The Fawn Patrol
How embarrassing can the 'coverage' get?
Jun 22, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 38 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Richard Wolffe covered the 2008 presidential campaign for Newsweek, and he really likes President Obama. No--I mean, he really, really likes President Obama. How much? Here's how much: Evan Thomas, a Newsweek editor, recently appeared on cable TV and said, "In a way, Obama is standing above the country, above the world--he's sort of God." And Evan Thomas says that Wolffe's coverage of Obama was too positive. That's how much.
Wolffe reported on Obama's campaign from its frigid beginnings to its pyrotechnic end, and his accounts were so Barackerrific that he earned yips and snarls from all the media watchdogs, especially on the right. As evidence they cited lines he wrote in the Hallmark mode--"On the campaign trail, Obama doesn't seek sympathy; he evokes hope"--and catalogued his appearances as on-air bootblack for the foam-flecked MSNBC host Keith Olbermann.
Wolffe's stuff wasn't just rah-rah: His Newsweek stories set a tone. Week to week he laid out definitive versions of story lines that other reporters could hold onto like little life rafts in navigating the churning waters of a long campaign. He informed his colleagues that Obama was a centrist at heart; that the candidate was peeling away legions of disenchanted Republican voters; that Obama's left-wing friends weren't really left-wing--all the half-truths that soon became conventional wisdom, mostly because they made the otherwise disorienting confusion easily understandable for reporters and their editors.
Critics who saw Wolffe as a liberal foot soldier for Obama were missing the mark, in my opinion. Like most political reporters, Wolffe in his private opinions is almost certainly a standard-issue liberal Democrat, squish division. Professionally, he's better described as a free-floating propagandist, ready to do service in whatever cause his editors sign him up for. Sports broadcasters call a guy like Wolffe a "homer." He roots for the team he's covering, and will do so faithfully until he's given a clear signal to switch sides. When he was a White House correspondent earlier this decade, with President Bush aloft in the polls, Wolffe's stuff gave off the same warm glow it had when he gazed at Obama three years later.
One story Wolffe wrote to accompany Bush's second inauguration in 2005 carried the headline: "He's hands-on, detail-oriented, and hates 'yes' men. The George Bush you don't know has big dreams--and is racing the clock to realize them." The article added detail to this account of Bush's unbridled virility. "President Bush is by far the biggest agent of change in his own cabinet," Wolffe wrote.
Whether he's remaking his team or plotting his second-term policies, Bush's leadership style belies his caricature as a disengaged president who is blindly loyal, dislikes dissent, and covets his own downtime. In fact, Bush's aides and friends describe the mirror image of a restless man who masters details and reads avidly. . . .
And so on, each layer thicker than the last.
Eight months later Hurricane Katrina hit, Bush's ratings tanked, and new orders came down. Wolffe now filed his dispatches for stories that declared: "Bush's leadership style and the bureaucratic culture combined to produce a disaster within a disaster. . . . It is not clear what President Bush does read or watch, aside from the occasional biography and an hour or two of ESPN here and there. Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty."
Another name for the homer is the courtier, and it's in the courtier spirit--ardent, assured, and completely reversible at the drop of a poll number--that Wolffe has written his new book, Renegade: The Making of a President, a soup-to-nuts account of Obama's campaign. The book is closely observed and handsomely written and, what's more, it makes a signal contribution to the literature of contemporary politics, for it presents the case that Washingtonians make to justify their swooning infatuation with their new president. If you want to know why Evan Thomas and his friends are warbling "Nearer My God To Thee," this is the book for you.