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Newsroom Meeting for the New President

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009 6:29 PM

There hasn't been this much excitement in The Washington Post newsroom since Brad Pitt dropped by.

Barack Obama, here for a meeting today with Post editors and reporters, did what came naturally for a politician: He worked the room. The whole room. The whole room of grizzled journalistic veterans, most of whom stood and, well, stared.

Note to media-bashers: There was no standing ovation. Although one clerical employee was heard to shriek that he had shaken her hand.

The mob scene (while not quite as large as when Pitt was studying the newsroom for a movie from which he later withdrew) underscored one thing: Obama is not just on the verge of assuming the presidency, he is a worldwide celebrity.

Camera phones flashed as Obama, trailed by Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham, began his stroll around the fifth-floor newsroom's perimeter, shaking hands and greeting nearly 200 staffers. "Where are the sportswriters?" he asked. "I want to ask about the Redskins, Nationals and Wizards."

The shouted questions were about what you would expect from the heart of one of the world's great newspapers.

"Did you like Ben's Chili Bowl?" asked Metro reporter Theola Labbe-DeBose, referring to Obama's recent visit to the downtown eatery.

"That half-smoke's all right," Obama said.

Another staffer asked about the family's dog search.

"Haven't decided yet," said Obama, who visited USA Today earlier in the day.

The president-elect had the foresight to ask about the weather. "What's Tuesday looking like?" he wondered.

By now he had circled past the Metro staff and obit desk and was making his way toward the North Wall of top editors' offices, where he stopped to chat with Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman, who gave him a copy of the paper's special election edition proclaiming Obama's victory. Then it was into national-staff territory, where Obama asked one campaign reporter if he had recovered from the trail but seemed surprised to learn that another, Philip Rucker, had spent 13 days covering him in Hawaii.

Graham introduced Obama to Walter Pincus, saying the reporter had been covering the CIA for decades.

Obama asked a pregnant woman when she was due. "I hear Barack's a good name," he said. Obama also posed for a picture with an electrician who has worked at the paper for half a century.

While the environment seemed safe enough, a Secret Service agent ordered national security editor Carlos Lozada to take his hands out of his pockets.

One of the pool reporters, Helene Cooper of the New York Times, seemed less than enthusiastic about the incursion into Post land. She wrote that Obama arrived "at 157 pm at the nondescript soviet-style building at 15th and L street that houses the washington post." All right, it's no architectural prize, but at least we haven't had to mortgage our headquarters like a certain Manhattan-based newspaper.

A joke in Cooper's report quickly ricocheted to the Drudge Report. Surveying the scene on the street, she wrote that "around 100 people--Post reporters perhaps?--awaited PEOTUS's arrival, cheering and bobbing their coffee cups." For the record, eyewitnesses say these were just onlookers from nearby buildings. But Matt Drudge depicted it thusly in a red-ink headline: "'CHEERING AT THE WASHINGTON POST FOR OBAMA ARRIVAL."

Inside, as Obama finally came full circle around the warren of offices and cubicles, he declared: "All right, back to work!" And he had correctly analyzed the situation: All work in The Post newsroom had stopped.

Does the episode, which some staffers muttered was a tad embarrassing, mean the paper's staff has a soft spot for Obama? Not really. It means that when an extremely famous and soon to be very powerful person shows up at the office, journalists act like people everywhere. They gawk.

Playing to the Pundits

From 7:30 a.m.

If you think the chattering classes were chattering about the Osama tape or the fate of the second $350 billion in bailout money yesterday, let me enlighten you.

It was all about the dinner party.

To wit, which members of the conservative commentariat were invited to dine with Obama? How did it go? Who was left off the list? Why on earth did he do it? What about his base?

There was no shortage of buzz after the election about how Barack would use his digital prowess and donor lists to bypass the hopelessly passé MSM and communicate directly with the public. Well, maybe. But the events of the past 36 hours show that he is paying his respects to the college of media cardinals. Here's my report:

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 Obama. 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!' "

Some other blog reaction, starting with No More Mister Nice Blog:

"I'm comfortable with [the] dinner because while Obama seems to be listening to a lot of people, and working bits of what they're recommending into his mix, his basic approach is still the reasonably progressive one he suggested it would be during the campaign . . . and yet right-wingers in particular seem easily lulled by his willingness to listen, and ready to declare him a surprisingly right-wing guy -- after which he turns around and says, 'Oh yeah, I'm still closing Gitmo, ending torture, doing diplomatic outreach to enemies, and, oh, retaining the capital gains tax. But it's been great talking to you.' "

Betsy's Page:

"Maybe it's just an example of getting to know the enemy or keeping your friends close, but your enemies closer. But I prefer to think that the president-elect is actually making an effort to do what he promised on the campaign to do -- hear both sides of an argument. If the conservatives can open his mind a bit on what should and should not be in the stimulus or foreign affairs, it would be a blessing."

HuffPost's Jacob Heilbrunn:

"Everyone should calm down. Barack Obama's dinner with George F. Will, William Kristol, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer doesn't mean that he's selling out to the right. Quite the contrary. It indicates that Obama is completing the job of detaching the conservative intellectual elite from the GOP itself.

