Six months after his party lost both houses of Congress, Bill Clinton was reduced to declaring at a news conference that he was still relevant.
The next day, the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed. Clinton regained his footing and cruised to reelection the following year, his relevance never again in doubt -- even after his impeachment.
These days, many in the media seem to be writing off President Bush.
"The American people basically fired George Bush in the last election," writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. "We're now just watching him clean out his desk."
"A lot of Americans consider this presidency over," says CNN's Bill Schneider.
"If America were a parliamentary democracy, we would have a no-confidence vote and a new prime minister by spring," writes New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin.
Are these and other pundits giving us the unvarnished truth, that we are witnessing the historic collapse of a presidency? Or is this the triumph of quick-draw, poll-driven journalism?
"It's a predictable bit of conventional wisdom," White House spokesman Tony Snow says in an interview. He insists that Bush can make progress on such issues as energy and immigration, "and he still has the bully pulpit. A lot of these narratives about 'the president is a lame duck' assume nothing is going to change politically, anywhere in the world, in the next two years."
But the gibes keep on coming. "If we had a straight dictatorship," writes the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, "Bush would long ago have been dragged out of the White House either by an angry mob or by disgruntled generals." (Not that he's in favor of either.)
Chait agrees in an interview that the president still has power, but notes: "Psychologically, it does feel that people are starting to move past Bush. No one has changed his mind about Bush in the last two years. It's kind of boring to write about him anymore because he's so unchanging."
Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard's executive editor, says Bush will concentrate on such areas as tightening control of regulatory policy to end-run a Democratic Congress. "The Republicans learned in the '90s -- and the press should have learned as well -- that presidents have great inherent powers," he says. But "Nancy Pelosi at the moment is a more interesting story than George Bush. She's new, she's attractive and she has an agenda."
The media, as always, are mesmerized by polls. When Bush was riding high in the "Mission Accomplished" days of 2003, some of the coverage was almost giddy. If Bush's current approval ratings were at 50 percent, his media portrayal would look very different. With the president having sunk as low as 28 percent in a CBS News survey, it is all too easy to dismiss him, even as he mounts an escalation of the war in Iraq.
That war, of course, is the reason why the mainstream media see no possibility of Bush bouncing back. Things are a mess in Iraq; the country has turned against the war; and few journalists think the "surge" is going to work. Therefore, the reasoning goes, Bush will continue to sink into the quagmire of the war he chose to wage.
There's little question that Bush has never been weaker politically. He got no traction from the State of the Union (as measured by the almighty polls). His domestic proposals seem to have sparked little interest, at least from the press. Here he is talking about income inequality, global warming and tougher auto mileage standards -- all typically Democratic themes -- and the journalistic reaction is a barely suppressed yawn. He's yesterday's news.
But with Bush constitutionally entitled to two more years in the White House, it is risky for journalists to declare him a marginal figure, even if they are far more absorbed in covering the race to succeed him.
Other unpopular war presidents have staggered to the ends of their terms -- Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson come to mind -- and Bush may do the same. But because Iraq is now widely viewed as having been an unnecessary personal crusade on Bush's part, there seems to be an extra element of derision in the political commentary, especially from the left.
Bush's father recently vented his frustrations with the coverage. "It's one thing to have an adversarial . . . relationship -- hard-hitting journalism. It's another when the journalists' rhetoric goes beyond skepticism and goes over the line into overt, unrelenting hostility and personal animosity," the former president said.
Actually, even some of the journalists who are especially aggressive in their coverage of Bush like him in private settings, where the president has a joshing manner and enjoys handing out nicknames. But professional resentment may still be behind some of the increasingly negative coverage. "In the press corps," Chait says, "there's a little bit of a realization that they had been played."
From Iraq, where the media fell down on the WMD debate, to Bush's 2000 campaign persona as a compassionate conservative, many journalists now believe they were led astray. That has given an extra edge to their stories and columns on Bush being out of touch and has fueled an effort to vindicate their darker picture of the war. In short, the mainstream media no longer give this president the benefit of the doubt.
Getting Even?Jim Cramer, CNBC's manic "Mad Money" host, is accustomed to people taking potshots. Former investment banker Henry Blodget used some heavy ammunition last week in Slate. Blodget said that although Cramer can be "brilliant, in an idiot-savant, freak-show sort of way," he gives "terrible investment advice," and that ordinary folks should invest in index funds rather than following stock picks from "a chair-throwing, self-aggrandizing clown."
