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Mr. Nice Guy

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 22, 2009 7:32 AM

Michael Kinsley tells the tale of his first outing as co-host of "Crossfire," when a producer barked in his ear: "Get mad! Get mad!"

Barack Obama seems to be getting the same advice lately.

The president who was elected in no small measure because of his even temperament is getting cuffed around for not expressing displeasure, pique or outright hostility.

This line of criticism first surfaced with the AIG bonuses, when Obama took several days to say this was an "outrage." But he didn't look very outraged. He said America had a right to be angry at reckless banks and that he was angry as well. But he was quite calm when he said it, missing an opportunity, in my view, to identify with the widespread revulsion at the Wall Street titans who crashed the economy.

Now the president is being denounced for his friendly treatment of Hugo Chavez, the America-basher from Venezuela. I wondered myself why Obama had given Chavez his most dazzling smile. Why, TPM notes that Obama even bowed down to shake hands with a dog that belongs to the president of Mexico.

Some on the right are misinterpreting Obama's handling of the Latin American summit as a fervent desire to be liked. I watched him carefully during the campaign, met with him once, and came away believing that Obama has a certain innate reserve that does not reflect the usual pol's hunger to be loved. Obama has a style--forged in Indonesia and Hawaii, a product of his biracial identity--of courtesy and conciliation. That is the way he is. Plus, he certainly didn't want to be viewed as an angry black man during the presidential campaign.

But Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush sometimes used flashes of temper to great theatrical effect. Even Gene Robinson--that is, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gene Robinson--says of the encounters with Chavez: "There were a couple of moments at the summit . . . when Obama would have been right to throw off a little heat . . .When Obama shook the man's hand, he should have telegraphed clearly, through posture, expression and language, that he was not amused. Chávez's gift of the book was meant to affront, not to enlighten, and I would have advised Obama to reciprocate in kind."

Politico lays out the opposition line:

"Republicans are hoping they have finally found the secret to taking on President Barack Obama -- by portraying him as overly apologetic about U.S. misdeeds and naive about engaging unfriendly regimes abroad.

"But tagging Obama as a 'Jimmy Carter Democrat' on foreign affairs and national security may prove a difficult critique to make stick -- at least for the moment.

"That is because Obama and his aides have sought to inoculate themselves against the charge with a simple defense: This is what the public voted for in November.

"The White House says Obama made clear that his foreign policy approach called for engagement and admitting mistakes where warranted and that voters embraced that sharp break with eight years of the Bush administration.

"So for now, Republicans may find little political headway by bashing Obama for his cordial handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the release of so-called torture memos and other recent moves that have been criticized by Vice President Dick Cheney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and some Republicans on Capitol Hill."

Chavez, of course, runs a country that poses zero threat to the United States. But that doesn't matter, says Mona Charen at National Review:

"In one photo, President Obama is grinning as he clasps Hugo Chávez by the hand. In another, he grasps Chávez warmly by the shoulder. Those pictures disgusted several members of Congress. . .

"Isn't it the case that some leaders, by their dangerous and destructive actions, forfeit the right to warm greetings? Is there anyone President Obama would decline to exchange friendly greetings with at a diplomatic encounter? How about Robert Mugabe? Kim Jong Il? Hugo Chávez's close friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? If Barack Obama had been president in 1977, would he have shaken Pol Pot's hand? Hugo Chavez is not Pol Pot, of course. Nor even as evil as Ahmadinejad. Yet. But despite his sometimes-clownish behavior, Chávez is more Mussolini than Charlie Chaplin . . .

"It's not that he endangered national security. Rather he diminished his own moral standing, and by extension, ours."

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen rebuts the former VPOTUS and dismisses this line of criticism as "the new Republican smear of the week":

"Just days after Obama shook hands and received a gift from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Cheney called the images of the encounter 'not helpful.' 'I think it sets the wrong standard,' Cheney added. 'The president's got to provide leadership and I don't want to be in a position where you don't interact with your adversaries. I think you do need to do that but I think it's got to be done properly. It's got to be done under the right conditions.'

