It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
The two men running the White House have very different relationships with the press; one is warm and one is frosty.
One’s relationship is more JFK, and one’s has self-pitying echoes of Nixon.
By all rights, you’d think it would be Joe Biden who would resent journalists for kicking him around for years. It was the press, me included, who reported on the problems that led him to drop out of the 1988 presidential race.
It was the press that delighted in Biden’s foot-in-mouth syndrome in 2008 and played up the exacting Barack Obama’s occasional chagrin at the über-exuberant Joe as they began their odd-couple partnership.
Yet the vice president is so lacking in any vengeful feelings for past reporting that left him for dead, I sometimes wonder if he’s really Irish.
Biden gave a press party at his house recently with a beach theme — complete with Uzi-size squirt guns and water slides. Journalists came with their families, schmoozed with top White House officials like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, and watched a dripping wet vice president walk around with his little grandson. One Obama aide remarked that Biden is “the most beloved person in the White House.”
Jon Stewart and bloggers mocked the journalists, suggesting they were too chummy with power. But the picnic was on the record, and good reporters can’t be co-opted by some cold French fries. Whenever you see politicians in a relaxed or stressful situation, beyond the usual teleprompter speeches and scripted photo ops, you learn something about those charged with making life and death decisions. You may even pick up some news.
We learned there that Joe Biden has been assigned the press portfolio. This is remarkable, given that it was Obama who was hailed as the charming new JFK, the mesmerizing leader who beguiled an infatuated press, as the “Saturday Night Live” skit went, to plump his pillows.
But that skit was more of a caricature of some ideological cable guys and besotted columnists — including some conservatives — than a realistic portrayal of his relationship with the “working” press.
The press traveling with Obama on the campaign never had a lovey-dovey relationship with him. He treated us with aloof correctness, and occasional spurts of irritation. Like many Democrats, he thinks the press is supposed to be on his side.
The patrician George Bush senior was always gracious with reporters while conveying the sense that what we do for a living was rude.
The former constitutional lawyer now in the White House understands that the press has a role in the democracy. But he is an elitist, too, as well as thin-skinned and controlling. So he ends up regarding scribes as intrusive, conveying a distaste for what he sees as the fundamental unseriousness of a press driven by blog-around-the-clock deadlines.
The 21st-century press beast is a scary multimedia monster, caught up in the trite as well as the vital, and reporters rarely can be as contemplative as the cerebral Obama would like.
Sometimes on the campaign plane, I would watch Obama venture back to make small talk with the press, discussing food at an event or something light. Then I would see him literally back away a few moments later as a blast of questions and flipcams hit him.
But that’s the world we live in. It hurts Obama to be a crybaby about it, and to blame the press and the “old Washington game” for his own communication failures.
“On health care, Obama told single-payer liberals that they had to deal with the world as it is, not as they wanted it to be,” said Jonathan Alter, the author of “The Promise,” about Obama’s first year in office. “But he doesn’t take his own advice when it comes to the media. Obama refuses to deal with the media world as it is. He’s holding out for the media world that he wants. But that will never be. That disdainful attitude toward 24-hour cable culture is slowing his political reflexes. We’re seeing that in the oil spill. I don’t think it’s personal with him. It’s not that he despises reporters as human beings, like Nixon. He does scores of interviews and he doesn’t rage behind closed doors. But if he doesn’t make more concessions to Washington as it is, he’s going to hurt his presidency.”
Now that Obama has been hit with negative press, he’s even more contemptuous. “He’s never needed to woo the press,” says the NBC White House reporter Chuck Todd. “He’s never really needed us.”
So, as The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz writes, the more press-friendly, emotionally accessible, if gaffe-prone Biden has become “the administration’s top on-air spokesman.”
How ironic. Instead of The One, they’re sending out The Two. (Source NYT by Maureen Dowd)