01/24/2008 02:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Pit Bull and the Press

Bill Clinton reminds me of Chopper, a friend's pit bull. Chopper is a happy dog who loves people, likes to party and is a favorite at the doggy-day-care he frequents.

But once in a while Chopper gets out, off his leash, and scares people. If you see Chopper coming at you, all 70 pounds of him in full charge, you don't know he just wants to slurp your face.

Containing Chopper is a problem, not unlike that of containing Bill. And unlike chopper, Bill might take a bite out of your butt, especially if you're running against his wife. So Bill does need to lower his profile, especially since he's in danger of overshadowing the real candidate, Hillary.

All the same, it's hard not to sympathize with Chopper -- I mean Bill -- because the behavior of another pack of dogs, the press, really gets him hot under the collar.

The news media seem to regard every utterance from the Clinton camp as if had been crafted personally by Machiavelli and Lucrezia Borgia, intended for evil and poisonous purposes. Meanwhile, Barack Obama has largely been given a pass, and at times the media tale of his campaign is a sainthood narrative, rather than a political story. Sometimes he's presented as a latter-day Francis of Assisi, preaching to God and the birds, with the nastiness of politics far below in a less empyrean realm.

Take the Reagan flap. Much umbrage has been directed at the Clintons for criticizing Barack's words. Some pundits have claimed that Barack was simply using a historical analogy devoid of any political interest. But look closely at what he said, and it's clear why Bill Clinton was steamed. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, Barack claimed, were not "transformational" presidents, while the Gipper was.

Wait a minute. Here's a Democrat, linking the name of the most successful and popular Democratic president in a generation with the disgraced Nixon, bete noir of all good Democrats. Did Barack want to to remind folks that Clinton had himself been the subject of an impeachment process, and ask if we want to revisit that mess? Of course. No problem with that, it's politics. But you ought to expect a reply.

In the recent debate, Barack came right out of the box calling Hillary a corporate shill for Wal Mart. Hillary countered that Barack had worked for a slum lord. (Not quite accurate, the Chicago papers report. The guy in question is involved in nasty corruption charges, but he's not a slum lord in the accepted sense of the word.)

But it was punch and counter-punch and they were off, leaving poor John Edwards looking like a teacher confronting misbehaving tots. Let's face it -- politics often does resemble an unruly kindergarten. Look at what John McCain said about Mitt Romney, according to the New York Times: "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it."

Now that's nasty.

All along, the Obama campaign has tried to position him as the embodiment of a New Politics, the visionary above the fray, while calling Hillary shopworn goods and a dreary technoocrat. He's Martin Luther King, and she's George Babbitt, with a touch of Nurse Ratched thrown in.

Perfectly fine political strategy. But why did everybody get so upset when she countered, no, she was really LBJ, the doer who could make the dreamer's vision come true. She wasn't dissing Dr. King, just jockeying for position at the rail.

While all this sniping probably isn't good for Democrats in general, this is a campaign after all. In the long run, the battle may turn out to be good for Obama, getting him match tough. Bill Clinton's bite may sting, but the Republicans will unleash a whole slavering pack. Barack had a fairly easy time in his first run for national office, against an out-of-stater named Alan Keyes. Keyes once had a cable TV show called Making Sense, but many pundits regarded him as a wingnut who makes no sense at all to anyone to the left of Attila the Hun. He didn't give Barack much of a race. (His lamest line was that that Jesus would not vote for Obama. Lots of other folks, however, did.)

Candidates learn a lot out on the trail, battling the brickbats, learning how to feint and jab. Fred Thompson would have done much better had he entered the fray earlier.

There seems to be an odd sense in some quarters in the press that Barack Obama is especially vulnerable, a reed in the wind who has to be protected. That does not seem to be the candidate's view of himself. He's smart, he's self-possessed, and fast with a quip. He hit the perfect note when asked whether Bill Clinton was the first Black president. Barack said he'd have to get a look at Bill's dancing abilities before he could declare the former prez a brother.

Yes, as a Black candidate, Obama has a tricky row to hoe, trying to transcend race at the same time that he appeals to the African American vote. Race is often the elephant in the room in Democratic politics; but then, gender is a thorny issue as well, and Hillary has to wrestle with that.

One hopes the Democrats can remain at least civil to one another. But the jostling will continue, and partisans of either side will scream "unfair" fairly often. Sometimes there will be a low blow -- other times, it's just politics.

Democratic politics: unruly, rambunctious, and par for the course.

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."