All the President's Fanboys
The next time you say you hate your job, think of poor Martha Joynt Kumar. She labors under that ambiguous title “presidential historian”—except she’s a real historian who studies the presidency, in contrast to those airily credentialed “presidential historians” with names like Brinkley and Beschloss who do most of their lecturing and research at Charlie Rose Tech and the University of NPR. Professor Kumar’s specialty is the relationship between presidents and the White House press corps. She records the number of questions reporters ask the president or how often he condescends to answer them. If you want to know, say, how many “short Q&A sessions” George W. Bush had during his first seven months in office (91) versus Bill Clinton in his first seven months (176), give Professor Kumar a call. She tabulates so you don’t have to.
Kumar has gotten some ink recently because her work has become useful to Washington reporters as they tenderly explore a dawning realization: Barack Obama, the One so many of them had been waiting for, doesn’t like them very much. Or at all. Kumar’s hard-won figures tell the story. In his first term, President Obama had fewer than one-third the number of Q&A sessions with White House reporters that George W. Bush had. Kumar told Politico that while Obama did give 674 interviews over that same period (Bush, for his part, gave a meager 217), most of the interviews were granted to out-of-towners: the pretty men and handsome women who hold down the anchor desks at our great nation’s local TV stations. They travel far from their studios to Washington and bask briefly in the presidential glow. Sometimes they bring him gifts.
Meanwhile, Obama has granted scarcely any interviews to the reporters who cover him daily—meaning those who might have the background, if not the inclination, to ask him newsy questions. Why take chances? Obama has yet to grant solo interviews to White House reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, “or Politico,” noted two editors from Politico. Although laymen may be impressed by the job title—White House Correspondent!—in fact reporters in the West Wing pressroom put up with a degree of professional squalor that other journalists seldom endure: Their cubicles are tiny, their amenities nonexistent, lines form endlessly at the bathroom door, and their every move to and from their tumbledown workplace is closely monitored by press handlers and burly, unsmiling Secret Service officers. When a White House reporter does succeed in reporting a bit of news, the morsel, more often than not, has been handed to him by a White House staffer in an orchestrated “leak.”
The consequence is a pandemic of Stockholm Syndrome: The captives grow grateful for their captors. They live for those moments when the president himself appears before them. Obama is too fond of talking to go silent simply because he doesn’t have a TV anchor from Topeka handy. So he occasionally calls his wan and unhappy scullions together for “press conferences” that are little more than prolonged presidential filibusters. Obama came to the pressroom the day the “sequester” of the federal budget was to take effect. Over the course of more than 5,300 spoken words (Professor Kumar isn’t the only one who knows how to count around here), the president permitted a total of four reporters to ask a question.
“Is there any other leverage you have to convince the Republicans, to convince folks that this isn’t the way to go?” one asked.
Another wondered about his negotiations with Republican leaders. “Couldn’t you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave until you have a deal?”
“I just wondered,” another said shyly, referring to the issue of gay marriage, “if you could talk a little bit about your deliberations and how your thinking evolved on that.” Could you? Please?
The questions couldn’t have been nicer. Watching the scene, one was reminded again of the asymmetry in the relationship between the president and his press. The asymmetry isn’t simply a consequence of the reporters’ deference. It is instead something closer to active abuse. The president looms several feet above his seated questioners and repeats his empty, focus-group-friendly phrases—“a balanced approach,” “middle-class families,” “common sense, practical solutions”—as if each were a blow landed in a harrowing episode of domestic violence. Imagine Flo and Andy Capp, except Andy has the frying pan.
People who aren’t of the president’s party always mistake the deference and timidity of the White House press corps for an ideological commitment. One of the funniest artifacts of the Reagan era is a rococo left-wing fantasy of a book called On Bended Knee, which claimed to prove that the press had fallen victim to President Reagan’s voodoo and become objectively right-wing: “a willing mouthpiece of the government.” The presidential press corps will never be sufficiently severe to satisfy an outsider whose primary motive is ideological. Conservative press critics make the same mistake, and they always undermine their case when they cite evidence of the president’s villainy taken from reporting by the Times, the Post, the news pages of the Wall Street Journal—the same outlets that are supposed to be slavishly pro-Obama. Reporters’ relationship with their president is more complicated than we’d like it to be.
It is also a relationship that looks ever more anachronistic. The president today can afford to ignore mainstream White House reporters to a degree unimaginable just 10 years ago. The Internet and the public’s growing reliance on it for news allow Obama and his press office not merely to make news but to package it, too: If you haven’t seen the Internet TV show West Wing Week, in which the president’s staff chronicles his activities day by day, you’re missing a treat. Not since Nicolae Ceausescu has a world leader spent so much time surrounded by adorable children.
More important, through the Internet the president has access to a universe of fanboys—blogging and tweeting around the clock—who don’t even require marching orders before they double-time it into battle. Bob Woodward can tell you all about them. In late February, the well-known and often idolized Watergate reporter wrote a damaging op-ed in the Post, refuting the president’s careful denial of his own role in bringing on the sequester. Woodward even went on Fox News to drive the point home.
The White House press office issued a limp denial, but it was the fanboys who leapt into action. One of them, a blogger called Josh Marshall, compared Woodward to one of the crackpots who think Obama was born in Africa. Another blogger from Time magazine portrayed him as a befuddled has-been. “Bob Woodward is senile,” said another. Salon magazine’s tweeter insisted: “Bob Woodward has lost it, let’s all stop indulging him.” The blizzard of tweets and posts had the intended effect of burying Woodward’s original accusation. The story was no longer whether the president’s version of events surrounding the sequester was honest or even accurate. The story was, bizarrely, Woodward himself: his character, his politics, his sanity.
In the era of the tweeting fanboy, the question of whether the White House reporters are right-wing or left-wing, puppyish or hostile, is suddenly rendered moot. One important strand of the sequester story simply passed them by; it belonged to Obama’s corps of bloggers, doing the White House’s bidding through blind ideological instinct. The traditional interplay between president and press, a subject beloved of ideologues and presidential historians alike, may no longer be relevant. Professor Kumar might want to start thinking about another job.