Cramer, a former hedge fund manager, says this is nothing but "revenge." He harshly criticized Blodget for his conduct at Merrill Lynch, which led to a $4 million fine against the young analyst and a lifetime ban from the securities industry. Blodget kept touting high-flying Internet stocks that later crashed, while privately deriding them as "junk" and pieces of excrement.
"What he did was egregious," Cramer says. "He was paid millions of dollars to tell the truth. He should go opine on something else. He should not opine on stocks."
What's more, Cramer says it is "appalling" that CNBC recently interviewed Blodget about his new book. Blodget's retaliation, says Cramer, came after Cramer took the unusual step of criticizing his own network for doing the interview.
Blodget says he wrote the Slate column because Cramer is "so influential and omnipresent that just about everyone I know asks me what I think of him. . . . Jim can't possibly believe that trying to out-trade thousands of full-time professionals is an intelligent strategy for average investors."
Media LessonLast Monday, the George Washington University student paper broke a story about college coaches checking out Facebook to see whether their players had posted racy pictures of themselves.
Days later, WJLA-TV ran the same story -- without credit.
"Absolutely, the idea originated out of their article," says Channel 7 reporter Kris Van Cleave. "But I don't think anyone owns ideas. We went out and obtained the information ourselves. Honestly, it didn't feel like we needed to attribute the story. Otherwise, we would have."
David Ceasar, an editor at the GW Hatchet, says the station used similar phrases in its version. "I felt flattered that a network news affiliate would use material from a 19-year-old sophomore, but it rubbed me the wrong way that it didn't mention us at all."
Risky MoveJohn Edwards has hired Amanda Marcotte, of the liberal site Pandagon, to blog for his presidential campaign. But the trouble with bloggers is that they leave a sometimes inflammatory trail.
As noted by OpinionJournal's James Taranto, Marcotte wrote last month of the Duke rape case that she "had to listen to how the poor dear lacrosse players at Duke are being persecuted just because they held someone down and [sexually assaulted] her against her will -- not rape, of course, because the charges have been thrown out. Can't a few white boys sexually assault a black woman anymore without people getting all wound up about it? So unfair."
A misguided attempt at sarcasm? "No comment," Marcotte e-mailed Friday. "But thanks for asking!"
Is Obama blowing off the press? First he didn't let reporters into his DNC speech, and then Politico's
"As Obama left the hotel reception, smiling and saying, 'Thank you AGAIN,' I introduced myself and said, 'Good evening, Senator, may I walk with you?' He replied, 'You can walk with me. That doesn't mean you can ask questions.' I chuckled, thinking he was kidding. 'But you can certainly walk with me,' he added. The senator then underscored, 'I'm sorry. I'm not answering questions' . . .
"Even President Bush, who brings discipline to his interactions with the reporters, will have an on-the-fly, unscripted conversation without calling it a 'press avail.' So as Hillary tries to pierce her bubble, however tentatively, Obama appears to be building one."
Or is Hillary in a different kind of bubble? In the New Republic,
"By announcing via the Web, Clinton ensured that only her best face would be amplified. And, rather than launching out on the campaign trail, she followed up with a three-night series of online 'conversations' in which regular folks could e-mail questions for her to answer in Web-video broadcasts. These, too, aimed to create the impression of eagerness to interact with the masses--but they were carefully vetted by her staff to ensure that nothing uncomfortable slipped through.
"In her first week of candidacy, then, Clinton managed to avoid a single spontaneous moment, thereby eliminating any risk of a campaign-killing gaffe or, for that matter, even a minor misstep. Yet her announcement and the first leg of her campaign still wound up all over the Web--and, in the absence of any alternative access to the candidate, they were rebroadcast all over television, as she and her handlers surely knew they would be. By putting technology to clever use, she turned the handicap of her reliance on talented consultants into an asset and debunked the notion that Web video is inherently dangerous to politicians. In effect, she became the first post-YouTube candidate."
