Adjusting to Unreality

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008 9:58 AM

Barack Obama can't complain.

He can't fret about having his BlackBerry taken away. He can't gripe about not being able to drive his own car. He can't moan about not being able to take his wife to dinner without causing a major fuss. He asked for this new life.

And in fairness, Obama isn't complaining. But it's fascinating to watch what seems like a fairly normal guy -- to the extent that anyone who runs the presidential marathon can be considered normal -- as he is enveloped by the aura of abnormality that is life in the White House.

It's a shame, really, that presidents can't do something as simple as e-mail with old friends. It would help them pierce the bubble just a bit. They travel the world on Air Force One, have a personal chef, are surrounded by a supportive staff and have little unsupervised contact with ordinary people. All this is driven by logical reasons -- security concerns, demands on his time -- but can have the effect of leaving the country's leader out of touch.

Four of our past five presidents had been governors, living in mansions, and one had been vice president, living in the old Naval Observatory residence. They were, in other words, already in mini-bubbles before they reached the Oval Office. But Obama, as a senator for four years, still lives in a house -- a very nice Chicago house, to be sure, but a normal residence nonetheless. He doesn't have a ranch. He likes to play pickup basketball.

Can a former community organizer find happiness within the confines of the presidency? Yes, he gets to hang at Camp David, any movie he wants can be shown in the White House theater, and he'll be closer to his daughters living above the store. But to be constantly surrounded by Secret Service and trailed by the press is to live a life unlike that of any other American. No wonder, as John Dickerson notes in Slate, Obama in his "60 Minutes" chat talked about relaxing by washing the dishes.

"Of course, Obama (unlike me) doesn't need to wash dishes anymore. He's won. He doesn't even need to pretend. No need to drink beer at a bar or go bowling, either, or to otherwise offer demonstrations that he's a regular guy. Soon he will be the most powerful man in the world . . .

"Any professional who has been on the road for a long period of time can identify with the drift away from a normal life. Your cooking skills are replaced by room-service-ordering skills. Gradually, you forget which floor your office is on or whether you take a left or a right turn from home to get to church. A presidential candidate experiences this bubble-wrapped life completely. He lives in a world where his meals, movements, and laundry are all taken care of for him. This is necessary so that he can focus on NAFTA and Afghanistan . . .

"Sure, the new president has a brutal agenda ahead of him, but in this twilight moment of pause he can luxuriate in being free of the thousands of immediate details of campaign life. And unlike any incoming president in modern memory, Obama has returned from the prison of campaign life to a relatively normal life. Yes, he has the constant Secret Service protection, and he can't drive his own car. But within the four walls of his home, it feels normal."

For now, that is.

By the way, don't the Obamas have a dishwasher?

Looks like the nation is going to get its first black attorney general, which somehow seems less dramatic when we're about to get the first African American president.

"President-elect Barack Obama would like to nominate former top Justice Department official Eric Holder Jr. to be his attorney general," the Chicago Tribune reports, "and his transition team is now trying to gauge whether there is sufficient bipartisan support for him in the Senate, sources close to the transition confirmed Tuesday. . . . One source close to the transition team said Holder has been offered the job 'conditionally.' "

But there's a whiff of Clintonian controversy, as the LAT notes: "Holder, you may recall, was the acting attorney general who approved Bill Clinton's last-minute list of presidential pardons just before leaving office. That list included one very controversial and embarrassing pardon for fugitive investor Marc Rich, whose ex-wife coincidentally just happened to have made substantial contributions to Clinton."

The Hillary debate goes on and on, absorbing the media and bringing drama to No Drama Obamaland.

"Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has reservations about accepting an appointment as secretary of state in the Obama administration, an adviser to Mrs. Clinton who is familiar with her thinking said on Tuesday," says the NYT.

"The adviser described Mrs. Clinton as flattered by President-elect Barack Obama's interest but said she was agonizing over the decision. Mrs. Clinton likes being her own boss and is reluctant to give up the independence that comes with that, said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the process was at a delicate stage."

Isn't this late in the game for her to be agonizing? Or is this laying the groundwork for a face-saving exit if Hillary doesn't get it?

Politico describes a party in turmoil:

"From his supporters on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, to campaign aides of the soon-to-be commander-in-chief, there's a sense of ambivalence about giving a top political plum to a woman they spent 18 months hammering as the compromised standard-bearer of an era that deserves to be forgotten . . .

