Time's Joe Klein Adores Obama's Calm -- And Asks Nothing That Would Ruin It

October 23rd, 2008 11:16 PM

Time’s Joe Klein interviewed Barack Obama again for the November 3 print edition, and hailed his utter lack of drama and his steadiness. Left unasked: isn’t it easier to appear calm and steady when your interviewer doesn’t want to upset your no-drama image? Klein went on an extended exploration of how Obama showed great respect for Gen. David Petraeus, but made no mention (and as far as a reader can tell, hurled no question) about his supporters at MoveOn.org taking out an ad skewering the general as "General Betray Us." Likewise, he praised Obama’s deftness in handling the "black-nationalist sermons" of his minister Jeremiah Wright, but never seemed to press the candidate on any of the contradictions in his I can’t dissociate myself/oh yes, I can routine last spring.

In an article helpfully titled "Why Barack Obama is Winning," Klein began by describing Obama as a superior commander-in-chief to President Bush already:

General David Petraeus deployed overwhelming force when he briefed Barack Obama and two other Senators in Baghdad last July. He knew Obama favored a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq, and he wanted to make the strongest possible case against it. And so, after he had presented an array of maps and charts and PowerPoint slides describing the current situation on the ground in great detail, Petraeus closed with a vigorous plea for "maximum flexibility" going forward.

Obama had a choice at that moment. He could thank Petraeus for the briefing and promise to take his views "under advisement." Or he could tell Petraeus what he really thought, a potentially contentious course of action — especially with a general not used to being confronted. Obama chose to speak his mind. "You know, if I were in your shoes, I would be making the exact same argument," he began. "Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security." Obama talked about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the financial costs of the occupation of Iraq, the stress it was putting on the military.

A "spirited" conversation ensued, one person who was in the room told me. "It wasn't a perfunctory recitation of talking points. They were arguing their respective positions, in a respectful way." The other two Senators — Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed — told Petraeus they agreed with Obama. According to both Obama and Petraeus, the meeting — which lasted twice as long as the usual congressional briefing — ended agreeably. Petraeus said he understood that Obama's perspective was, necessarily, going to be more strategic. Obama said that the timetable obviously would have to be flexible. But the Senator from Illinois had laid down his marker: if elected President, he would be in charge. Unlike George W. Bush, who had given Petraeus complete authority over the war — an unprecedented abdication of presidential responsibility (and unlike John McCain, whose hero worship of Petraeus bordered on the unseemly) — Obama would insist on a rigorous chain of command.

That’s a sentence full of the audacity of hope that no one remembers that Obama was backed by the unseemly "Betray Us" ad buyers, not to mention the discounts offered by Obama supporters at The New York Times. Klein wants us to see his Obama as a giant looming over the puny Republican ring-kissers.

Klein is more supinely pro-Obama when it came to Wright, quoting absolutely nothing from his hateful heap of sermons, neither America-deserved-9/11, nor U.S. of K.K.K.A., or nor the U.S. Government Invented AIDS Virus to Kill Blacks. Obama is allowed to declare that this was a teaching moment for America, not a reaching moment for Obama, when the spin couldn’t take the stink off his 20-year association with a vicious preacher of hate and racial bitterness:

He seemed to be thinking in my presence, rather than just reciting talking points, and it took him some time to think through my question about gut decisions. He said the first really big one was how to react when incendiary videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's black-nationalist sermons surfaced last spring. "The decision to make it big as opposed to make it small," Obama said of the landmark speech on race relations he delivered in Philadelphia. "My gut was telling me that this was a teachable moment and that if I tried to do the usual political damage control instead of talking to the American people like ... they were adults and could understand the complexities of race, I would be not only doing damage to the campaign but missing an important opportunity for leadership."

The speech was followed by a more traditional form of damage control when Wright showed up in Washington still spewing racial nonsense: Obama cut him loose. And while Obama has followed a fairly traditional political path in this campaign, his strongest — and most telling — moments have been those when he followed his natural no-drama instincts.

Obama completely contradicting himself was somehow not political floundering. It was forceful damage control flowing from a natural no-drama instinct. You get that same sense of liberal calm undisturbed by helpful liberal reporters in this passage:

But one of the more remarkable spectacles of the 2008 election — unprecedented in my time as a journalist — was the unanimity among Democrats on matters of policy once the personality clash between Obama and Hillary Clinton was set aside. There was no squabbling between old and new Dems, progressives and moderates, over race or war or peace. This was a year for no-drama Democrats, which made Obama as comfortable a fit for them as McCain was awkward for the Republican base.

This does not acknowledge that reporters don’t tend to foster discord between Democrats, especially after a long primary season, but launches eagerly into egging on intranecine Republican squabbles.

Then Klein launched back into Petraeus, having Obama declare him non-ideological, and then imply he’s non-ideological as well:

Which is why the Petraeus moment is so interesting. Obama's gut reaction was to go against his normal palliative impulse and to challenge the general instead. "I felt it was necessary to make that point ... precisely because I respect Petraeus and [Ambassador Ryan] Crocker," Obama said, after he reluctantly acknowledged that my reporting of the meeting was correct. "Precisely because they've been doing a good job ... And I want them to understand that I'm taking their arguments seriously." Obama endorses Petraeus' new post, as the commanding general at Central Command, with responsibility for overseeing both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "He's somebody who cares about facts and cares about the reality on the ground. I don't think he comes at this with an ideological predisposition. That's one of the reasons why I think he's been successful in moving the ball forward in Iraq. And I hope that he's applying that same perspective to what's happening in Afghanistan."

Klein must tell the reader that he’s been honored repeatedly by Obama interviews, and reminds the reader that he aggressively hectored the most liberal Senator from the left in the first interview:

Almost exactly two years ago, I had my first formal interview with Barack Obama — and he appeared on this magazine's cover for the first time. It wasn't an easy interview. His book The Audacity of Hope had just been published, but his policy proposals didn't seem very audacious. He actually grew a bit testy when I pushed him on the need for universal health insurance and a more aggressive global-warming policy — neither of which he supported. He has stayed with his less-than-universal health-care plan, and I still find it less than convincing. And his cap-and-trade program to control carbon emissions has taken a backseat to the economic crisis — although Obama insisted that he still favored such a plan, so long as consumers are cushioned with rebates when energy prices rise.

Klein wrapped up by declaring his solidarity with Obama’s adult leadership, something the current president doesn’t possess, by his lights:

His has been a remarkable campaign, as smoothly run as any I've seen in nine presidential cycles. Even more remarkable, Obama has made race — that perennial, gaping American wound — an afterthought. He has done this by introducing a quality to American politics that we haven't seen in quite some time: maturity. He is undoubtedly as ego-driven as everyone else seeking the highest office — perhaps more so, given his race, his name and his lack of experience. But he has not been childishly egomaniacal, in contrast to our recent baby-boomer Presidents — or petulant, in contrast to his opponent. He does not seem needy. He seems a grown-up, in a nation that badly needs some adult supervision.