The Big Show

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008 8:00 AM

It was like a well-produced "60 Minutes" report on the struggling middle class, if those who are struggling all happened to live in swing states. Call it "30 Minutes."

Obama did the voice-over, playing the role of correspondent, and the goal, of course, was to intertwine his personal story with the difficulties and aspirations of ordinary Americans whose votes he needs to put him over the top.

The Obama infomercial last night began in a faux Oval Office--the desk, the tree behind the windows, the flag pin on the man who once disdained them--that to my eye seemed a tad presumptuous. It was, naturally, designed to get you to envision him as the 44th president.

The mini-portraits--the injured tire worker in Missouri, the retired railroad worker in Ohio, the widow with two jobs in New Mexico, the teacher in Colorado, the auto worker in Kentucky--were polished and, at times, quite moving. Obama wants it known that he is fighting for them.

What also worked was depicting Barack in people's living rooms, talking about what he wants to do for them. (Although how did the tax cuts suddenly move down from people earning $250,000 to those at 200K?)

What didn't work were the brief tributes by senators and governors--who might as well have been touting the slice-o-matic--and the snippets of Obama's Greek column convention speech. We've already seen that, and it was out of sync with the tone of the ad.

Which brings me to the final three minutes. The idea of moving from the safety of a videotape to a live event was inspired. But doing it in a cheering Florida stadium with Obama going to the overblown rhetoric and vowing to "change the world," not so much. The whole idea of the show was to bring Obama down from the clouds and into the street. The big rally came close to canceling out the man-of-the-people image so carefully constructed in the previous 27 minutes.

Still, the show was CBS, NBC, Fox and four other networks--the biggest such splash since Ross Perot's pie charts--and it probably helped at the margins. Even if it didn't, I don't get some of the advance criticism that the show would boomerang because of its excessive nature. No one had to watch. They could always switch over to "Pushing Daisies" on ABC.

If the press was inclined to hammer the Democratic nominee for buying the election after blowing off public financing, the infomercial would be Exhibit A. But the press is giving him a pass on the issue.

One other observation: Has Obama been watching too many Palin speeches? He kept talking about "workin' families" and was in full g-dropping mode.

"As a piece of political theater," says USA Today, "the program was a low-key triumph, a message perfectly attuned to the cool side of the medium."

"It offered even the swiftest channel-flipper the chance to see Obama looking presidential, helping to condition voters to that possibility," says the Los Angeles Times. "And once again it proved to John McCain, and everyone else, how Obama's deep pool of campaign cash has allowed him to rewrite the rules of the campaign."

"As in his speech in Berlin and his stadium nomination speech last summer," says the New York Times, "Mr. Obama's campaign was again practicing its brand of big-event politics with this infomercial: Taking over a huge chunk of the television dial in an effort to make a closing sale with an audience that was likely to be well into the millions. And like the gambits before it, the advertisement held risks just by definition of what it was: A giant financial outlay that made Mr. Obama almost unavoidable to television viewers who are by now weary from all these many months of politicking."

"The America he depicted was not exactly America the Beautiful," says the New York Post. "It was more like America the worried - with last night's show stressing everything that is wrong with America and little right with it. If the show represented Obama's 'message of hope,' I'd hate to hear what he has to say when he feels pessimistic."

Is the race tightening? Well, maybe, says the New Republic's Noam Scheiber:

"Obama's lead in the national tracking polls looks to be around five points (I get 5.5 when I average all six of the trackers I mentioned, along with the Hotline and Battleground trackers, which haven't changed much in the last few days). If that drops two-to-three points, as it easily could in a week, I don't think it's crazy to think McCain will have a shot at winning Pennsylvania, Virginia, and/or Colorado. Unlikely, yes, but not crazy. According to sites like Real Clear and, Obama's lead in those states is currently larger than his 5.5 point national lead (significantly so in Pennsylvania). But, as I argued last week, the relationship between battleground-state numbers and national numbers can change significantly as we approach the finish, and those state averages you see could easily be a week out of date.

"My immediate concern is twofold: That McCain is getting some traction with his liberal/socialist/redistributionist charge--the WaPo tracker shows McCain narrowing the gap on the economy over the last week--and, in light of this, that Obama is striking his high-note a few days too early."

Chuck Todd, who's been standing in front of blue maps lately, says the ballgame is the remaining undecideds:

"These are folks who, four years ago, voted mostly Republican. They are undecided now because they are upset with Bush and upset with the economy. But they are not yet on board when it comes to voting for Obama, either because of his party I.D., or his race, but mostly because of the fact that he's a Democrat.

"The question all of us in the analyst community are trying to figure out is, will these undecided Republican-leaning voters show up and vote McCain? Or will they stay home?

"If they show up and vote, then Obama's margins will shrink dramatically because McCain -- as I've argued before -- will garner some 70+ percent of the undecided vote."

Conservatives, such as Powerline's John Hinderaker, are taking heart in a couple of tracking polls:

"Barack Obama's national lead over John McCain is down to two points in Gallup's 'traditional' turnout poll, and Wednesday morning Rasmussen Reports has Obama's lead dwindling to three points . . . Obama's lead may or may not be three points, but I think we can rely on Rasmussen for the proposition that McCain is closing the gap.

"The history of this campaign has been one of McCain climbing the hill, only to roll back down on account of events in the news, most critically the financial crisis. Whenever the news cycle is quiet, McCain moves toward parity."

This Politico item carries a whiff of impropriety:

"Aides to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) scheduled pricey luncheons, roundtables, readings, VIP receptions and policy dinners with campaign officials and advisers, offering donors a taste of his potential administration.

