there's precious little drawing together of the contradiction. What's more, as everyone will acknowledge after the campaign, the McCain campaign is now pushing the caricature of Obama as a uppity young black man whose presumptuousness is displayed not only in taking on airs above his station but also in a taste for young white women.
"So please keep an eye out for references to Obama's presumptuousness, arrogance, etc."
But isn't the McCain camp mockingly comparing Obama to the likes of Britney Spears, rather than implying that he likes to hang with starlets?
Michelle Malkin hits the celebrity angle against the candidate the GOP is now casting as Paris Hilton:
"You couldn't pass a grocery store line this weekend without seeing the picture-perfect smiles of the Obama family. There were Barack Obama's young daughters (whose privacy their parents so sanctimoniously claim to want to protect) flashing their pearly whites on the cover of People. Malia and Sasha competed for attention right next to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's toddler daughter, Shiloh, whose cherubic face was splashed on the cover of another celebrity tabloid. Next to them beamed basket-case starlet Lindsay Lohan and her new lesbian lover -- oh, and that formerly pregnant 'man' who just gave birth to a baby girl. The Obamas blended seamlessly into this Hollyweird pop-culture galaxy.
"The spread in People, which earlier this year fawned over a photo of the bare-chested Obama in his swimsuit, was supposed to be an 'exclusive' first and last look at life at home with the Obamas. Knowing what we know about the Obama we know now, it probably won't be the last. They've hawked the kids to TV gossip show Access Hollywood, blabbed about their romance to Us Weekly, and plopped Michelle O -- the purported 'civilian' whom the Obamessiah declares immune from public criticism -- in front of the cameras to schmooze effortlessly for The Colbert Report and The View demographics. They believe their two-faced tabloid strategy (show their true elitist colors behind closed doors, but play the Every Family for the Obamedia sycophants) is working. Given our dumbed-down, celebrity-obsessed culture, they are probably right.
"Who cares about Barack's perilous lack of foreign-policy experience, his longtime associations with left-wing radicals and domestic terrorists, and his business dealings with Chicago corruptocrats? People brings you the scoop on what really matters in this critical presidential campaign: Michelle hula-hoops with her daughters. They're just like you and me! The kids have slumber parties. They're just like you and me! Barack does laundry, but he doesn't fold it. They're just like you and me! The kids get small allowances. They're just like you and me! The Obamas wear normal clothes while doing normal things."
It's an old right-wing playbook to mock and denigrate the Democrat, says the New Republic's Jonathan Chait:
"Do you remember when conservatives used to speak warmly, and sometimes rapturously, about Barack Obama? That was back when they were certain that the Clinton voodoo magic would make Hillary the nominee, and Obama her sympathetic roadkill. Since then, the right has made the horrifying discoveries that Obama is, successively, a left-wing ideologue, a coddler of anti- Americanism, a wine-sipping elitist, and, now, a shameless flip-flopper. The man will say anything, discard any position, in order to win the election.
"If such a tragic tarnishing of the reputation could happen to a fresh-faced reformer like Obama, it could happen to anybody. And, in fact, it has--at least to anybody who has happened to attain the Democratic presidential nomination at any point over the last five election cycles. John Kerry, as everybody remembers, came to be defined almost exclusively as a flip-flopper. (A 2004 Wall Street Journal news article described him as 'a politician with a troublesome reputation for trying to have it both ways.')
"Al Gore was relentlessly attacked by Republicans for his alleged waffling. ('Mr. Gore has a bit of a reputation for flip-flopping and corner-cutting,' reported The New York Times in 2000.) Bill Clinton was attacked by George H.W. Bush for 'turn[ing] the White House into a Waffle House' and the subject of a famous Time cover story titled, 'Why Voters Don't Trust Bill Clinton.'
"It was true: Voters didn't trust Clinton--or Gore, or Kerry. In all of those elections, polls showed the Democratic nominee scoring higher on most of the issues, but the Republican nominee scoring higher on honesty and other personal qualities. Either this is because the Democratic Party keeps nominating weasels for president, time and time again, or else there's something systemic that makes Republicans (and the press) portray them as such. I'm going with explanation number two . . .
"Flip-flopping is a simple accusation that campaign reporters can sink their teeth into. Moreover, there's always grist for the accusation, because getting to the position of running for president without changing your stance on a few issues is essentially impossible."
The libs, of course, have jumped on McCain's "nothing is off the table" tax comment with George Stephanopoulos--the subject of much subsequent backtracking--but conservatives are really steamed. Check out this Wall Street Journal editorial:
"One of the miracles of this presidential election campaign is that John McCain still has a chance to win, notwithstanding his best attempts to kick it away. In his latest random policy improvisation, the Arizona Senator tried to give up the tax issue . . .
"Economics has never been Mr. McCain's strong suit, but with Iraq receding as a crisis the economy is the ground where the Senator will have to fight and win. And the tax issue provides him with a potent opening, given Mr. Obama's pledge to raise taxes on incomes, dividends and capital gains. In proposing to raise the payroll tax cap, the Democrat is to the left even of Hillary Clinton. Mr. McCain's Sunday blunder will make that issue that much harder to exploit.
"Such mistakes also help explain the continued lack of enthusiasm for Mr. McCain among many conservatives. Meeting with us last December, before the primaries, he declared that 'I will not agree to any tax increase,' repeating the phrase for emphasis. He did not say any tax increase with the exception of Social Security. If Mr. McCain can't convince voters that he's better on taxes than is a Democrat who says matter-of-factly that he wants to raise taxes, the Republican is going to lose in a rout."
The Ted Stevens indictment--which comes as the Alaskan is up for reelection--inspires no sympathy from National Review:
"One of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens's most memorable moments of the last few years came during the Senate fight over the infamous 'Bridge to Nowhere.' In 2005, when Sen. Tom Coburn introduced a measure that would have redirected the money Stevens had earmarked for the bridge to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, Stevens gave an apoplectic speech on the Senate floor in which he threatened to resign if the Senate passed the measure. It was the nation's loss that the Senate voted the measure down, simultaneously missing two opportunities.
"Now that a grand jury has indicted Stevens on seven counts of making false statements, it is time for him to make good on his threat. Stevens is of course innocent until proven guilty of the crimes with which he is charged. But even if he committed no crime, the facts that have emerged over the course of the federal investigation into his personal finances are damning enough on their own. The indictment was just the last straw."
And don't let the door hit you on the way out.
In case you missed this, the Boston Herald gives it a good ride:
"An embarrassing gallery of photos showing Bay State Sen. John Kerry surrounded by young women partying on Nantucket was a dockside encounter and nothing more, the senator's office tells the Herald.
" TMZ.com posted images today of Kerry surrounded by young women, including one drinking what appears to be a can of beer. Other photos show the women, sunburned and partying, mugging for the camera.
"The senator's office said the images of Kerry are nothing but a chance encounter on a dock, and Kerry kept on walking after being caught on camera, according to a statement sent to bostonherald.com."
Hey, this could have helped his stiff image in 2004.