What would you do if you -- and your 32 camera crews -- were granted unparalleled access to the White House for a day? And then you had two full hours of prime-time TV to fill?
There are many mysteries you might try to explore. How does President Obama actually make decisions? What if anything changes his mind? What blows his cool? How does he settle disputes among his advisers? Who is the last one to whisper in his ear? How does he treat his staff? How furious is the competition for his attention? Who wins? Why is he so sure, so confident, that thinking big is the solution to every problem? How do he and his staff really feel about the mess Bush left them? How does the former constitutional law professor reconcile his devotion to civil liberties with a handful of recent decisions that have horrified civil libertarians? Does he have second thoughts?
But sadly those were not the sorts of things that seemed to interest anchor Brian Williams and the more than two dozen NBC News producers responsible for the "Inside the Obama White House" special showing last night and tonight, a show that treats Obama like a celebrity rather than a president.
Part of the problem, most assuredly, was that the White House had the ultimate say in what the cameras were allowed to record, and what they weren't. As Williams says at the show's outset: "Our job is to show as much as we can of the inner workings, especially of the West Wing. The job of the White House is to show us what they want us to see."
And yet what seems to fascinate Williams the most is what everyone is eating. There are, it turns out, apples and M&Ms all over the White House. In fact, the show devotes a whole montage to people pouring, throwing and consuming M&Ms. And the high point of the day, the centerpiece of the hour-long show last night, what Williams calls Obama's "brief shining moment," is a hokey, obviously staged burger run to Five Guys. The cameras literally languish over greasy paper bags full of french fries.
It's the kind of substanceless fawning that leads some to conclude that the press is soft on Obama. But this show wasn't about his politics or his policies. It was a celebration and amplification of the star power of the presidency in general, and of this president in particular. Simply showing him eating a burger they apparently consider great television.
And tonight, we're promised an interview with Bo the dog.
Here's the Five Guys lunch scene:
The NBC crews were at the White House on Friday. Williams notes that the messages of the day were about cybersecurity and hurricane preparedness -- but he doesn't tell us what those messages were, not to mention share any insight into how they were arrived at and whether they were sound or not.
That was also the day that the White House reversed course on a comment by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor that her critics had seized upon. In its full context, Sotomayor's quote -- "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life" -- struck me as simply an acknowledgement of the fact that members of oppressed groups could sometimes be more sensitive to injustice than members of the privileged classes.
The White House had defended the quote for several days until Friday afternoon, when -- in an interview with Williams, no less -- Obama suddenly walked it back, saying that Sotamayor regretted her choice of words. "I'm sure she would have restated it," Obama said.
In last night's show, Williams makes a great to-do about what happened and his own role in it. He shows how acutely aware the White House's press operation is of the chatter on the morning shows and the cable networks. But he doesn't explore the actual, quite fascinating decision to change course -- which (like everything of substance that day, it appears) happened off camera.
I suspect that top White House advisers came to the conclusion that in today's political media culture, which subsists on quick sound bites like the one in Sotomayor's speech, the arguments in defense of her comment was simply too complicated to sustain. So they chose a quick strategic retreat. But is that what actually happened? And did Obama or anyone else actually talk to Sotomayor before speaking on her behalf? Those questions are left unanswered. And Williams is apparently uncurious.
All we see is the how, not the why.
There are some amusing moments in the show, such as seeing Obama -- on his way out to Five Guys -- taking orders from his aides and asking: "You want fries?" And White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, constantly in motion, either breezing by or shooing away the omnipresent cameras, comes off as quite the cock of the walk -- or maybe more of a bantam rooster.
And Obama gets to do a little media criticism. Asked by Williams about his television watching habits, Obama says he doesn't generally watch the cable news shoes: "Mainly because I don't find most of the cable chatter very persuasive. I've used this analogy before, it feels like WWF wrestling. Everybody's got their role to play.... [E]verybody's got their set pieces and, so, I don't feel as if I'm learning anything from the debate."
When Williams trots out the hoary criticism that Obama has taken on too much, Obama responds -- correctly -- that the public doesn't think so, just the media. "What exactly would you have me give up?" he asks.
And over on the MSNBC Web site, there's a really cool interactive map of the White House.
But there's almost nothing of substance here. This presidency, more than most, is more than just the sum of its photo ops. You just wouldn't know it from this show.
Williams tells the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz the experience exceeded his expectations: "We were pretty stunned at how much we were able to record and how natural events seemed to be," he tells Kurtz. "To be in the hallway when the president walks by with a handful of M&Ms, popping them in his mouth as he goes to visit his chief of staff -- it was unbelievable. I don't think the expression 'took up residence' is hyperbolic."
And the Chicago Tribune's Mark Silva has a preview of tonight's installment:
"Sum up this guy," Williams said of Bo, the Obama family's Portuguese water dog, as President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their interviewer stood by the first pup.
"Let me see if he does the whole ..." Obama said, leaning to get a robust, white-pawed shake from the shaggy black pooch.
"See, I taught him that ... that's what I'm talking about," exclaimed the president, playfully growling at his puppy for NBC's cameras.
(This essay originally appeared on the Nieman Watchdog Blog.)