Pressing the Question

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.

Joe Klein finds the whole thing rather breathless:

"I've been watching cable news this afternon -- I know, get a life! -- and you know, Barack Obama comes from the same state as Rod Blagoyevich. That is really suspicious! What did he know and when did he know it? This is the first major scandal of the Obama administration! He has to explain himself. . . . Will Obama be the first president to be impeached before he's inaugurated?"

Chicago Trib columnist John Kass wades into the mental-health aspect of the story:

"Is Blago some blithering maniac ready for a padded cell?

"Of course not. But one thing is clear: The pundits who make such diagnoses have never talked to a Chicago machine politician in their lives. How do they think Chicago politicians talk in private when they're muscling some other guy for cash? Like Helen Mirren playing the queen?"

Blago's approval rating in the Land of Lincoln is 7 percent, raising the burning question: Who are these people?

"Eighty-four percent of Illinois voters say indicted Governor Rod Blagojevich should resign, according to a Rasmussen Reports telephone survey in the state Wednesday night. Just nine percent disagree."

On the insanity watch, the Chicago Sun-Times is quite helpful:

"Gov. Blagojevich's glossy locks -- perfectly sculpted in rain or snow -- may be an indication of a sickness beneath his scalp, said one local psychologist."

A hair-raising conclusion (forgive me).

Patrick Fitzgerald continues to feel the media love, such as the NYT profile that began: "In New York, he earned his prosecutorial spurs going after terrorists and mobsters. In Washington, he brought down the powerful top aide to the vice president." (Anyone call Judith Miller for comment?) But TruTV's Lisa Bloom is the first I've seen to challenge his fiery press-conference rhetoric:

"We are only at the indictment phase, and Governor Blagojevich is, at this time, a citizen of the United States, presumed innocent. And U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald has an obligation to seek justice, not to seek a conviction by any means necessary. . . . Would Lincoln be rolling over merely from an accusation?"

At the Huffington Post, Bob Cesca mocks the efforts to tie Obama to the gubernatorial mess:

"We've seen this show before: specious attempts to connect Barack Obama with corrupt or controversial figures in Chicago, followed, then, by a Republican and establishment media outcry for the president-elect to denounce and reject them . . .

"It began Wednesday with the RNC demanding to know the full extent of the president-elect's relationship with Blagojevich even though Patrick Fitzgerald was perfectly clear about the relationship when he said on national television that the president-elect had nothing to do with any of it. But to suggest that the former junior senator from Illinois never communicated with the governor of Illinois is ridiculous on its face -- of course there was the usual level of professional communication there, though it entirely fails to prove or even implicate any corruption on the part of Barack Obama. Then again, since when does reality matter?

"Meanwhile, the Politico and numerous other news organizations have been attempting to make this the first 'scandal' of the Obama presidency as if Blagojevich is somehow a member of the transition or an appointee to the future administration."

The very same Politico suggests the Dems are on a losing streak:

"After three nearly uninterrupted years of favorable political news, Democrats have finally hit a rough patch. Over a period of less than 10 days, Democrats have seen their nominee go down in defeat in the Georgia Senate runoff -- eliminating the prospect of a filibuster-proof majority -- lost two winnable House races in Louisiana and witnessed House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) sink deeper into ethics trouble. Then there's the still-unfolding Illinois Senate debacle, which exposed Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich's tawdry attempts to auction off President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat and forced Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) to hold a press conference Wednesday denying any inappropriate discussions with the governor. Democrats aren't exactly disheartened by these developments -- they're still set to control the entire federal government in January -- but the streak of bad news has tempered the party's post-election euphoria. And the string of post-Election Day congressional wins has given the GOP some of its first good news in a long time."

But Steve Benen flips the question at the Washington Monthly, asking how each party has dealt with its errant members:

"Four years ago, shortly after national elections, Republicans were forced to deal with the criminal indictment of a high-profile member -- Tom DeLay. One of the House GOP caucus' first major moves after the elections was to agree, behind closed doors, to change the rule forbidding those under indictment from holding leadership posts in the party. (Embarrassed, they later changed their minds.) Republican officials also defended the accused and lashed out, in a coordinated effort, against the prosecutor.

