The Media's New Rock Star

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006 7:42 AM

Barack Obama will never get this kind of cuddly coverage again.

One hundred and fifty journalists in New Hampshire for his little drop-by on Sunday, when the guy hasn't even decided whether he's running for president?

Has he cast some kind of magic spell over the normally hard-bitten, cynical, run-over-your-grandmother-for-a-story press corps? Or are they just engaged in the audacity of hope that they might get to cover a young and exciting African-American candidate with a shot at winning?

Let's face it: The minute Obama gets into the race--a prospect that Newsweek now puts at 80 percent--the gloves come off, the investigative reporters start crawling over every piece of paper he ever signed, and he begins the long descent toward ordinary mortal. Because right now, the freshman senator is up in the media stratosphere, far beyond the slings and arrows of news organizations and potential opponents. Almost no one, for example, is asking whether a guy who has been in the Senate for all of two years is a plausible commander-in-chief.

Trust me, that will change.

If Obama orchestrated all this--book tour, Oprah embrace, hint-dropping with Tim Russert, pressing the flesh in Manchester and Portsmouth--he may be some kind of genius. But most of the coverage has focused on his star potential, not on his plan for a withdrawal for Iraq or how he would deal with Iran or North Korea. I still believe that any candidate without national security credentials is going to have a tough time, but maybe Obama will find a way to suspend the laws of political gravity.

Slate's John Dickerson was among the media pack in the Granite State:

"Brenda Bladen was trying to explain why she liked Barack Obama so much--he was authentic, selfless and inspirational. He was restoring her faith in politics. 'I'm not comparing him to Jesus Christ but . . . ' she said, before talking about the senator's humble beginnings . . .

"It's easy to see why New Hampshire Democrats were in a frenzy over Obama. He is a winning presence in a room. He is stylish in his uniform of white shirt, no tie and dark blazer. He carries himself with the weightless self-possession men's magazines achieve only by employing a team of stylists and wardrobe artists. Even his left handed signature is elegant--a 'B' and an 'O' connected by confident slashes. If he really were a rock star, he'd have it etched into the side of his private plane . . .

"But coolness doesn't get you elected, and coolness wasn't what had the New Hampshire audiences even more excited after they heard Obama speak. They were in love with the senator's message, a call to political renewal and rebirth that eschews what he calls the '24-hour, slash-and-burn, negative ad, bickering, small-minded politics.' The audiences in New Hampshire reacted to his remarks with one word appraisals: inspirational, uplifting, moving . . .

"If he decides to run, Obama faces the difficulty of any politician campaigning against politics as usual--he can't act politically or he ruins his brand. Running for president is exhausting, brutal and chaotic even if you're using the old playbook. Obama is suggesting he will go through that slog under a new set of rules that include a higher standard of candor for himself and greater fairness towards his opponents than has ever been practiced in electoral history. That is audacious and perhaps impossible."

HuffPosters Dave Johnson and James Boyce devise a novel explanation for Obama's popularity:

"Senator Obama is admired and he is loved. Look at the recent favorability polls and there he is, the Number One Democrat in America. But why? Why is a junior senator, nationally a virtual unknown just two years ago, now at the top of the national favorability ratings? Is it because of his new book? His great 2004 Convention Speech? His appearance on Oprah? All of these, of course, but in fairness, does Barack Obama truly deserve to be the Democratic leader with the highest national favorability in a recent poll? Hardly.

"With complete respect to Senator Obama, where are the long-time Democratic leaders who have dedicated their lives to the service of our country? Where are the other possible presidential contenders? What about Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry? Where are Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid? Are they not leaders that deserve at the very least to have decent favorability ratings?

"Why is Bara[c]k Obama 'favorable' and not any of the better-known Democratic leaders? And why -- of all people is Rudy Guiliani at the top of the list as the Number One leader in our country? The answer is simple, and dramatic.

"This favorability poll proves the power of the Right Wing's ongoing and successful strategy of 'SELL and SMEAR' . . .