"The clearest opposition to the Clinton appointment comes from Obama's backers on the left of his own party, whose initial support for him was motivated in part by a distaste for the Clinton dynasty, and who now view her reemergence with some dismay.

" 'There's always a risk of a Cabinet member freelancing and that risk is enhanced by the fact that Hillary has her own public and her own celebrity and that she comes attached to Bill,' said Robert Kuttner, a Clinton critic and co-editor of the American Prospect whose new book, Obama's Challenge, implores the president-elect to adopt an expansive liberal agenda. 'The other question is the old rule -- never hire somebody you can't fire. What happens if her views and his views don't mesh?' "

Uh -- you leak word that you want the person to quit?

Michael Goldfarb must have taken only a couple hours off after being a McCain spokesman before going back to his old Weekly Standard job. And he, too, has views on Hillary:

"There appears to be little angst among conservatives at the prospect of Hillary Clinton joining the Obama administration as secretary of State . . .

"On the issues, Clinton's a hawk. Not only did she vote to authorize the war in Iraq, she delivered her vote in style -- her floor speech on October 10, 2002, went so far as to connect Saddam to al Qaeda . . .

"Of course, if Clinton takes the job one expects she'll be loyal to her new boss. Though it would be extremely entertaining, we probably wouldn't see Madame Secretary working to undermine an Obama administration with recalcitrance and rogue diplomacy. But then Colin Powell was a dutiful soldier while inside the Bush administration and that still didn't prevent him from becoming a foil for the administration's opponents. It's not difficult to imagine Clinton performing a similar service for Republicans. She could be held up as the very model of a responsible Democrat, forced against her better judgment to partake in a series of reckless diplomatic escapades pursued by a more ideological president.

"Clinton would be a fine secretary of State, and she is likely to be a nuisance to Obama whether she is inside or outside of his administration, but as our top diplomat she could reprise a role that made Powell a kingmaker in this year's election."

It was kind of an open secret that McCain had more respect for Hillary than for Obama, wasn't it?

I guess if Time is going to depict Obama as FDR and Newsweek likens him to Lincoln, we're going to have a debate about those former presidents. Author Matthew Pinkser challenges the much-quoted title of Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography, "Team of Rivals":

"The problem is, it didn't work that well for Lincoln. There were painful trade-offs with the 'team of rivals' approach that are never fully addressed in the book, or by others that offer happy-sounding descriptions of the Lincoln presidency. Lincoln's decision to embrace former rivals, for instance, inevitably meant ignoring old friends -- a development they took badly. 'We made Abe and, by God, we can unmake him,' complained Chicago Tribune Managing Editor Joseph Medill in 1861."

Did newspaper editors once talk that way?

"Especially during 1861 and 1862, the first two years of Lincoln's initially troubled administration, friends growled over his ingratitude as former rivals continued to play out their old political feuds."

Rich Lowry revisits the Roosevelt years:

"Democrats are enjoying a New Deal reverie wherein a Democratic president solves an economic crisis with public-works projects. The new issue of Time magazine features Obama on the cover decked out in the trappings of FDR. This image would accurately capture the moment, (1) if Obama -- president-elect for all of two weeks -- had actually accomplished something, and (2) if Franklin Roosevelt's economic program had really ended the Great Depression.

"Neither is true. As Amity Shlaes documents in her book The Forgotten Man, the economy limped along under FDR's stewardship in the 1930s. Many of the era's public-works projects were undertaken for political reasons as well as economic ones. Government crowded out private initiative and neglected policies to promote the private sector. Net private investment declined at times during the 1930s."

Well, Roosevelt's efforts in the face of 25 percent unemployment were certainly superior to those of Hoover. But it's also true that the Depression didn't really end until World War II.

In the Nation, Laura Flanders has her own Cabinet fantasies:

"Bush put an affirmative action opponent -- the former dean of the Pat Robertson School of Government in charge of The White House Office of Personnel Management. At the Administration For Children and Families, Bush named a man who spent a decade fighting domestic violence and child custody laws. To head up the Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs at FDA, Bush named a physician who refused to discuss contraception with unwed women.

"To come close to any of that, Obama would have to name sex radical Susie Bright for Health and Human Services, tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill for EPA. Dennis Kucinich for Secretary of State. Treasury? Jamie Galbraith. Defense? Trumping the criminal warmongering of Donald Rumsfeld would take a pacifist lawbreaker way to the extreme of Cindy Sheehan.

