What a week. The nation debated irony and discovered the New Yorker. Both events worrisome to hipsters, aging or not. But what about the rest of us? What should we make of the Obama campaign's inexplicably uncool reactions to the kerfuffle? Not only did the campaign whinge shamelessly about the infamous New Yorker cover (Michelle Obama showed restraint in not observing tartly that she would not be caught dead in tacky army surplus boots), but as Rachel Sklar warns, they may have engaged in the most Bushian of school yard revenges, kicking the meanie off the bus.
There are some ironies here, in senses that would make both George Will and Alanis Morissette proud. The cover is the easier one to grapple with. Yes, there are vile and pernicious rumors about Barack Obama out there. And it certainly doesn't help Obama with his "rube" problem, the subtext of so much of the Vice Presidential chatter. (Who can help Obama connect with the rubes?) But I don't remember the New Yorker cover depicting Bush and Cheney as the doomed lovers of Brokeback Mountain eliciting a serious discussion about whether the American people should be concerned their swaggering (watch from 3:58 to 5:00) President charmed more men than just Karl Rove.
So the overkill response is a tactical error. The Obama campaign should be smart enough to realize that when an opponent attacks you, outrage is correct. But that is because it makes the story about the opponent. When it is you versus the media, the story stays about you even if the media's interest is fueled by its inside baseball nature. Inaccuracies should be quietly but firmly corrected. Freaking out about an over the top satire doesn't help.
The Obama campaign may have had its freakout moment at a harmless time in its reaction to the New Yorker cover. The other question, of retribution against the New Yorker in the person of Ryan Lizza, is more serious. It is not certain that Lizza was singled out. There were 200 applications for 40 seats. Mathematically, Lizza can't complain. But he is not just any reporter. He has been covering Obama since his rise to national prominence in 2004. In the course of doing so, Lizza has written some exceptionally insightful articles about Barack Obama.
The central Lizza observation is that Barack Obama is a consummate pragmatist, a smart strategist, and a skillful politician in addition to being a genuine idealist. That this comes as a shocking revelation to some, and is disingenuously presented as revealing some dark and Machiavellian secret about Barack Obama by others is surely the result of three powerful and converging media narratives. The first was Hillary Clinton's misguided strategy to portray Obama as a harmless ingénue who had pleasant ideas but lacked substance. Of course, Obama is not the first person to be so misunderestimated, as the current occupant of the White House puts it. In 1932, the famous commentator Walter Lippmann declared "Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President."
Obama himself stoked this image of being above politics, of bringing high mindedness back to American politics after the cess-pool of the Bush, and, more sotto voce, the partisanship of the Clinton years. The media rather lazily glommed onto these complementary narratives, and here we are today. Surprised that the most gifted and extraordinary politician of our time is a politician. Why do we only have this feeling of betrayal when it comes to politicians? I have never heard of a lawyer who does good pro bono work being maligned because, psst, apparently he writes briefs! And he is good at it! (My British mother suggests that the problem is that we make our figurehead and political leaders one and the same. Perhaps.)
I volunteered for Barack Obama in New Hampshire for two weeks. Barack Obama is one of my heroes. But I have never read a Lizza piece and come away feeling like Obama was mistreated. In his GQ piece, Lizza quotes Michael Kinsley on Robert Novak as a way of making sense of Obama's identity.
Michael Kinsley once said of Bob Novak, "Underneath the asshole is a nice guy, but underneath the nice guy is another asshole." One way to describe Obama is that underneath the inspirational leader who wants to change politics -- and upon whom desperate Democrats, Independents, and not a few Republicans are projecting their hopes -- is an ambitious, prickly, and occasionally ruthless politician. But underneath that guy is another one, an Obama who's keenly aware that presidential politics is about timing, and that at this extremely low moment in American political life, there is a need for someone -- and he firmly believes that someone is him -- to lift up the nation in a way no politician has in nearly half a century.
It's a nuanced view and one that the mainstream media seems almost congenitally unable to process sensibly. He's an idealist! No, he's an ordinary politician! Wait, that means he is a hypocrite! After all, in our personal lives, we are serious all the time or we just frolic like sprites in the forest. Wait, a false what? Dichotomy? Explain, plz.
Whether or not Lizza was deliberately snubbed, he is exactly the sort of person who should be on the bus, or the plane, precisely because he is not one of the Boys on the Bus. Obama may be made nervous by Lizza's insights into him and his Obama-like immunity to Obama's charms--if a thrill goes up Lizza's leg because of Obama, it stops before the knee--but he is a gifted, sympathetic chronicler. All of us, including Barack Obama, should hope that the Obama campaign did not snub Ryan Lizza, not only because of what it would tell us about Obama, but because of what Lizza is capable of telling us.
In his most recent New Yorker piece, Lizza retells a story that is frequently cited by the Obama skeptics as proof of Obama's ultimate obeisance to the dark arts. The story is of how Obama broke with his mentor Alice Palmer. In the traditional telling, that mean Barack Obama used procedural gamesmanship to remove his mentor! His mentor, folks! from the ballot and thereby won his state senator seat. As usual, Lizza gets a more nuanced story. Palmer ran for Congress and endorsed Obama for the seat she planned on vacating. Unfortunately, she faced a primary against Jesse Jackson, Jr., and realized that she would lose. Her supporters approached Obama and asked him to step aside. He declined. Palmer ginned up the signatures necessary to get back on the ballot. Obama challenged them based on the many irregularities involved and ended up running unopposed. A saint would have stepped aside. But Obama is not a saint. He is just the best candidate for President in a generation. And, sometimes, that's enough.