"Kristol, Brooks, and Krauthammer are all neoconservatives. Krauthammer was a speechwriter for vice-president Walter Mondale during the Carter administration. He moved right. Brooks has been making conciliatory noises about Obama for much of the past year, and barely qualifies as a conservative any longer. George F. Will, a traditional conservative, has been denouncing George W. Bush for years. Talking with them is a shrewd move on Obama's part. It wouldn't even be surprising if some neocons (re)defect to the Democratic party."

His style must be scoring points, because 71 percent approve of how he's handling the transition:

"Americans support the economic-stimulus plan being pushed by President-elect Barack Obama but worry the government will spend too much money and widen the budget deficit, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found . . .

"As Mr. Obama prepares to take office next week, he enjoys enormous good will and higher approval ratings than his predecessors enjoyed upon entering the White House.

"The poll found that the handful of problems Mr. Obama's transition has encountered have had little, if any, effect on his standing with the public. And even before the Illinois Democrat is sworn in as the nation's first African-American president, the poll found a large increase in the number of Americans who view race relations positively. . . . Nearly eight in 10 said race relations in the U.S. are very or fairly good, higher than the proportion in past polls."

Obama's media mastery continues: A letter to his kids on why he ran for president winds up on the cover of Parade magazine.

Joe Biden says he too will be influential, even if not another Cheney.

My column the other day on the paucity of African American correspondents at the White House drew a sharp reaction from Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby:

"With so many other things to worry about, and with the whole world able to see that racial identity is no longer a barrier to even the most powerful position in American life, you might think the press would finally be ready to abandon its unhealthy preoccupation with the color of skin -- especially the skin within its own ranks. Alas, no . . .

"But why should it matter to anyone but a racist whether a White House reporter is black or white? Well, says Michael Fletcher, a colleague of Kurtz's, 'you would want to have black journalists there to bring a different racial sensibility.' By the same token, more evangelical journalists would presumably bring a different religious sensibility to the White House, more journalists from the Deep South would bring a different regional sensibility, and more Republican journalists would bring a different political sensibility. Do you know of any news organizations that are fretting over the 'relative paucity' of evangelicals, Southerners, or Republicans on their payrolls? Me neither . . .

"The plain if unfashionable truth is that the White House press corps, and journalism generally, don't need more black reporters. They don't need more white reporters, either. Journalism needs good reporters, and good reporting isn't a function of race."

Sorry, I'm not buying. What if there were no women in the White House press corps? Would we say, well, who cares, men can do the job? I would like to see evangelicals, military veterans and others with varying experiences included in the mix. The mention of Republicans is a red herring, because most reporters, even if they lean left on issues, don't consider themselves Democrats. And if they want to be Democrats, they can go into the administration, as Linda Douglass and Jay Carney have.

As if to underscore my point about differing perspectives, The Post's Vanessa Williams has this essay on The Root:

"Gotta love the brothers who show their affection for the dark-skinned girls, even if they are hollering out the window of a passing car.

"Gotta love it even more when the brother is the president, and the object of his affection is front and center for the world to see.

"It's true: A lot of black women fell for Barack Obama the moment they saw his wife.

"If a black president represents change, a dark-skinned first lady is straight-up revolutionary.

"I won't apologize for taking note of Michelle Obama's physical appearance. Plenty has already been said about how she, with her double Ivy degrees, six-figure salaries and two adorable daughters, is crushing the image of the struggling black single mother. She is a real life Claire Huxtable! But the true breakthrough here is that sisters who look like Michelle Obama seldom become cultural icons, aesthetic trendsetters -- a proxy for the all-American woman.

"And don't roll your eyes and ask why we have to go there; we haven't completely gotten over our prejudices about skin tone and hair texture. . . . I know from first-hand experience. I remember being taunted and shunned by some people who didn't believe that old saying about the blacker the berry. Back when we were Negroes, the word 'black' was used to describe the dark-skinned among us, usually not with affection."

Here's a story that should have gotten more attention, on a Bush administration official named Bradley Schlozman:

"A former senior official at the Justice Department routinely hired Republicans, Federalist Society members and 'R.T.A.'s' -- 'Right-Thinking Americans'-- for what were supposed to be nonpolitical posts and gave them plum assignments on civil rights cases . . .

"He talked about reshaping the political makeup of the Civil Rights Division and doing away with 'pinko' and 'crazy lib' lawyers and others he did not consider 'real Americans.'

"In one e-mail message regarding a pool of job applicants, he wrote that 'as long as I'm here, adherents of Mao's Little Red Book need not apply.'

"When a colleague reported that he had been given an office next to a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal affairs group, Mr. Schlozman responded in an e-mail message: 'Just between you and me, we hired another member of "the team" yesterday. And still another ideological comrade will be starting in one month. So we are making progress.' "

Just between you and me, that is a total corruption of federal law enforcement that was all too common in the Gonzalez Justice Department.

The news yesterday that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave because his health problems are more "complex" than he thought hit like a bombshell, in part because he's so crucial to the company's success. But it's also because Apple has consistently refused to discuss the cancer survivor's health, declaring it to be a private matter.

It's worth recalling what the haggard-looking Jobs told Joe Nocera last July, when the NYT columnist inquired about his health:

"This is Steve Jobs. You think I'm an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he's above the law, and I think you're a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong."

Nocera was calling to get the facts about Jobs's health, which the executive would discuss only off the record. Now look where that's gotten Apple.

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