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Pressing the Question

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008; 9:52 AM

Barack Obama, fencing with reporters in Chicago yesterday, reminded me of Bill Clinton.

Not in the lip-biting, feel-your-pain, Southern charmer way that the 42nd president sometimes danced his way around questions. Their political personae could hardly be more different.

But Clinton was repeatedly faced with situations where he wanted to talk policy and the press wanted to talk scandal. He would be announcing some new mini-initiative, or standing alongside a foreign leader, and the reporters would be peppering him about Whitewater, Paula Jones, the Lincoln Bedroom or Monica. White House officials were convinced that the reason Clinton's numbers remained high throughout impeachment was that he conveyed to the public that he was working on their business and not just mired in scandal defense.

Yesterday, Obama wanted to introduce Tom Daschle as his health czar and talk up the need for health-care reform. And the press, naturally, was all about Blagojevich.

I'm not being critical; I would have asked about Blago, too. After all, O had merely made that tepid "sad day" remark and, on Wednesday, issued the governor-must-go statement. He needed to answer questions about what has become the media's dominant story.

Obama and his people had to know that; indeed, the president-elect ratcheted up his rhetoric in an opening statement to say he was "appalled" by Hot Rod's hijinks. He did get one health-care question at the end of the presser. Of course, if he had held a longer news conference, he could have adequately dealt with both subjects. But there was little question which subject would be dramatic enough to lead two of the three evening news broadcasts.

Obama gave a thoughtful answer when asked why Illinois was basically a governmental cesspool. Rather than just chide the alleged wrongdoers, he talked about what was also legal:

"If, in fact, the various allegations end up proving to be true -- and I don't want to, obviously, prejudge all these issues -- this is sort of the far end of the spectrum of that business mentality of politics. But there are more subtle examples of it, right, that are within the lines of legality but still don't fulfill the spirit of service. You know, we know in Washington that lobbyists that disproportionate influence. We know that in state houses and city councils all across America there are times where people are not thinking about what's best for the public good but rather making narrow political calculations. And our whole campaign was about changing that view of politics and restoring a sense that when people of good will come together and are serious about confronting the challenges that we face, that not only can that be good policy but, you know what, it can be good politics as well."

As for his own politics, this story isn't going to die down until he details which of his staffers and advisers had discussions about the Senate seat with Blagojevich or his aides. He's said he will do that in the coming days. And that will undoubtedly spark a whole new round of questions from the media. That's the thing about these scandals -- they have a way of metastasizing.

Still, there's some silliness out there. The still photo of Obama meeting Blagojevich at a governors' conference: If you watch the tape, Obama is shaking a series of hands and moves past Blago in two seconds without so much as a backslap. And Bill O'Reilly's exclusive footage of Obama endorsing Blago in 2002: a Democratic state senator backing the Democratic candidate for governor, who ran (ironically) as a reformer? What the heck does that prove?

"President-elect Barack Obama pledged Thursday to disclose any interaction between his transition team and the office of besieged Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, while declaring again that he and his staff had no involvement in deal-making over an appointment to his vacated Senate seat," the New York Times reports.

On the Trib front: "Tribune Co. disclosed today that federal authorities have subpoenaed documents from the company as part of their expanding investigation into charges that Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff schemed to get members of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board fired." The company says it's cooperating.


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