Obama Takes the Blame

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 8, 2010; 9:37 AM

Well, it worked for Harry Truman.

President Obama's speeches often lack a concise sound bite, but he had one yesterday that his team knew would become the headline: "Ultimately, the buck stops with me."

By saying that "when the system fails, it is my responsibility," the president handed his adversaries -- you know, those people who keep saying he's made the country less safe -- a big fat club. But he also admitted the obvious. This was a monumental screwup -- doesn't help much to find out about Abdulmullatab when he's already on the flight, does it? -- and Obama runs the show. At the same time, critics might fairly note that no heads rolled. The president sounded stern: "I have repeatedly made it clear -- in public with the American people, and in private with my national security team -- that I will hold my staff, our agencies and the people in them accountable when they fail to perform their responsibilities at the highest levels."

Then came the but: This was "not the fault of a single individual or organization," but a "systemic failure." Maybe, but if everyone is responsible, then no one is responsible.

Experts can debate whether the steps ordered by the president will beef up airline security. The Bush revamp was supposed to fix this connect-the-dots problem too, yet they often remain stubbornly unconnected.

I did like this part of Obama's remarks: "We will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am president, we will never hand them that victory."

No system is foolproof. And I often worry that we tie ourselves in unnecessary knots by frisking grandmothers and making everyone take off their shoes and carry tiny little toothpaste tubes. There has got to be a better way to keep psychopaths off planes than to keep ratcheting up the harassment level for law-abiding citizens until the air traffic system becomes paralyzed. I don't mind stepping through a full-body scanner. I got nothing to hide.

The morning papers focus mainly on the substance but also get some bang from the "buck":

"President Obama on Thursday ordered intelligence agencies to take a series of steps to streamline how terrorism threats are pursued and analyzed, saying the government had to respond aggressively to the failures that allowed a Nigerian man to ignite an explosive mixture on a commercial jetliner on Christmas Day," says the New York Times.

"Declaring that 'the buck stops with me,' President Obama on Thursday released the results of an internal investigation into the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt and ordered a series of incremental measures meant to close gaps in the U.S. intelligence system that failed to detect it in advance," says the L.A. Times.

"President Obama, declaring that the 'buck stops with me' when it comes to protecting the nation from terrorists, ordered stepped up aviation security and released a declassified report on intelligence failures behind the near-catastrophic Christmas Day attack," says USA Today.

"President Obama took responsibility Thursday for the government's failure to head off a Christmas Day bomber, saying 'ultimately the buck stops with me,' and he released a report that showed eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks the government still is not properly analyzing and acting on intelligence," says the Washington Times.


Is the Peter Orszag story news?

Some at the White House don't think so. Some journalists don't, either.

The argument in favor: The president's budget director has an out-of-wedlock love child, and got engaged to a television correspondent weeks after the birth. Hello? That is news.

The argument against: Orszag had an adult relationship with a professional woman, Claire Milonas -- Harvard MBA, venture capitalist -- and she got pregnant. They jointly decided to split up. After the breakup, he met ABC's Bianna Golodryga and they got engaged. Orszag and Milonas have put out a joint statement. This is personal stuff that has nothing to do with his job.

After the reports in the New York Post and Washington Post, NBC's "Today" played the story near the top of the broadcast. Some in the administration -- and at ABC -- believe NBC was just sticking it to a rival network because of Golodryga's role as the fiancee.

I doubt that. Orszag is an important government official. He left a pregnant woman and quickly got engaged under circumstances that may be innocent but are somewhat murky. It was news when he and Golodryga got engaged (with the OMB man making no mention of the ex or the baby daughter). He has a fan site called Orszagasm.com. In a world where the media are all over Tiger Woods and David Letterman and Mark Sanford and John Edwards -- not to mention the pregnancy of Sarah Palin's daughter, who didn't ask to be a public figure -- it's not realistic to think the Orszag situation wouldn't be covered.

Politico's Ben Smith describes the New York Post piece as "some classic tabloid writing, and a serious dent in the geeky image of the director of the Office of Management and Budget, whose star has risen quite a bit over the last year."

And Comedy Central's Indecision offers this take: "In light of this revelation President Obama should remove Peter Orszag from the budget office immediately, and transfer him to the Office of Explaining How Nearsighted Numbers Nerds Can Get So Much Hot, Sexy Action."

So much for C-SPAN

There's no doubt that Obama has abandoned his promise to have legislative negotiations televised. I never expected it to happen, but he did repeatedly raise it during the campaign.

National Review picks up on some interesting byplay with the House's top Democrat:

"A devastating collection of clips in which candidate Obama promises over and over again that health-care negotiations will be televised on C-SPAN. Nancy Pelosi, for one, isn't happy about having to answer for Obama's campaign promises:

"House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, piqued with White House pressure to accept the Senate health reform bill, threw a rare rhetorical elbow Tuesday at President Barack Obama, questioning his commitment to his 2008 campaign promises. A leadership aide said it was no accident.

"Pelosi emerged from a meeting with her leadership team and committee chairs in the Capitol to face an aggressive throng of reporters who immediately hit her with C-SPAN's request that she permit closed-door final talks on the bill to be televised.

