Do the media have a crush on Barack Obama? National Journal columnist William Powers thinks so. Powers says that while Hillary Clinton has to work to recast herself against a pre-written narrative, Barack Obama is virtually a media blank slate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Love is in the air – and on the air, on TV, in the radio, in the papers, the media heart Obama. Last weekend’s Saturday Night Live offered a slightly exaggerated portrayal of this amour fou. [CLIP] [APPLAUSE] ACTRESS: Our next question comes from Jorge Ramos. ACTOR PLAYING JORGE RAMOS: Senator Obama – [LAUGHS] oh, my God, I'm so nervous. [LAUGHTER] I still can't believe I'm actually talking to you. [LAUGHTER] FRED ARMISEN PLAYING BARACK OBAMA: That’s okay. ACTOR PLAYING JORGE RAMOS: My question is, are you mad at me? [LAUGHTER] FRED ARMISEN PLAYING BARACK OBAMA: No. Not at all. ACTOR PLAYING JORGE RAMOS: Oh. [LAUGHS] Good. I was afraid you might be mad at me because, you know, all the shilling for you in my campaign coverage has been so obvious and because I spend every night sitting in front of your house in a parked car. [LAUGHTER] [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: In October of 2006, we talked with National Journal columnist Bill Powers about Obamamania, and he assured us that the candidate was just passing through the first few of seven defined media milestones, as every candidate does, and that the press’s passion for Obama would eventually peter out.
But here we are a year and a half later and Powers concedes, somewhat incredulously, that the media still swoon. WILLIAM POWERS: Oh, they are besotted. I mean, there’s no question. On the one hand, I like to think it’s a good thing, that reporters are human beings and don't try to suppress their true reactions, at least as individuals. On the other hand, I'd like to think that they can separate that from the coverage when they sit down to do the stories. I don't think they have figured out how to do that with Obama.
I believe it was over a year ago that on Slate Magazine Tim Noah started the Messiah Watch about Obama. The whole purpose of that was to poke fun at the media’s infatuation with him. I do feel confident that if he gets the nomination, that will change. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Al Gore had a bad relationship with his campaign media. He wasn't very available to them and when he was, he wasn't very likeable, evidently. Hillary also has a problematic relationship with her campaign media. She’s there sometimes, not others, or the message is so tightly controlled you never feel any spontaneity.
With John McCain, he’s extremely available. He’s spontaneous, so much so that the media reportedly cut him slack on the campaign bus if he says things that are slightly untoward, assuming that he deserves a little bit of protection. WILLIAM POWERS: Right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, Obama is reportedly somewhat aloof. He isn't palling it up with the press. It seems that the campaign media don't mind so much. WILLIAM POWERS: No, you’re right. He is an exception to that rule so far. I think we haven't reached the point where we resent this lack of access because, first of all, there’s no shortage of content about him. We still have lots to write about because of the crowds he’s drawing, because of this whole storyline about his rhetorical brilliance and so forth. His biography is still eking out in profiles and so forth.
Reporters tend to get very frustrated with candidates and presidents when they don't have anything for tomorrow. And that hasn't happened with Obama so you don't have that frustration level – you know, give me something I can use.
Now, that’s not going to go on forever if he remains aloof and hard to get to. Assuming he gets the nomination, if that continues into the general election, that will be a problem for him, I predict. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, let's revisit the seven media milestones for political candidates that you outlined for us in late 2006. Stage one is getting to know you. That would have been Obama’s 2004 convention speech where he also covered stage two, the run-up to the campaign.
Stage three, he’s arrived. He’s perfect. That’s where we were when we last talked. After that, you said the media would do think pieces about his social significance. Check. Number five, pundits would start to poke a little fun at it. Check.
Then came the sixth stage, the flop, and the seventh stage, the recovery. So, Bill, where’s the flop? WILLIAM POWERS: You are right, Brooke. There has been no flop. I laid out the stages five or six years ago. I think I said in the piece, actually, that they tend to happen quickly. And Obama is really the exception to that. He has had a very long, fertile period with the press without a major flop.
He’s had a lot of quasi-flops, mini-flops, you might call them, but he has an amazing ability to bounce back from those, to deflect bad press and sort of move on. I think he’s got the best Teflon we've seen since maybe Ronald Reagan. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it Teflon? I mean, nobody seemed to hold Ronald Reagan to account when he said that, you know, trees cause pollution. But when it comes to Obama, it really seems that he sheds a sort of cold light of rationality in the sort of political Kabuki that we all see.
Like when Hillary Clinton said this week, you know, it’s not enough to denounce Farrakhan, you have to reject him, he goes, denounce, reject, whatever - I reject him. WILLIAM POWERS: Right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that Teflon or just simply getting down to brass tacks? WILLIAM POWERS: It’s somewhere in between. I mean, I think it’s actually a function of style. The way he keeps his cool is remarkable for someone under fire, particularly someone relatively young running for president.
I know the Kennedy comparisons have been flying fast and furious for a long time, but it is something that we haven't seen the like of since John Kennedy in terms of being up there on the spot. How are you going to respond to X, Y, Z? And he just slips out of it like a gazelle. I mean, it is incredible, the lightness of foot. He really makes Hillary look like a piker. And that’s something. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's say, let's just say that next week we find out that Obama is going to be the Democratic nominee. Does that mean the flop is inevitable and it occurs during the general election? WILLIAM POWERS: I hate to say “inevitable” because that’s a dangerous word for a media critic. I mean, this could be the first time someone doesn't have a flop, let's say, between now and November.
But I think it is highly likely, because once he’s got the nomination this storyline of Obama’s rise is over. And reporters will be looking for the next storyline. You basically have to do a correction. Like a sailor, you have to tack in the other direction if you’re a political journalist on a campaign.
And the other direction will be to look harder and to scrutinize him with greater toughness. And it will either be one of these in-the-moment mistakes that becomes very huge or it will be something from the past. Things like that could come back in a bigger way once he’s got the nomination locked in. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill, thank you so much. WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bill Powers is a columnist for The National Journal.