"With concentrated and coordinated efforts between the conservative movement organizations, political leaders and the press, we have been SOLD the myth of Rudy Guiliani as a strong leader just as they've SMEARED John Kerry to the point where he is, sadly, damaged goods contemplating the potential end of a thirty-plus year career of service."

Boy, that must be one powerful machine.

Tom Bevan at Real Clear Politics notes one factoid that journalists might be chewing over:

"Obama's wife, Michelle, earns $45K a year sitting on the corporate board of Treehouse (formerly Dean) Foods, whose biggest customer is - you guessed it - Wal-Mart. Not to mention that Treehouse appears to have a bit of an executive compensation issue.

"According to the article by Greg Hinz of Crain's Chicago, the CEO of Treehouse earned $26.2 million in salary and stock options last year, making him the second highest paid exec in the state, ahead of the CEO's of corporate giants Motorola and Abbot Labs. And three other execs at Treehouse made over $10 million last year, all working for a company with only $700 million in revenues.

"All of this stuff, and much more, will come into play should Obama throw his hat in the ring. When it comes to running for president, you can only float above the shark tank for so long before you have to get down in the water, get bloody, and start mixing it up."

The last presidential contender to get such glowing coverage was McCain in 2000, and Dick Polman says it hasn't ended:

"At an event last month in New York City, I got into an interesting conversation with some notable journalists. The topic was John McCain. More specifically, the topic was why so many notable journalists give such a free ride to John McCain. And, of course, it only took about 30 seconds before we came up with a consensus answer: McCain is at ease around journalists, he gives them access, he's not afraid to think out loud --- all of which is so unlike so many contemporary pols, who treat the press like dirt unless they are armed in advance with robotic talking points that are bound to make them look good. It's a simple formula, really: Give access, get good press . . .

"And it continues to pay off. Even though '08 GOP candidate McCain continues to curry favor with the religious conservatives leaders whom he once condemned as 'the forces of evil,' he is still widely described as a 'maverick.' Even though McCain was ranked in 2005 (by as the third most conservative U.S. senator, he is he is still widely described as 'independent.' Even though he has flip-flopped lately on a number of issues (he voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001, but voted to extend them last winter), he is still widely described as a 'straight-talker.'

"One of his effective selling points, during his failed '00 presidential bid, was his image as a boat rocker, an insurgent in full cry against the Republican establishment. But now, today, we have further factual evidence that the old labels should not apply. Reports indicate that he has hired, as his 2008 campaign manager, one of the most notorious hardball specialists of the Republican establishment."

He's talking about Terry Nelson, the man who made the bimbo ad against Harold Ford.

Time's Karen Tumulty sees a different issue for McCain: being judged by his lofty standards:

"McCain insists that he has always been more conservative than many of his fans believe him to be. But the most important perception people have about McCain is not about ideology; it's about integrity. After staking his reputation on the moral high ground by speaking truth to power on issues ranging from deficits to torture, McCain is uniquely vulnerable to anything that hints of hypocrisy--even on questions that ordinary politicians would get a pass on. To have a shot at winning a presidential election these days, for instance, it is nearly a requirement that candidates opt out of the federal finance system, forgoing its matching funds because it's too difficult to mount a credible campaign within the law's spending caps. But that move, however pragmatic, would look bad coming from an author of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform law."

I think voters would give McCain a pass if others were busting the limits, in that no one believes in unilateral disarmament.

Has America become a nation of cut-and-runners?

"As President Bush weighs changing course in Iraq, Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the war and want most U.S. troops withdrawn within a year, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday says. Three of four support the major recommendations unveiled by the Iraq Study Group last week.

"Most predict the administration won't implement the bipartisan commission's proposals, however. And fewer than 1 in 5 have 'a great deal' of trust in Bush to 'recommend the right thing' for the United States to do in Iraq.

"Confidence in Democratic congressional leaders to chart the proper course is even lower, at 14%."

In case you missed the election results from Louisiana over the weekend, Power Line's Paul Mirengoff is appalled:

"One of the fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats usually becomes evident when there's a scandal. When Republicans are caught misbehaving, they normally resign. Recall Rep. Livingston who immediately called it quits over a sex scandal. By contrast, Bill Clinton, with the solid support of his party, was clinging to power even though he had committed perjury in connection with a sex scandal. If such Republicans aren't inclined to resign, the odds are good that either their caucus or their constituents will promptly toss them overboard.

