Conservatives who were a little amazed at The Washington Post's 5,400-word opus on Mitt Romney's high-school pranks wondered: Is this how the Post covered Barack Obama's admission in his memoir "Dreams From My Father" that he tried cocaine? Did the Post use as much investigative elbow grease to assess Obama's record as the first major presidential candidate to admit using cocaine?
No. The only news story that registers was published on the front page on January 4, five weeks before he jumped into the presidential race. "It was headlined "Effect of Obama's Candor Remains to Be Seen." This paragraph from reporter Lois Romano was an absolute classic:
Through his book, Obama has become the first potential presidential contender to admit trying cocaine. "I believe what the country is looking for is someone who is open, honest and candid about themselves rather than someone who seems endlessly driven by polls or focus groups," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's spokesman. Gibbs said yesterday that Obama was not available for an interview.
Obama was "open and candid" and yet completely unavailable to the press. That's a humdinger. There were no accusers to berate Obama's behavior, just spinners on his behalf:
Obama's partisan opponents and experts said it is too early to know whether the admissions will be a liability because the public seems to be enthusiastically embracing his openness at this point. What's more, they note that it is better for a politician to disclose his own transgressions, rather than be put on the defensive by revelations.
"Who's going to cast that first stone?" asked Anita Dunn, a veteran Democratic political consultant, who has advised Obama's political committee.
Rhodes Cook, a independent political analyst, said that Democratic primary voters, who are typically more liberal, would be more understanding of his drug use -- "and if he makes it to a general election, it will be old news."
Obama's supporters said his admissions in the book could work to his advantage.
"I think it will be received as refreshing," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Obama's fellow Democrat from Illinois. "If you compare similar
books, many of us in the political business tend to have selective memories."
These are definitely the kind of "experts" the Post wanted to line up. Their hope of little or no damage was telegraphed in the "news" report:
As a potential candidate, Obama has presented himself as a fresh voice offering a politics of hope. Many say he offers something new in American politics: an African American with a less-than-traditional name who has so far demonstrated broad appeal. What remains to be seen is whether the candor he offered in his early memoir will be greeted with a new-style acceptance by voters.
That's exactly what the Post wanted, and its wish was granted. No one in the media wanted to detract from Obama's campaign by actually vetting the book as if he were a Republican. It wasn't until late in the article that the drug passages were quoted: "Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though," Obama wrote.
Inside the paper on December 23, 2007, political writer Chris Cillizza covered outrage that Clinton strategists would hint that Obama had scandals in his bakground, hints that sounded vaguely racist to liberal reporters:
These officials, including Clinton aides and prominent surrogates, have raised questions or dropped references about Obama's position on sentencing guidelines for crack vs. powder cocaine offenses; on his handgun control record; and on his admitted use of drugs as a youth.
The context was always Obama's "electability." But the Illinois senator's campaign advisers said some African American leaders detect a pattern, and they believe it could erode Clinton's strong base of black support.