"Four years later, shortly after national elections, Democrats have been forced to deal with the criminal indictment of a high-profile member -- Rod Blagojevich. One of the Senate Democratic caucus' first major moves after the elections was to agree, with full transparency, that they don't want anything to do with the scandal-plagued governor."

National Review's Victor Davis Hanson says the media fell down on the job:

"Far too much about far more important things about Obama in his Chicago years were simply off limits: the disturbing legal action in his state campaign that eliminated all opponents by having African-American petitioners declared null and void, the mysterious leaking of sealed divorce papers to eliminate the Democratic Senate rival, and the lightning-strikes-twice reoccurrence of that in the general election against his likely Republican opponent. When collated with the Chicago Circle (Rezko, Wright, Pfleger, Ayers, Khalidi, etc.) his past was a lot to swallow. But no matter -- the election is over, and that was then.

"Yet now, rather than pursuing leads the last few weeks about the swirling rumors concerning Blago, the media continues to discourse on their Constitutional frustration that President-elect Obama simply could not assume power right now! To outsiders, they all seem eager to audition for parts in a Sophoclean tragedy of their own making."

To take just one point: Not even Obama's worst enemy insinuated he had anything to do with the disclosure of Jack Ryan's sex-swinging divorce papers, which were released by a judge. In fact, Ryan's Republican opponents said they should be released and Obama said they had no part in the campaign.

Hannity Rules

Forget about those online polls on who should succeed Alan Colmes on "Hannity & Colmes." Fox said yesterday that Hannity will fly solo.

The title: "Hannity." (Did they focus-group that?)

But liberals won't be entirely absent. The revamped show will feature a "Great American Panel" with three nightly guests: a liberal, another conservative and what Fox calls an "x-factor." There will be voice mails, videos and a segment called "Hate Hannity Hotline." Operators are standing by.

Paging Rush

It's a safe bet Rush will respond to this Colin Powell interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria:

"Powell, who says he still considers himself a Republican, said his party should also stop listening to conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. 'Can we continue to listen to Rush Limbaugh?' Powell asked. 'Is this really the kind of party that we want to be when these kinds of spokespersons seem to appeal to our lesser instincts rather than our better instincts?' "

Weighty Issue

All very interesting, but I know what America is really asking: What about Oprah?

"She acknowledges what anyone watching her show has probably noticed. She's gained a few," says Jessi Klein in the Daily Beast. "Well, more than a few. Forty pounds, to be exact. And in a rather raw article, she admits that when she reached her goal weight a few years ago, her cockiness about her diet led her to feel invincible.

"Oprah's story of overindulgence strikes an eerie chord in a nation struggling with the consequences of a massive credit binge. Oprah isn't seriously damaged by the economy of course; the O empire is probably one of the few left in this country that John McCain could have legitimately referred to as fundamentally sound. But 'just like us,' as Us Weekly would say, she's spent the last few years gorging to the detriment of her overall health. While we we're buying Jimmy Choos and Rolexes we couldn't really afford, Oprah was apparently chowing down on carbs and sugar she didn't really need . . .

"For Oprah, the damage was ultimately forty pounds, as she now admits to feeling 'like a fat cow' at over two hundred big ones. For us, the numbers went the other way, but with no less shame. Bloated debt turned into lost life savings. The results are obviously different in scale -- Oprah having a muffin top is not the same as a family losing their home -- but the cravings that caused her to overindulge on ├ęclairs (I'm only guessing on that detail) are not so different from the ones that led us to binge on SUVs."

Nothing like tying one woman's weight problem to the global financial crisis.

Hobson's Choice

Provocative question of the day goes to Ron Rosenbaum in Slate:

"Do you want to die because President Obama is dying for a smoke?"

Hmm . . . Let me think. Okay, here's the premise:

"It's the winter of 2009, and a crisis has erupted between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Putin (surprise!) is acting arrogantly and aggressively, trying to push the new American president around. Do you want Barack Obama, the guy who has his finger on our nuclear trigger, notorious nicotine addict, to be dying for a smoke? All irritable, his nerves and famously smooth temper on edge? No outlet for his intolerable frustration but . . . a butt. But no butts to be found.

"OK, so Obama isn't going to start a nuclear war because of the well-meaning but counterproductive no-smoking rule. At least, I hope he isn't. I don't smoke, but I know smokers, and I know smokers trying to quit, and they scare me."

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