Obama Takes Time for Pundits on Both Ideological Sides

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

At one point during the party, CNBC's Larry Kudlow asked Barack Obama why he had hired several of the liberal guests who appeared on his program but left him Robert Reich.

"So someone will stick up for me on your show," the president-elect replied.

During a three-hour dinner conclave at columnist George Will's Chevy Chase home Tuesday night, Obama charmed eight of the right's most prominent commentators, mixing small talk and policy debate in a move that mesmerized the media elite.

"Obama's a man who has demonstrated he is interested in hearing other views," said syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, citing his post-election graciousness toward John McCain. "I guess he wanted to continue that -- as well as co-opting the vast right-wing conspiracy."

Besides Krauthammer and Kudlow, Will's guests were Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Wall Street Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot, Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and Fox News commentator Michael Barone.

"He's making good on his promise to reach out to Republicans and conservatives and this post-partisan stuff, whatever that means," Kudlow said. "I was very impressed. He's a nice guy, terribly smart, well-informed, great smile. He just really engaged. He said he likes to know the arguments on all sides."

Barone called Obama "an attractive person in a small setting. It's harder to hate someone you've had close contact with and who has pleasant characteristics."

Obama balanced the scales yesterday by sitting down with 11 liberal commentators, including The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich of the New York Times, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, CNN's Roland Martin, and a conservative -- Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan -- who strongly supported his campaign. That meeting took place in the less intimate setting of Obama's transition office, and lasted a little more than an hour. Both sessions were decreed off the record.

"It sure helps, when you're writing a piece, to have some sense of how he's thinking," Dionne said, adding that the questions ranged from foreign policy to the economy. "It's really interesting to hear him work that through. It was a classroom seminar setting."

Obama's visit to the Will residence was an eye-opener in part because he made little effort during the campaign to develop relationships with either the reporters following him or the liberal commentators rooting for him. In that sense, showing up was a statement -- not unlike Ronald Reagan attending a pre-inaugural party thrown by the late Post owner Katharine Graham -- that he recognizes the influence of the old-line media establishment in a YouTube age.

"It buys him some pulled punches," said New Republic writer Michael Crowley. "Taking the edge off criticism he might get in the conservative media is a shrewd thing that comes at zero cost, except for a bit of grumbling on some blogs. There's a lot of pundit status anxiety in Washington today, soul-searching by those wondering why they weren't invited to meet the president-elect."

Will had offered to host such a gathering during the campaign, but the scheduling could not be worked out. Obama enjoys debating his ideological opponents more than his allies, an adviser said, and plans further meetings with journalists of varying stripes during his term.

Most of those at the dinner party were not harsh Obama critics, and some of the guests, such as Brooks and Noonan, have at times written favorably about him. Much of the conservative punditocracy has soured on President Bush, was never wild about McCain and, in some instances, savaged the nomination of Sarah Palin, drawing flak from their own movement. Obama may be too far left for them, but they value high-toned intellectual argument -- a specialty of the former law professor.

Liberal Web sites tended to cut Obama some slack for courting the media's right flank, but some conservatives were suspicious. Right Wing News said Obama is "making a P.R. move by making meaningless nods to the right so that when he supports policies that Lenin would blanch at, he can come back and say, 'Sure, I ran a trillion dollar deficit, got rid of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and stopped the building of the border fence -- but I ate dinner with George Will! See? It all balances out! I'm a moderate!' "

© 2009 The Washington Post Company