"Let's not permit the pundits [to] narrow the field with the kumbaya for moderation. The playing field of government not only needs evening up, it needs total replanting by people with at least as much vision and oomph as those they're replacing -- vision of a very different kind."

But wouldn't appointing major left-wingers leave Obama with the mirror image of Bush's base strategy?

Liberals have pretty much despised Bill Kristol's NYT column since he began occupying the real estate almost a year ago. Now the New Yorker's George Packer wants him sent packing:

"For Pinch Sulzberger and Andy Rosenthal to renew Kristol's one-year contract, in 2009, would be for the Times to reward failure -- and look where that got Wall Street and General Motors. It's not just that Kristol isn't another Safire (although an absence of verbal playfulness and wit is a consistent hallmark of the Kristol prose style). It's not just that his views are utterly predictable (if that were firing grounds, close to half the Times columnists would lose their jobs). It's not just that he was fundamentally wrong at least every other week throughout the year (misattributing a quote in his first column, counting Clinton out after Iowa, placing Obama at a Jeremiah Wright sermon that Obama didn't attend, predicting the imminent return of a McCain adviser named Mike Murphy who ended up staying off the campaign, all but predicting a McCain victory, sort of predicting that McCain would oppose the bailout, praising McCain's suspension' of his campaign as a smart move, preferring fake populism to professional excellence and Joe the Plumber to Horace the Poet, urging Ayers-Wright attack tactics as the way for McCain to win, basically telling McCain to ignore all the advice Kristol had given him throughout the year, but above all, vouching again and again and again, privately and publicly, for Palin as an excellent vice-presidential choice). What the hell -- it was an unpredictable year.

"The real grounds for firing Kristol are that he didn't take his column seriously. In his year on the Op-Ed page, not one memorable sentence, not one provocative thought, not one valuable piece of information appeared under his name. . . . You had the sense Kristol wrote his column during the commercial breaks of his gig on Fox News Sunday and gave it about the same amount of thought."

Of course, he wasn't given the slot to please all those Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd fans.

Kristol himself tells the New York Observer he's not sure he'll re-up: "I dunno. You gotta talk to them about that. It's been a lot of work and I'm kinda stretched a little thin."

I certainly wouldn't want to deprive you of this groundbreaking People interview with a briefly famous hooker about Client No. 9:

"What haunts Ashley Dupre isn't the image of Eliot Spitzer in his black socks -- it's the look on his wife's face as he announced he was resigning as governor."

Arianna Huffington isn't getting a rave review from TV Guide after filling in for MSNBC's Rachel Maddow:

"The Huffington Post-mistress was a stiff, awkward slave to the TelePrompTer. Even with her first guest, Bill Maher -- an old friend of Huffington, whose TV-pundit star rose when she was a loose, funny panelist on his show Politically Incorrect (remember her 'Strange Bedfellows' segments with future would-be Senator Al Franken?) -- she came across as a slightly befuddled robot."

Finally, just when I thought every possible aspect of the incoming president and first lady had been thoroughly picked over comes this Salon piece by Erin Aubry Kaplan:

"What really thrills me, what really feels liberating in a very personal way, is the official new prominence of Michelle Obama. Barack's better half not only has stature but is statuesque. She has corruscating intelligence, beauty, style and -- drumroll, please -- a butt. (Yes, you read that right: I'm going to talk about the first lady's butt.) . . .

"I noted her business suits and the fact she hardly ever wore pants (unlike Hillary). As I gradually relaxed, as Michelle strode onto more stages and people started focusing on her clothes and presence instead of her patriotism, it dawned on me -- good God, she has a butt! 'Obama's baby (mama) got back,' wrote one feminist blogger. 'OMG, her butt is humongous!' went a typical comment on one African-American online forum, and while it isn't humongous, per se, it is a solid, round, black, class-A boo-tay. Try as Michelle might to cover it with those Mamie Eisenhower skirts and sheath dresses meant to reassure mainstream voters, the butt would not be denied . . .

"Michelle's body was sending a different message: To hell with biracialism! Compromise, bipartisanship? Don't think so. Here was one clear signifier of blackness that couldn't be tamed, muted or otherwise made invisible."

There's more on this woefully underreported topic.

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