Newsweek discovers the
"There is another person on Hillary's shortlist of confidants who goes back farther than any of them, but whom you've probably never heard of. The Rev. Don Jones, a Methodist minister who is now 75, was perhaps Hillary's earliest spiritual and political mentor. She has written of her 'lifelong friendship' with him. It was Jones who first awakened young Hillary to the civil-rights movement and counseled her on questions of faith. They continued to be in touch as Hillary became a national figure. Years later, he helped her through the darkest period in her life, the aftermath of her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky...
"She clearly talks more about religion these days, as many politicians do--but her connection to Jones reveals that her Christianity has always been at the center of her identity."
Now this, from
"Arthur Sulzberger Jr. survived the Jayson Blair scandal and Judith Miller's jailing, but as proxy season beckons, the publisher and chairman of The New York Times faces a new challenge. This one is from Hassan Elmasry, a London- based managing director of Morgan Stanley Investment Management who has been trying to incite a shareholder revolt against Sulzberger.
"Unfortunately for Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack, Elmasry's campaign is turning into a high-priced headache.
"Fortune has learned from a New York Times source and others close to the matter that the Ochs-Sulzberger family recently put in a request to pull the majority of its assets from the bank. (Morgan Stanley had been the longtime custodian of the family's assets, including its stake in the Times company - which, based on recent share prices, is worth close to $640 million.)"
Mark Leibovich asks: Is there
Joe Biden's campaign can't be "derailed" because . . . well, here's what
"There was nothing all that astounding about the fact that the politician who got himself kicked out of the 1988 Democratic contest for plagiarism would, with another two decades of practice, come up with an even more sensationally disqualifying gesture this time around.
"The remarkable thing about the Biden blow out is the notion that some pundits are actually discussing the extent to which the senator's 'clean' comment may have harmed his chances -- as if the guy's vanity candidacy ever had a chance.
"Biden is, according to several recent polls from the first caucus state of Iowa and the first primary state of New Hampshire, having a hard time competing with Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich among the party faithful. In another early caucus state, Nevada, the Foreign Relations Committee chair is tied with 76-year-old former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel."
So much for the idea that a candidate can move up in the polls once he starts campaigning. In July 2002, Howard Dean was at 1 percent.
I know Internet polls are unscientific, but it's interesting how different they can be from the old-fashioned kind. Take
The Obama racial-identity debate is well under way. Boston Globe columnist
"In short, Obama's first instinct was to let the remarks go, rather than use them to beat up on Biden. He recalculated only after other African-American politicians reacted with less understanding . . . Eventually, Obama realized that anything less than condemnation would make him sound insensitive to perceived racism.
"In some ways, Obama's political calculation when it comes to race is no different than Hillary Clinton's when it comes to gender or Mitt Romney's when it comes to religion. Should the candidate bluntly label a comment sexist or, in Romney's case, anti-Mormon? Or, does the candidate decide there is more to be gained by taking the high ground and letting voters draw their own conclusion about the appropriateness of a remark?
"But Obama's political dilemma includes a curious twist.
"He doesn't want to be perceived strictly as a 'black' candidate anymore than Clinton wants to be defined strictly as a female candidate."
Time puts it bluntly: "
Everyone seems to have forgotten that the big Hill debate on the war is, for the moment, symbolic. But not
"Is there anything more pathetic than senators fighting tooth and nail over wording over a non-binding resolution that does absolutely nothing?
"Well, Feingold is done playing that silly game.
"Dodd will also oppose the useless Warner-Levin amendment.
"This complicates Reid's efforts to get to 60 votes, and it's a good thing. Kill this piece of crap dead.
"What's the point of a useless amendment? Is Reid really that desperate to give Jon Stewart more material for the Daily Show."
And speaking of the "Daily Show,"
"Viacom just demanded the YouTube take down clips from its networks, including Comedy Central and MTV. Wave bye-bye to John Stewart and Jon Stewart should wave bye-bye to audience.
"Just last night, my son showed me Bill Gates on The Daily Show via YouTube. My son, a teenager and the future audience for the network, had never watched Jon Stewart. It was through YouTube that he discovered and enjoyed the man. But Viacom just cut off that means of free -- free! -- promotion and distribution. Instead, the company is going to have to advertise heavily in hopes of reaching my hard-to-reach son -- he's busy watching YouTube, you see, instead of MTV and instead of television, for that matter -- to build audience in the future. Of course, this is a negotiating tactic. But it is also bad business. It pisses off your own audience, who is recommending your shows. It cuts off that free promotion. It increases marketing costs.