Write it Yourself: My Advice to Barack Obama

"Obama may have inaugurated a new style in press relations: not the warm embrace, or out in the cold. Neither feed the beast, nor win the week. I will just call it the cool style, and let others more learned in American cool unfold what it means for our president."

20 Jan 2009 5:00 am Comments Off on Write it Yourself: My Advice to Barack Obama

(I was on Bill Moyers Journal Feb. 6 discussing Obama and the establishment press; if you would like to comment, use the comment thread at this post. Watch it here.)

Your Government, my people, has returned to you. — Václav Havel, New Year’s Day Address in Prague, Jan. 1, 1990

I met Barack Obama once. It was in 2004, the day before he launched himself as a national figure with a keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. I was in Boston as one of the 40 or so members of the stand alone commentariat—known then as The Bloggers—who were, for the first time, invited to cover the convention. We were a nice sidebar story, convention color with a trendy glow, so the DNC threw a breakfast for us on Monday of big week. The Bloggers: newest members of the message corps.

1. “I may be coming to you for advice.”

This is what I recall. (Here’s Dave Winer’s account, and another from Pacific Views and my own.)

Around the steam tables, word circulates that a special guest is dropping by, but nothing about who it is. We sit down to pancakes and assorted speakers, which included campaign reporting legend Wally Mears of the AP (familiar to readers of Boys on the Bus.) The doors in the back open. In sweeps Obama, with a small entourage that includes some reporters. At the time I know five facts about him: he is running for Senate in Illinois, he’s kicking ass in that race, he has a bright future, he’s black with a funny name, and he’s keynoting tomorrow night.

The DNC men are smiling as he glides to the microphone and makes a tidy “great to see you here” speech. About five minutes in, I can tell that he’s about to land this thing, step off the plane, wave to the bloggers and split from the hanger without getting dialogic. But this is not why the DNC invited The Bloggers and threw a breakfast for them with the AP watching. Obama: “We’re really glad the bloggers are here to get the word out. In fact, I may be coming to you for advice because I’m going to start blogging at my campaign website…”

I have advice for him. Cupping my hands to make a faux megaphone, I shout out to Barack Obama, “write it yourself!” Meaning: Don’t start a blog and make it an extension of the press release. You’d be worse off, with a lame blog and a blown start in the race to be smart online. Don’t start a Barack Obama blog at all unless you are willing to write it yourself. He heard me (and saw me) and chuckled. “When I find three hours of free time in my day, I will do that.”

Which was a diss. But a polite, smiley one; certainly I took no offense. Later on he did start writing blog posts himself— on Daily Kos, for example.

On Saturday, as he made his way by train to Washington for inauguration as our 44th president, that was still my advice: write it yourself. You don’t have to do things the way they have always been done. Turn the page, is the way Obama put it during the 2008 campaign. I like that image. But once you turn the page you have to write it yourself.

2. 1902: Bringing the press in from the cold

The one part of Obama’s impossible puzzle that I know something about is the presidency and the press chapter, in the longer and more strategic view. Here’s my 100-year sketch, adapted from an earlier post.

Theodore Roosevelt invited the press into the White House by ordering that a room be set aside for reporters to work in during renovations to the mansion that Obama will now occupy. In 1902 the work was completed: the press took up residence in the heart of the presidency and the nature of presidential power shifted. It was shifted by an insight Roosevelt had: that an emergent national media system would disrupt and reshape the political system to the presidency’s advantage if he learned to work within its logic. The needs of a national news narrative favored the president as the “big” character in that narrative.

As head of government, ceremonial chief of state, globe-striding national protagonist, the President would be able to project over the heads of other actors in the system, especially as “island communities” around the U.S. were hooked into the national story through mass circulation newspapers, the AP, the first nationally distributed magazines and improved communications in the broadest sense. What today we call “commanding the stage,” because we take for granted that there is a stage, was in 1902 an imaginative leap forward into new media space.

The incorporation of the press into presidential power actually began a few years earlier with McKinley, who first invited reporters into the White House and allowed them to hang out in a small room off the North Portico. Prior to that time they had taken to waiting in the street hoping to interview departing visitors. Congress was the nerve center of Washington then, and the more powerful branch. Its press gallery dates from 1841, 60 years before the White House supplied similar quarters.

The White House was more of a black box. You knew who went in. You knew what came out. Speeches revealed the political man; you covered those. A daily flow of White House news was not a routine occurrence. The briefing room with the presidential seal hadn’t been invented yet. Of course, the pipe endings it would later hook up with didn’t exist then.

It was McKinley who instituted regular White House briefings, but he kept his distance: reporters never met with the President and had to conduct interviews outside the building. He had gone half way with it. When Roosevelt took over after McKinley’s assassination the great embrace began. T.R. liked reporters. (His uncle was a newspaper editor; Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist, was a friend.) He took them into his confidence, traveled with them in tow and encouraged them to report on the president through the medium of his outsized personality. His notion of the presidency as “bully pulpit” and his decision to invite the press into the White House were parts of the same program. Ever since then the presidency and the press have glamorized one another other.