"Hmm, there was a hemispheric gathering of heads of state. One elected president shook hands with another elected president. In what universe is this 'interaction' taking place under the 'wrong conditions'?"

Tortured Explanations

It seemed like a settled matter. Obama had released the Bush-era torture memos and signaled that he wants to move on. The first sign of a backtrack came in yesterday's NYT:

"On Sunday, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on the ABC News program 'This Week' that 'those who devised policy' also 'should not be prosecuted.' But administration officials said Monday that Mr. Emanuel had meant the officials who ordered the policies carried out, not the lawyers who provided the legal rationale."

Soon the ship of state was executing a 180, and Robert Gibbs was struggling for an explanation as reporters pressed him about the apparent shift. There was obviously growing pressure from the left.

L.A. Times: "Although President Obama opposes the prosecution of CIA operatives who carried out the most controversial interrogations of suspected terrorists during the Bush administration, Obama suggested today that he had not ruled out action against Justice Department officials who authorized the tactics . . .

"The president . . . who banned and then publicized interrogation tactics employed by the CIA in the early years of the Bush administration, has maintained that he is more interested in looking forward than dwelling on past actions . . . Yet the president today also left an opening for Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. to pursue questions about any legal liability for authorities who permitted the interrogation tactics employed by the CIA."

Today's NYT examines how this came to pass:

"In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.

"This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved -- not the top two C.I.A. officials who were pushing the program, not the senior aides to President George W. Bush, not the leaders of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees -- investigated the gruesome origins of the techniques they were approving with little debate . . .

"Even George J. Tenet, the C.I.A. director who insisted that the agency had thoroughly researched its proposal and pressed it on other officials, did not examine the history of the most shocking method, the near-drowning technique known as waterboarding."

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder describes an off-the-record response from an administration honcho: "The release of the memos was, according to this official, the single most Obama-esque thing the President has done since taking office. That is -- it's the most risky, most un-culture-of-Washington, most-in-your-face-against-the-bureaucracy decision he's made. I'm told that Obama made the decision to release the memos early in the process. Those who tried to persuade him to change his mind unfortunately used two arguments that he found unpersuasive.

"One, they gang-tackled him with a united show of opposition from former CIA officials; releasing the memos would harm the CIA right at the moment when Obama most needed the CIA. Two, they argued that the release of the techniques would tie the agency's hands in the future. Obama rejected the first argument because he does not like to be cornered and he did not run for president to cater to the way Washington works. Publicly damning the CIA -- basically -- is a heckuva shot across the bow.

"But President Obama was concerned about morale, the official insisted. That's why he agreed to release the memos accompanied with a statement promising that his attorney general wouldn't prosecute those who had acted in good faith, as Obama knew that most of the agency had."

That is now--what's the word?--inoperative.

David Frum examines whether there should be a federal probe of the Bushies' actions on torture or not:

"Here's why not: In Washington, there's an old rule that the process is the punishment. You don't have to convict people of any crime - you don't even have to charge them with any wrongdoing - in order to wreck careers and ruin lives. You can do that through the declaredly and allegedly neutral method of investigating them. While the investigation continues, they are subject to legal risk. They must pay legal fees out of government salaries. They must suspend other work. All for an uncertain and likely prolonged period of time. Really it might be more compassionate just to shoot them out of hand."

That Cover

There's more than meets the eye to Washingtonian magazine's cover shot of a shirtless Obama in swim trunks, taken during his Hawaiian vacation. At the Huffington Post, Susan Moeller finds evidence of photoshopping:

I'd like to call your attention to what Washingtonian did with the original Bauer-Griffin photo. Said Leslie Milk, the magazine's lifestyle editor, 'I know we changed the color of his suit to red, and dropped out the background.' In the original photo the president is wearing a black suit and walking from what appears to be sliding glass doors leading to a living room. What also appears to be altered from the original image is the contrast and the color balance of the president's skin. On The Washingtonian's cover the sun striking Obama's chest makes him appear more golden, almost glistening.

