Commentary Magazine


Joe Klein’s Almost Pathological Love Affairs

Time magazine’s Joe Klein is angry. Again. This time his animus is aimed at the Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami and yours truly. Again. And so, one more time — just for the fun of it — let’s take a look at what is fueling Joe’s fury and see if we can make some sense of it.

Here’s what Klein writes:

But there is another, more troubling and outrageous aspect of the Ajami argument: the conservative fetish about the President’s “self-regard.” Ajami is not alone here. Former Bush Deputy Minister of Propaganda–and now a daily predictor of falling skies and presidential implosions–Pete Wehner referred to Obama’s “pathological self-regard” a few weeks ago. Pathological? Where on earth does that come from? And where on earth does Ajami’s notion that Obama “succumbed” to the “Awaited One” expectations that his followers had of him? Where’s the evidence?

Oh, I dunno. But if I had to pick some examples, I might begin with the fact that (according to the book Game Change) during the campaign Obama surrounded himself with aides who referred to Obama as a “Black Jesus.” Obama didn’t appear to object. Or I might mention Obama’s comment to a Chicago Tribune reporter a few hours before his 2004 convention speech. “I’m LeBron, baby,” Obama said. “I can play on this level. I got some game.” Or I might point people to Obama’s comments made during the campaign, when he said:

I am absolutely certain that, generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless, this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal, this was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

Let’s see: Jesus, LeBron, and King Canute. That’s quite a threesome.  I won’t even mention Obama’s campaign slogan, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

On second thought, maybe I will.

Perhaps Klein’s unhappiness with Ajami and me is rooted in the fact that, from time to time, Joe succumbs to an almost pathological love affair when it comes to presidents. Well, Democratic presidents, anyway. That was certainly the case with Bill Clinton, at least for a time. In his book All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos, in recounting a Clinton speech during the 1992 campaign, wrote this:

Joe Klein and I took it all in from the back of the room with tears in our eyes – moved by the emotional moment, expectation, and apprehension. Reporters are paid to be dispassionate, but Joe was either smitten with Clinton or doing a smooth job of spinning me. We talked openly and often now, either on the phone or when we hooked up with us on the road. As the paying guests sat down to dinner, we retreated to the basement. The campaign was going so well that we slipped into what Joe called a ‘dark-off,’ whispering fears of  future misfortune like a couple of black-robed crones spitting in the wind to ward off the evil eye. We’re peaking too early. It can’t stay this good. Too tempting a target. What goes up must come down.

“I come from Russian Jews,” Joe said. “Whenever things are good, we start to hear hoofbeats — the Cossacks.”

Fast-forward to the Age of Obama when Klein, in a recent interview with our 44th president, had this blistering exchange:

Klein: Let me ask you one foreign policy question. My sense is that — just my own personal sense, but also from people I talk to — the overall conception of your foreign policy has been absolutely right. Necessary, corrective. Subtle, comprehensive.

Obama: We have a good team.

Klein: But there have been some problems in execution.

Obama: Well, I would not deny that, but let me say that given what’s on our plate — and you know the list. I don’t need to tick them off.

I guess this qualifies as speaking truth to power.

For the record, what Joe reports isn’t quite accurate. I wrote about Obama’s “almost pathological self-regard” in my piece [emphasis added]. (The context was a story in which Representative Marion Berry recounted his meetings with White House officials, reminiscent of some during the Clinton days, Berry said, where he and others urged them not to force Blue Dogs “off into that swamp” of supporting bills that would be unpopular with voters back home. “I’ve been doing that with this White House, and they just don’t seem to give it any credibility at all,” Berry said. “They just kept telling us how good it was going to be. The president himself, when that was brought up in one group, said, ‘Well, the big difference here and in ’94 was you’ve got me.’”)

But on reflection, and in light of Klein’s comments, I do think I phrased things in an inappropriate manner. I probably should have dropped the adverb “almost.”

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