Love or Lust, Obama and the Fawning Press Need to Get a Room
Executive Vice President and Editor-at-Large, San Francisco Chronicle
Posted: June 8, 2009 07:06 PM
When Barack Obama decided that questions from the German press about his trip agenda in that country were too pesky, he told the reporters, “So, stop it all of you!” He just wanted them to ask things he wanted to talk about. Well, what politico wouldn’t want that?
OK, dad. We’ll behave.
And according to a new Pew Research Center poll, we are behaving…like fans. On domestic press, it showed that “President Barack Obama has enjoyed substantially more positive media coverage than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush during their first months in the White House” with “roughly twice as much” Obama coverage about his “personal or leadership qualities” than was the case for either previous president.
Back in the US, NBC’s Brian Williams’ two-part “Living Large With the Top Dog” feature on Mr. Obama’s life included a plug for Conan O’Brien’s new show and mention of cable talkies where Mr. Obama only cited MSNBC personalities. Accident? I don’t think so. There were a few probing moments in there, but they were overshadowed by the flash of hanging out in the back of the Auto One limo and having burgers. A little navel-gazing among journalism standards hall monitors about whether the thing had been too soft came and went.
Then, this Sunday in the NY Times, there was full-on chick-flick swooning over Barack and Michelle Obama’s heavily scented “date night” in NY City and its high bar standard effect on our relationship culture, with just a hint of controversy over the taxpayer costs to add some spice. I swear I’ve seen this movie, only Michael Douglas was the president. Or Harrison Ford. Or one of those cool and languid characters you’d want to like you. George Bush needed to be beer-bar likable to get elected. His successor has managed to get a lot of people to want to be liked by him.
And in Paris, Mr. Obama talked about how he’d love to take his wife for a romantic tour of the City of Lovers, but couldn’t. Then he did. I’m guessing some regular-Joe freedom fries weren’t on the menu.
This guy is good. Really good. And, frankly, so far, we’re not.
You can’t blame powerful people for wanting to play the press to peddle self-perpetuating mythology. But you can blame the press, already suffocating under a massive pile of blame, guilt, heavy debt and sinking fortunes, for being played. Some of the time, it seems we’re even enthusiastically jumping into the pond without even being pushed. Is there an actual limit to the number of instances you can be the cover of Newsweek?
If I wanted to see highly manicured image management I’d just take some No-Doz and read Gavin Newsom’s tweets. But the Obama-press dance is a more consensual seduction where, in the old-fashioned sense, we’re the girl. (In California, there’s no other option.)
I thought that the Maxfield Parrish, heroic days of the Kennedy Administration PR, where the press and the president were pretty much all in on the same screenplay and the same jokes, couldn’t happen in our modern era, what with paparazzi and tabloids and talk shows, citizen sound-bite scavengers and voracious 24/7 news cycles. But now that the stumbling Bushes and smirking Clintons are out of the White House, time has compressed back on itself like the machine in the Denzel Washington movie, “Deja Vu.” It’s the early 1960s and Camelot all over again:
Very attractive wife, cute, precocious kids and the hopes and dreams of at least 63 percent of the population sitting on the athletic shoulders of a young, charismatic, mold-breaking leader, Blah, blah. (Oh, and a Chicago Mayor Richard Daley helped make it possible. We can play the Lincoln-Kennedy parallels game here.) Only there’s a puppy now instead of a pony and it seems like Barack Obama may be less socially, self-destructively libertine than Mr. Kennedy. In fact, he’s downright conservative on things like same-sex marriage. (It’s smart to have a wholesome life — though very clearly, in the sinuous world of the Obamas, not to the point of abstinence — when you’re pushing programs that get labeled as socialist.)
So we’re in love, lust, or just a whole lot of like. Clearly we get something in exchange, whether it’s a little reflected exuberance, a sense of history or just some very minor role in a fun movie. If you want to appear in a movie with John Travolta, you go willingly with him to the LA Scientology Center and are happy about it. “I’m clear, man. Hand me the cans.”
I’m not sure Mr. Obama is necessarily getting away with anything here. In Cairo, when he spoke of the “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” more than a few writers pointed out that this meant unless you’re the Egyptian government or two gay people wanting to get married. What the president was saying overseas, to mostly purplish commentators’ delight over the symbolic significance of the event, Dick Cheney was actually meaning in his own “freedom means freedom for everyone” speech about same-sex weddings.
The style-over-substance hit followed him from continent to continent. “While the president is popular among Europeans,” the Wall Street Journal wrote, “he returned from his second trip to Europe with little more progress on key issues” than he got on his first visit. That’s the Journal. But the Washington Post, where the John Kennedy myth was nurtured like a golden statue, managed a cautionary op-ed column from Robert Samuelson warning that “our political system works best when a president faces checks on his power.” He meant checks from the press.
Samuelson was one of the few in the media to give some room to the Pew Research Center poll.
So far, this is all about image and character and press “opportunities.” But with what CNN financial reporter Elizabeth Cohen called this morning “gazillions of dollars” of our money at stake and crazy people with nukes bristling from around the edges of the world, we can’t afford not to keep a closer eye on the substance thing.