3. Harder to see in, less necessary to reply

That lasted almost exactly 100 years. George W. Bush engineered a strategic shift, the press part of which I have called rollback. Sensing an institution in decline and uncomfortable with interlocutors of any type, Bush decided to return the press to where it stood with McKinley: half way out in the cold. With Vice President Cheney, a power center in his own right, the press was pushed almost all the way out. (Nobody really covered Cheney’s OVP.) Bush didn’t feel he could expel reporters from the executive mansion, which would have alerted the country—and the press—to something extreme going on.

Instead his Administration tried to innovate in other ways: It explicitly denied the whole theory of the “fourth estate,” ridiculed the idea that the press is part of the system of checks and balances in Washington, told reporters they were a special interest group rather than a conduit to the public-at-large, bragged about Bush skipping the morning paper, and welcomed the de-legitimizing of the news media by allies in the culture war.

The Bush team also ran a tight ship, stayed on message, and rarely leaked except in the “planned” sense. In Scott McClellan they installed a kind of stooge figure in the White House press room. They prosecuted reporters. They took secrecy to new dimensions of dark. “Back ‘em up, starve ‘em down and drive up their negatives” is one way I summarized it. De-certifying the press is another.

And yet these moves were only part of something more consequential. The rollback of the press, the reduction of its interlocutor’s role to the status of a farce, were two bullet points in the vast expansion of executive power authored by Dick Cheney with Bush’s backing. One aim of it was simply to make the government more opaque, the exercise of power more illegible. (On the model of the state trooper’s sunglasses: He can see out, we can’t see in.) The press policy followed from that.

I’m not sure what Obama’s press policy should be. But I know he has to reverse the opacity agenda, and make his own exercise of power more intelligible. He has to involve more people in the effort to hold government accountable, for the costs of doing so have been driven way down. The press is part of that picture, but he should feel free to re-draw it.

4. The establishing shot

How did Americans learn that Sarah Palin was not ready to be President in waiting? A big part of it was her answers to Katie Couric of CBS News. She ruined her own establishing shot. If failing to answer expected questions from a national figure in the press can establish you as not ready (one of many Palin indicators, to be sure) then flip it around. When you are obviously able to handle press questions—and dodge the ones you have to—this establishes a new president as already on top of it, comfortable in command. There’s power in that, and a kind of legitimacy too. Being challenged in your own house shows the world what kind of house it is. Not a black box, a lit headquarters with lines in.

5. Going direct

What is over? The idea of one interlocutor, the White House press corps, acting as our quasi-official watchdog, and an oligopoly of firms—Big Media—through whom news of the presidency flows. That’s over. The big firms are not done; they still have serious pipe going out to homes and bars. But their world is shifted. The White House can go direct—that’s what whitehouse.gov is—and people can go direct (in certain limited ways) to the White House. Control over the sphere of legitimate debate is more widely distributed. The presidency has never had a participation wing, but this seems to be under discussion. Who knows where that goes. Today, however, the White House started blogging.

Behold the communications operation at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is a broadcaster and media company in itself, with global reach and an unstoppable brand. The White House briefing room, where the press is informed and asks questions, is sacred space for projecting American power and explaining the president’s positions around the world. Making a farce of that space, as Bush did, is not in American interests. Recovering civil and truthful uses for it is.

6. The Cool Style.

Like Roosevelt, Obama assumes the presidency at a moment when its media logic is switching gears. Roosevelt responded by opening up the office to enlarge his pulpit and architect new political space. Bush drew the blinds and felt powerful for being closed to public inspection; also, he was miserable at public persuasion. Obama can’t imitate Roosevelt (different cusp) he can’t perpetuate Bush (a national tragedy) and he won’t go back to Gergen-style managerialism. We know this from his campaign, which didn’t necessarily try to win the news day or cater to press needs.

Obama may have inaugurated a new style in presidential press relations: not the warm embrace, or out in the cold. Neither feed the beast, nor win the week. I will just call it the cool style, and let others more learned in American cool unfold what it means for our president and his interlocutors. May they be many. May they be wise. What we should care about is not how many questions the press gets to ask at White House news conferences—a hapless metric—but how open to questions the Obama White House is in all the available ways: old, new and recovered.

There is no manual for handling the press after media migration, after the black box of Bush. He’ll just have to write it himself. And that is one reason I look forward to the presidency of Barack Obama, who is inaugurated today.

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I often discuss Obama and the press—and provide links to new developments and insights on the subject—in my Twitter feed, which is sort of like PressThink-ing for the live web. (Example.) You can find my Twitter profile here.