"Supporters could eat dinner in Los Angeles with Warren Buffett, an Obama adviser and one of history's shrewdest investors, for $28,500, the federal limit for donations by an individual to a national party committee. Or they could attend a 'VIP reception' with the sage of Omaha for $10,000, or an 'economic roundtable' for just $1,000. The Obama campaign declined to comment on the schedule.

"A 'Round Table Discussion' in Boston with Robert E. Rubin, who was Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton and talked on the phone with Obama as the financial crisis broke out, cost $28,500. And a reception in Boston with former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a possible chief of staff in an Obama White House, was offered for $500 or $2,500."

This sort of access-peddling is not unusual, but it doesn't exactly sound like a candidate who's leaving behind old-style politics, does it?

The McCain campaign is hitting hard at the L.A. Times for refusing to release a videotape of a 2003 banquet at which Obama praised Palestinian rights activist Rashid Khalidi. The paper did break the story last April, but perhaps the Times should have done a better job of explaining its position, as when I called Monday night. Now comes the belated reason:

"The Los Angeles Times did not publish the videotape because it was provided to us by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it," said the newspaper's editor, Russ Stanton. "The Times keeps its promises to sources."

It's not clear to me why the source would leak the story but put the video off-limits. On the other hand, McCain has backed a federal shield law for journalists, so it's interesting that he's pounding the paper for keeping its promise.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg calls the LAT a pro-censorship organization.

It's Obama by a landslide . . . at Slate. McCain gets only one vote.

Slate Editor-in-Chief Jake Weisberg on the Democratic nominee: "I've been following his career since he was in the Illinois Senate and rooting for him to run for president since the spring of 2006, when I read his first book and interviewed him for a magazine story. I came away from that encounter deeply impressed by Obama's thoughtfulness, his sensitivity to language, and his unusual degree of self-knowledge. This guy is the antidote to the past eight years."

Media man Jack Shafer is for Bob Barr: "I've continued to punch Libertarian on my ballot because no other candidate or political party comes close to reflecting my political views of limited government, free markets, civil liberties, and noninterventionist foreign policy."

The lone GOP supporter, deputy managing editor Rachael Larimore: "This is a difficult election for me. But voting for John McCain is an easy choice. He's a man I admire, I agree with many of his policy positions, and, since I am a moderate but loyal Republican, I feel a kind of kinship with him."

The Sarah Palin debate rages on, particularly among women, such as Salon's Joan Walsh:

"Both of the following observations are true:

"A) Palin is a nasty and very skilled political opportunist who is giving as good as she's getting, smacking Barack Obama, Joe Biden and now McCain (his staff, anyway) with savage glee. and

"B) She's being scapegoated in a personal way that seems sadly familiar for female candidates, in very sexist terms: First 'diva,' then 'whack job;' next she'll be Glenn Close in 'Fatal Attraction.' Oops, sorry, that was Hillary Clinton . . .

"Still, it's hard not to notice that a woman is being blamed and shamed yet again, when the real screw-up here is McCain himself, who presided over possibly the worst V.P. pick in modern history."

Conservative Danielle Crittenden challenges the notion that Palin's critics are elitists:

"In fact, not only did I NOT go to Harvard, I have no education to speak of. Not beyond high school anyway (and it was one of those large, urban high schools from which many of the most successful graduates went on to become garage mechanics) . . .

"Maybe it's because of my background that I've been wary of Palin from the get-go -- and more than taken aback by those who insist the only reason a conservative could oppose her would be because of intellectual snobbery.

"Don't get me wrong: I love the idea of Sarah Palin. She conforms to an early American (and pre-feminist) ideal of womanhood: rifle on one hip, baby on the other. I love her modern incarnation of this ideal, complete with Sex-in-the-Tundra wardrobe and kick-ass Jimmy Choos (even if they are paid for by the RNC). I love the idea she represents 'common sense' over fancy-pants theorizing. I love -- and certainly identify with -- her real world, 'out there' experience over her opponents' closed-off years in Washington. Truly, there are few women I'd rather share a beer with.

"The problem is that the reality of Sarah Palin does not match the idea of Sarah Palin. It's as plain as day -- glaringly obvious! -- that she's unfit for the job she's running for. We wouldn't expect the best darn regional car saleswoman to be appointed the next vice president of General Motors. We wouldn't fly in a commercial plane piloted by someone with a Cessna license because we trusted her gut. We wouldn't follow a woman into battle because she's a crack shot at moose hunting. Why is it unreasonable -- or snobbish! -- to have expected a better choice from our party for the next potential leader of the free world?"

Just in case you thought being on the trail was glamorous:

"After the longest, most sustained campaign on record, political reporters are running on little more than the scant sustenance of yet another slice of pizza. Some are running out of energy; others are running out of ideas. 'The one conversation I keep having with reporters is, 'What the hell do we write about? What are the interesting stories left to cover in this election?' ' says The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza. 'There are a lot of people scratching their heads trying to find a new angle at the end.'

"Others, like soldiers who have served one tour too many, are slowly losing touch with the world outside the candidate's orbit. [The NYT's Matt] Bai, who is married to a Fox producer, has seen the strains of life on the road. 'You lose contact with the outside world,' says Bai. 'You call your spouse at home and talk about the trail and the person at home just doesn't get it or care, because it's the same story over and over again. It's murder on relationships.' Every four years, Bai says, there's at least one divorce or break-up. 'It's just not a normal human experience.' "

We're collateral damage. Except that nobody forces us to do this.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive