By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2009 12:01 PM
There hasn't been this much excitement in the Washington Post newsroom since Brad Pitt dropped by.
Barack Obama, here for a meeting with Post editors and reporters, did what comes 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 ovation. Many people were angling to see Obama up close, but the most excited newsroom staffers appeared to be non-journalists, including one clerical employee who was heard to shriek that the president-elect 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.
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.
Camera phones flashed as Obama, trailed by Post Co. CEO Donald Graham, began his stroll around the fifth-floor newsroom's perimeter, greeting nearly 200 staffers. He was also joined by Warren Buffett, a supporter who was here for a meeting of the Post Co. board, on which he serves.
"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 reporter Theola Labbé-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 also spoke to USA Today reporters on Wednesday.
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 his vacation in Hawaii, where he gave the media a wide berth.
Graham introduced Obama to Walter Pincus, saying the reporter had been covering the CIA for decades.
Obama briefly chatted with a handful of staffers. He asked a pregnant news aide 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 at one point ordered assistant national 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. No one had a press card in his or her hat. But Matt Drudge depicted it thusly in a red-ink headline: "'CHEERING AT THE WASHINGTON POST FOR OBAMA ARRIVAL." (He modified it after my initial post on the visit.)
Inside the newsroom, 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 ground to a halt.
Here, by the way, is the substantive portion of the program:
"President-elect Barack Obama pledged yesterday to shape a new Social Security and Medicare 'bargain' with the American people, saying that the nation's long-term economic recovery cannot be attained unless the government finally gets control over its most costly entitlement programs.
"That discussion will begin next month, Obama said, when he convenes a 'fiscal responsibility summit' before delivering his first budget to Congress. He said his administration will begin confronting the issues of entitlement reform and long-term budget deficits soon after it jump-starts job growth and the stock market."
I hope he fares better than George Bush did on the Social Security front.
O gave a different bit of news to USA Today:
"President-elect Barack Obama says he will appoint a team immediately after his inauguration Tuesday to address 'on Day One' the crisis in Gaza and brewing troubles across the Middle East."
Bush's farewell address last night was a short and low-key defense of his tenure, but it prompted some of the usual partisan assessments on cable. Chris Matthews went into a monologue on how Bush "was a rich kid driving his father's car" and bought into a neoconservative philosophy that "cost the lives of 100,000 Iraqis, cost the lives of 4,000 U.S. service people." Bill O'Reilly said more modestly that Bush "wanted to convince people, and I think he succeeded, that he had their best interests at heart" and that his approval rating as "a man" would be around 60.
Moving now to Capitol Hill, Obama is winning victories already:
"President-elect Barack Obama's economic agenda advanced rapidly in Congress on Thursday as the Senate voted to release the second half of the financial industry bailout fund and House Democrats unveiled an $825 billion fiscal recovery plan aimed at putting millions of unemployed Americans back to work," the NYT reports.
Welcome to Washington, sir. Here's $350 billion.
At Eric Holder's confirmation hearing, another break with the past:
"President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for attorney general said unequivocally Thursday that waterboarding was torture, and he vowed to initiate an extensive and immediate 'damage assessment' to fix fundamental problems in the Justice Department that he said were caused by the Bush administration," the L.A. Times reports.
How serious is Tim Geithner's tax problem? Some Republican lawmakers seem to be buying the notion that he made innocent mistakes. But not National Review's Byron York:
"Although it has been dismissed by some observers as a "hiccup" in an otherwise smooth confirmation process, treasury secretary-designate Timothy Geithner's failure to pay self-employment taxes during the years he worked at the International Monetary Fund is causing some Republicans on Capitol Hill to ask serious questions about his actions. First among those questions is why he accepted payment from the IMF as restitution for taxes that he had not, in fact, paid . . .
"Documents released by the Senate Finance Committee strongly suggest that Geithner knew, or should have known, what he was doing when he did not pay self-employment taxes in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. After his failure to pay was discovered, first by the IRS and later during the vetting process, Geithner paid the federal government a total of $42,702 in taxes and interest.
"The IMF did not withhold state and federal income taxes or self-employment taxes -- Social Security and Medicare -- from its employees' paychecks. But the IMF took great care to explain to those employees, in detail and frequently, what their tax responsibilities were."
Roger Simon offers an Everyman's view:
"Would it be OK if I stopped paying my taxes until Barack Obama names me to be his secretary of the treasury? That is a deal I would like to get. That is the deal financial wizard Timothy Geithner got. He didn't pay all of his federal taxes for years. Then, after Obama decided to name him treasury secretary, Obama's vetting team discovered Geithner's little oversight. Not paying your taxes is considered serious for some people. But not for Geithner, a Wall Street 'wonder boy' -- he is 47 -- who is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and was instrumental in putting together the recent Wall Street bailout package. You would think a guy like this would know about paying taxes, but no. Mistakes were made. . . .
"As secretary of the treasury, Geithner would be in charge of the Internal Revenue Service. And we will see how easy he is on other people when they say they made 'honest mistakes.' "
At the New Republic, the wonder boy gets a more sympathetic hearing from Noam Schieber, based on the size of his pocketbook:
"Look, Geithner certainly isn't poor. But he's spent his life as a civil servant and bureaucrat, so he's not exactly rich either. After about a decade at Treasury, he reached the rank of under secretary in the late '90s, meaning he probably never made more than $150,000-$175,000 per year there, and often much less. (He started more or less on the ground floor.) Thereafter, Geithner decamped to the IMF, where he probably did somewhat better, but not much if one can deduce from his back taxes. He went from the IMF to the New York Fed in 2003, where he seems to have made somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000 during each of his five 5 years there.
"Again, no one should cry for Geithner -- he's done perfectly well for himself financially, certainly better than 90-plus percent of Americans. On the other hand, had he come from Wall Street, he would probably have made millions per year.
"Why is this relevant to his tax screw-up? Because people who make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year probably hire a single, middlebrow accountant to do their taxes, and these people are hardly fool-proof. On the other hand, people who make millions of dollars a year probably get the most exquisite accounting and tax-lawyering around. The end result is that the latter don't have obvious, embarrassing mistakes on their tax returns."
Commentary's Jennifer Rubin thinks that argument is tortured:
"A bizarre defense: rich people 'cheat' on their taxes by getting elite accountants to shelter income, so we shouldn't be too harsh on Geithner who hired some schlub who messed up. Personal responsibility, anyone? And Geithner's guy isn't sophisticated enough to understand the tax code? (Recall that the IMF notified him of his obligations and that he signed acknowledgment of the same and received reimbursement for his [unpaid] taxes.) I think the Obama team better go the abject apology route if they want to rescue this one."
From the left, David Corn of Mother Jones is no Holder fan, saying that in a way, he "represents what's wrong with Washington . . .
"Holder's role in the [Marc] Rich pardon may not have been instrumental, but it was a mistake -- a terrible way to cap off decades of public service. But he is a poster child for something perhaps more pernicious and extensive in the nation's capital: selling out. Months after the Clinton administration ended, Holder went to work for the influential law firm and lobbying shop of Covington and Burling. (He also joined the boards of Eastman Kodak and MCI.)
"Holder was doing what so many routinely do in Washington: cashing in. He took years of experience he had gathered as a public servant and rented it to corporations accused of serious wrongdoing. He smoothly went from doing good to doing well. In 2008, according to his confirmation questionnaire, he made $2.1 million at Covington and Burling. And he expects in 2009 to bring in over $2.5 million, including his separation payment.
"Holder's private legal work for the Chiquita banana company, which faced the possibility of federal charges for having paid protection money to Colombian terrorists, has earned media attention. Holder also helped Merck settle a massive Medicaid overbilling case that culminated in a $671 million civil settlement."
But that's what big-time lawyers do: sell their services to wealthy clients.
Sports Illustrated gets in on Obamamania by reflecting on the importance of basketball in his life:
"The game provided space in which the young Obama explored his identity as an African-American. He won a reputation as a consensus builder while playing recreationally in college and law school. A pickup game with [Michelle's brother Craig] Robinson did nothing less than confirm Obama as a worthy suitor to his wife-to-be. In Chicago, basketball helped him connect with the South Siders he worked with as a community organizer and with the circle of professionals who would help launch his political career. He began to scratch out notes for his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, the one that loosed his career from the D league of state politics, while in a hotel room watching the NBA on TNT. As for the two reddest states Obama flipped in the '08 general election, Indiana and North Carolina, each narrowly chose him after he made a basketball lover's case to basketball-loving people.
"The more than 300,000 people who have watched the Barack O-Balla mixtape on YouTube, with its highlights from high school through Election Day, might describe Obama's game as old-school schoolyard: reverse layups, double-pumps in the lane, mambos off the dribble and a signature fake-right, drive-left move. (Obama also shoots a decent midrange jumper, though his high school nickname, Barry O'Bomber, is a misnomer.)"
But the piece isn't all cheerleading:
"Obama remains something short of the total hoops package. He can't dunk. He doesn't have a nickname. His usual getup of black sweatpants and gray T-shirt (call it the Police Academy Trainee look) isn't likely to set a trend."
I mentioned yesterday that Steve Jobs had called NYT columnist Joe Nocera a "slime bucket" for questioning his health. Nocera reflects on their 2008 interview:
"I said at the time that I knew I was being spun by Mr. Jobs. But I didn't think I was being lied to. Now, I'm not sure what to think. It is certainly possible that he had the condition he described to me last summer. It is also possible that he did, in fact, have 'a hormone imbalance,' as he announced last week, as rumors swirled again about his health. And it is even possible that a few days later he discovered that his problems were 'more complex' -- whatever that means -- and that he only just realized that he needs to take a medical leave . . .
"The most indispensable chief executive in the United States, beloved by customers and investors for his magnificent turnaround of the company he founded -- and for the amazing gadgets his company produces -- can no longer be trusted on the subject of whether he is healthy enough to continue running the company . . .
"There are certain people who simply don't have the same privacy rights as others, whether they like it or not. Presidents. Celebrities. Sports figures. And, at least in terms of his health, Steve Jobs."
That isn't a slimy conclusion; it's the truth.