Presidents and their honeymoons

Posted Dec. 05, 2008, at 7:38 p.m.

At a news conference this week, president-in-waiting Barack Obama heaped abundant praise on Hillary Clinton while introducing the New York senator as his nominee for secretary of state in the new administration.

That prompted a news reporter to ask the obvious question: How did Obama’s glowing assessment of the expertise of Clinton in the foreign policy arena square with his belittlement of her experience in foreign affairs during the Democratic presidential primary, when he said that her experience had consisted mainly of a few tea parties abroad?

Obama flashed his 100-watt smile and tried to finesse the question with humor, saying he understood the need for reporters to have a few “gotcha” questions in their knapsack in order to have a little fun once in a while.

The reporter replied that it was an appropriate question in light of the Clinton nomination. “I know. And you’re having fun,” Obama responded. Then he gave the politician’s stock answer when confronted with such awkward ghosts of statements past: A candidate says a lot of things in the heat of a political campaign that, upon reflection, he might wish he hadn’t said, and now is now and that was then, and I’m looking forward rather than backward, and so on and so forth. Next question, please.

The reporter might well have asked an even more pertinent question of a smiling Clinton as she stood at Obama’s side. During the Democratic primary campaign Clinton had authorized a memorable zinger of a television ad questioning Obama’s lack of experience. If the red phone in the White House should ring at 3 a.m. bringing word of some developing national or international catastrophe, who would Americans want answering it? Certainly not the man who — irony of ironies — has turned out to be her new boss.

The conclusion to be drawn from the ad was that anyone who didn’t prefer the voice on the White House end of the line to be Clinton’s was nuts. A lot of Clinton supporters — and perhaps Clinton herself — may still believe that to be the case, I suspect, although you’d never get them to acknowledge as much to a blabbermouth like me.

Obama was correct. Politicians, like the rest of us, do sometimes say things in the heat of battle that they come to later regret. But that begs the question of why, having once uttered words in a primary election that returned to bite them in a general election, candidates often repeat the mistake in a subsequent campaign. Especially in an age when it is so easy for opportunistic political enemies to record their remarks for nefarious purposes later on.

Anyone watching Obama deftly field reporter’s questions, including the one about his amazing metamorphosis in respect to Hillary, may have wondered how long his honeymoon that began quite some time ago with segments of the national press corps might last.

Presidents dating back to the early days of the republic have found the press to be a pain in their political butts, and this president-elect will one day join the club. In modern times, presidents representing both major political parties have made no secret of their disdain for the news media when the media have developed stories the presidents would rather have kept under wraps.

During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a New York Daily News columnist a bogus Nazi medal to express his criticism of the man’s biting commentary on FDR’s war preparations. Lyndon Johnson was forever whining that the press was too critical. Ronald Reagan believed that too much information was a bad thing, his minions ordering employees to keep contact with the press to a minimum lest they find themselves unemployed. Richard Nixon seemed always to be at war with the press, siccing the Internal Revenue Service, FBI and other government agencies on reporters and broadcasters who had angered him.

And so it has gone, this minuet involving president and press. How long before the music stops and the dance partners become estranged in an Obama administration is anyone’s guess. But history tells us that not even a 100-watt smile is likely to stall that inevitability.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.

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