"In the world of news, that's unethical. The rule of thumb is, if you want to change what's in the photo, choose another photo. Making Obama into a man wearing brilliant red surfer trunks, instead of a more modest black pair, making the image more dramatic by having him walking out of darkness, and changing the exposure so he looks more gilded changes viewers' ideas about who the man is."

Beauty Contest Brouhaha

I don't know whether Miss California was robbed for her political views or not, but the right has embraced her (she was on Hannity last night). Here's the Contra Costa Times account:

"Still the center of a raging debate two days after her anti-gay-marriage remarks at the Miss USA pageant, Miss California Carrie Prejean went on the 'Today' show Tuesday and maintained she was proud of what she had said.

"During Sunday night's competition, Prejean was asked by openly gay celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, a judge in the pageant, if she felt all states should move toward allowing same-sex marriage.

"She said, 'I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman . . . that's how I was raised.' Besides setting off a firestorm of pro- and con-gay-marriage/freedom-of-speech twittering and blogging, the remark was widely believed to have cost her the crown. It also prompted Hilton to later post a nasty and unprintable rant about her on his massively popular Web site perezhilton.com.

" 'I was ready for my question, and when I heard it from [Perez], I knew at that moment after I'd answered the question, I knew that I was not going to win because of my answer,' she said. 'Because I had spoken from my heart, for my beliefs and for my God . . . It's not about being politically correct, for me, it's about being biblically correct.' " Video here.

Whatever Happened To?

The Drudge Report remains a powerful Web site, but where is its Florida-based proprietor? The New Republic's Gabriel Sherman investigates:

"Drudge owes both his stature and his accompanying fortune--sources believe he makes millions per year off his site--essentially to one thing: his appetite, during the Lewinsky era and afterward, for rummaging further into the lives of public figures than mainstream journalists were willing to go. And that's ironic when you consider the reason that his appearance at the Clinton concession speech created such a frenzy: For the past few years, Matt Drudge has gone almost completely underground . . .

"What is driving Drudge to seclusion? Those who know him say that part of the reason he has disappeared from public view is that he is so bothered by the media's prurient interest in his personal life.

"He wants no part of a lot of this," the friend told me. "He sees it as nonsense. He doesn't have respect for the way people have tried to write about him." . . .

"One source relayed to me that, a couple of years ago, Limbaugh advised Drudge to disappear from public life. (Limbaugh declined to comment.) Perhaps Limbaugh, whose personal life has received a thorough public airing over the years, understood the toll this could take. Perhaps he was trying to protect a fellow conservative from attack by the left. Or maybe he simply grasped something that now appears very obvious: Matt Drudge owes his power in part to the air of mystery that surrounds him."

Blago Blocked

Remember Rod Blagojevich's plan to head off to Costa Rica to tape the NBC reality show "I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Outta Here" (for up to $80,000 an episode)? An Illinois judge says, Fugheddaboudit.

Twitter Watch

John McCain's blogger daughter has a way of pushing people's buttons, and Hot Air's Ed Morrissey pushes back:

"There are two phenomena that I confess to not 'getting' these days: Twitter and Meghan McCain. Both of them seem to be fun and diverting, but neither seem to serve much purpose outside of entertainment. Both converged in an odd story which made me wonder exactly what Ms. McCain thinks that Twitter does:

" 'Karl Rove follows me on Twitter. That's creepy,' she said.'

" 'I joined Twitter a few months ago; so far, it has been a liberating way to transition from political to personal blogging. It's allowed me to share the less serious aspects and humorously uncensored moments of my life. But there's also been a downside: I am now being followed by Karl Rove, and my local sheriff, and God knows how many other political pundits. We need to take Twitter back from the creepy people.' . . .

"I'd say, after following Meghan McCain myself for a while, that having her complain about substance-free Twitter feeds is somewhat akin to having Paris Hilton complain about the incredible lightness of being Nicole Ritchie."

Oh, and here's Gary Trudeau, who has intrepid correspondent Roland Hedley filing hilarious tweets, telling Media Bistro that some journalists are using Twitter seriously. "But there are also vast numbers of users, including journalists, who are so smitten with the idea of a personal broadcasting system that the absence of meaningful content to broadcast doesn't seem to concern them."

You know who you are.

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