"A reporter reminded the San Francisco Democrat that in 2008, then-candidate Obama opined that all such negotiations be open to C-SPAN cameras. 'There are a number of things he was for on the campaign trail,' quipped Pelosi, who has no intention of making the deliberations public."

Picking Palin

Having written about the tea-party movement the other day, this Christian Science Monitor piece caught my eye:

"Almost 1-1/2 years since she shook up American politics with her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is set to headline another landmark political event: the first-ever Tea Party Convention next month in Nashville, Tenn.

"On its face, the gig would seem a step down for Ms. Palin, one of conservative America's most popular and polarizing figures (not to mention major thorn in the side of the Obama White House).

"But with an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll ranking a generic 'Tea Party' as more popular than either Democrats or Republicans, and Palin herself rivaling the charming Mr. Obama in poll popularity, many experts see the Tea Party event as a potential milestone for a mounting, even transformational, force in U.S. politics."

Mika's moment

I profiled Mika Brzezinski last year, focusing in part on what she did after being fired by CBS and before being picked up by MSNBC's "Morning Joe":

"Nobody wanted me," she said. "I spent a year looking for a job. You spend 10 years at a place, you gave your heart and soul and blood for it, and all of a sudden it's over? I was 40 and, quote, fired, and I'm sure people were thinking, what's wrong with her?"

Now she's got a book out, "All Things at Once," and the Daily Beast's Rebecca Dana talks to the author:

"Initially, when her mother came across the galley, she was not pleased, Mika says. She tore through the book, crossing out large portions and writing furious comments in the margins: 'LIES!' 'Not true!'

" 'There was much drama in the Brzezinski household about where the truth really lies,' Mika says. 'There were large family conversations: "Was the deer in the bathtub?" "On the counter?" "No, the deer was on the floor." Finally she wrote me a note saying, "I guess it's OK. And I'm touched that you dedicated it to me." '

"The deer in question is one Mika's mother found dead, but still warm, on the side of the road one morning when the family was living in Virginia and Zbigniew was working in the White House. Being resourceful -- and defiantly nonconformist -- Mika's mother began butchering the dead deer where it lay, eventually hauling half the carcass home to serve that evening at a dinner party attended by a number of prominent guests, including a relative of Winston Churchill's. . . .

"The anchor gets emotional talking about the degree of vitriol aimed not just at her but also at her family -- coming from both the right and the left, from people who call her a horrible mother for sacrificing time with her children to pursue her career, and from people who call her a horrible feminist for talking about the need for women to make career sacrifices if they want a family."

A question of disclosure

How much should the funding matter when it comes to journalism?

The Washington Post ran this correction this other day: "A Dec. 31 A-section article by the Fiscal Times, about growing congressional support for a bipartisan commission to address the nation's debt, contained a statement supporting the concept by Robert L. Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition. The article should have noted that the Concord Coalition receives funding from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Peterson, but not his foundation, also funds the Fiscal Times, the independent news service that prepared the article."

I agree that should have been disclosed, but also noted that the article's co-author was Eric Pianin, a former, longtime Post reporter and editor who's as straight as they come. The New Republic picks up the controversy:

"Pianin, who is also TFT's Washington editor, explained to me that he was aware of the buzz surrounding the piece but refused to give the claims any legitimacy. 'Apart from an occasional conversation with Pete Peterson when I'm in New York, there really isn't any daily contact. He's not, in any way -- I can't stress this too much -- involved in the daily decision making and news gathering that goes on or that will be going on.' Pianin explained that he and editor-in-chief Jackie Leo have full control over the organization's editorial content that will be featured in the Post and on their website, which will launch later this month."

The Fiscal Times will have to demonstrate its independence. But aren't a number of MSM outfits owned by people with strong views and financial interests -- say, Rupert Murdoch and Mort Zuckerman? The proof is in the reporting.

Sticking it to MSM

Andrew Breitbart, the onetime Drudge associate who was behind the ACORN sting, has launched a site called Big Journalism.

In an interview with Gawker, Breitbart said "that he's going to war with biased old-media -- and even new media types, from The New York Times to Anderson Cooper to the Huffington Post -- with his new site.

"He said: 'I'm trying to fill a huge market void for original reporting and fact based journalism' for the 'silent minority around the world' (that would be the right). 'This metaphorical warfare. This is not real bombs, but this is word bombs.'. . . .

"Breitbart helped Arianna Huffington launch Huffington Post as 'primary developer.' 'My sites offer truth and hers offer leftist sin,' he said. 'I'm very happy to be in competition with HuffPost, TPM or Politico,' he said. 'I honestly don't read those sites.' "

Interesting that the pugnacious conservative claims the mantle of "truth." The welcoming message from his editor-in-chief, Michael Walsh:

"We're not here to compete for Pulitzer Prizes, to sit on committees, to scratch each other's backs on the weekend television wagfests or to conform to some arbitrary code of ethics cooked up in the days when the mainstream media was the only game in town, and had already begun to cozy up to the government and the establishment, thus abandoning its constitutional mission of keeping a finger on the pulse of America, and an eye on the crooks. . . .

"If you're a writer looking for a platform, an MSM insider looking to blow the whistle or spill some beans, an expert in a field who knows that every time she reads something about her profession in the paper, the story is wrong -- if you're one of these people, then please contact us through the site and join us."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company