"It doesn't seem to work that way for Dems, though. In the latest example, the good people of Louisiana's second district have resoundingly re-elected their corrupt Democratic representative William Jefferson. His margin in the run-off election with fellow Democrat Karen Carter was 57-43.

"Jefferson is the subject of a bribery investigation. When the FBI raided his congressional office, it found $90,000 in $100 bills believed to have been paid as part of a bribe to help a Kentucky firm expand its business in Nigeria. A Louisville businessman has pleaded guilty to paying Jefferson $400,000. A former Jefferson aide has also pleaded guilty in the bribe scheme."

Josh Marshall isn't happy about Jefferson, but still:

"The Dems yanked Jefferson's plum spot on the Ways and Means Committee back in June. That was the right thing to do then and I certainly expect they won't undo it now. That's the big privilege they give him as a member of the Democratic caucus. And they took it away.

"But now Jefferson's constituents have reelected him with full knowledge of the apparent evidence against him. I wish they hadn't. But they did. And the election wasn't even close.

"At this point, I don't think you can sanction Jefferson or his constituents any further before there's even been an indictment. I think Jefferson's crooked. I'm embarrassed he was reelected. But as clear as the evidence looks, the Feds still haven't seen fit to indict him. And none of it has been scrutinized in court."

Kos says Mitt Romney is toast over his '94 gay-rights letter:

"I'm not sure how Romney thought he was going to overcome his past support for abortion and gay rights. But while many social conservatives flirted with him, fact is, someone who promises to support gay rights even more so than Ted Kennedy ain't going too far."

Tom DeLay is now blogging.

The NYT's David Carr does a very upbeat column on WashPost chief executive Don Graham, but includes this sentence: ""Newsroom layoffs of an unspecified number are in the offing." Which prompts this response from Post Editor Len Downie:

"We want to quash any stupid, false rumors like this one."

By the time I went to post this item, Carr's story had already been corrected online: "Cuts through attrition in the newsroom have been announced, but no number has been set."

We don't like attrition either, but it beats pink slips.

Speaking of Post correspondence, Romenesko also has a Bob Woodward ad for a new assistant.

By now you've probably seen the footage of Bush 41 starting to cry as he reminisced about Jeb's 1994 defeat when he first ran for Florida governor. Peggy Noonan, who worked for Bush 41, sees some deeper psychological meaning:

"No one who knows George H.W. Bush thinks that moment was only about Jeb. It wasn't only about some small defeat a dozen years ago. It would more likely have been about a number of things, and another son, and more than him . . .

"I went to a private dinner at the old Bush White House once, and the president, as he sprinkled pepper on his food, began to speak of his son Neil and 'the pounding' he was taking in congressional investigations on the savings-and-loan scandal. He felt Neil was being abused for political reasons. Tears came to the president's eyes, sudden and unbidden."

As for W.'s psychological state, "I'd ask someone in the White House, but they're still stuck in Rote Talking Point Land: The president of course has moments of weariness but is sustained by his knowledge of the ultimate rightness of his course. . .

"If he suffers, they might tell us; it would make him seem more normal, which is always a heartening thing to see in a president.

"But maybe there is no suffering.

"Maybe he outsources suffering. Maybe he leaves it to his father."

Anyone know what to make of this bugging-Diana story? Here's the latest from London:

"American intelligence agencies were bugging Princess Diana's telephone over her relationship with a US billionaire, the Mail's sister paper has learned.

"Evening Standard reports that she was even forced to abandon a planned holiday with her sons in the US with tycoon Teddy Forstmann on advice from secret services, who passed on their concerns to their British counterparts.

"Both US and British intelligence then forced Diana to change her plans to stay with Mr Forstmann in the summer of 1997, saying it was too 'dangerous' to take her sons there."

Just when you thought the story might finally be over . . .

And finally, the NBA pulls the plug on its version of the New Coke.

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