All the President’s Pundits

When the White House tries to shape, seduce, and spin, what’s a journalist to do?

On a Thursday evening this past May, Eliot Spitzer, hosting his now-cancelled CNN show, lobbed a chummy question to his studio guest Fareed Zakaria—an opinion columnist for The Washington Post, an editor-at-large for Time, a best-selling book author, and the host of Fareed Zakaria GPA, a weekly CNN show on foreign affairs. “Look, I read something in the paper this week,” Spitzer said. “It said that the president of the United States calls
you for wisdom and advice about issues around the world. So first, when he calls you, what does he say? ‘Hi Barack, calling for Fareed?’ ”

Zakaria helpfully responded: “Mostly it’s been face to face meetings, usually organized by Tom Donilon, the national security advisor. What I’m struck by though, honestly, Eliot, is how much time he is spending thinking about the issues of the Arab Spring… It’s been a very thoughtful conversation, we’ll see where it goes.”

“I’m not going to ask you what you have said to the president,” Spitzer closed. “But it makes my heart warm that the president is calling you for wisdom and advice.”

On one level, there was nothing surprising about this exchange. Zakaria, “the most influential foreign-policy adviser of his generation,” as the Esquire quote on his website reads, has a well-established track record for offering private advice to high-level policymakers. “If a senator calls me up and asks me what should we do in Iraq, I’m happy to talk to him,” he told The New York Times back in 2006.

But let’s step back. Is it appropriate for a journalist, even an opinion columnist, to give confidential advice to a president? And what’s up with Obama seeking advice from scribes like Zakaria?

These questions go to one of the murkiest corners of the media landscape—the rules and practices of political punditry. History suggests that punditry is a form of journalism that can be particularly ripe for manipulation by presidents with a natural interest in shaping opinion coverage to burnish their images and advance their goals. And Obama, it seems, for all his reputation for being somewhat aloof, is very much an actor in this game of courtship—with the pundits themselves, operating by their own personal codes of conduct, mostly willing to play along.

They shouldn’t always be.

The term pundit itself is appropriately exotic—it comes from the Sanskrit pandita, for “learned” person. The popular image of a pundit suggests a wide-bottomed sort, office thumb in mouth, conjuring political opinion from some ethereal cloud.

In fact, the best pundits do their own first-hand reporting, including visits to hot spots like war zones. Still, punditry long has been, and still is, a classic form of access journalism, with the most influential pundits scooping up valuable tidbits from high-level sources in Washington, with the president, of course, at the top of the pinnacle.

The most famous of the type was Walter Lippmann, renowned for his extensive involvements with a string of presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson. Lippmann had no compunction about offering them private advice, and neither did another bigwig syndicated columnist from the age, Joseph Alsop. At the Democrats’ 1960 convention, Alsop barged into nominee John F. Kennedy’s hotel suite to press the case for Johnson as the best pick for vice president. Alsop then, typically, filed a column on the VP choices facing Kennedy—without any mention of his own behind-the-scenes machinations. Nor was he above pulling punches in his column (written with his brother Stewart, for a time) to stay in the good graces of JFK, who supped on caviar and Moet & Chandon as a dinner guest at Joe’s Georgetown home.

For such writers, a dual role as private advisor in a presidential braintrust and tutor to the public at large was all part of a seamless web of responsibilities, borne as members of an elite establishment that regarded itself as the rightful steward of the nation. In certain respects, the era of the Lippmanns and Alsops is over—in this age of partisan polarization, the establishment is certainly not what it once was. And yet there remain the Zakarias of today—a “throwback,” says Evan Thomas, recently retired from nearly a quarter century at Newsweek, to the time “when journalists really were members of the establishment.”

Yet for all the changes of the digital age, old media has more clout than might be thought. Today’s syndicated columnists, operating in a media culture defined more than ever by opinions, have their work appear not only in print but also on newspaper websites. Their writing is extracted, summarized, and linked by numerous other political sites. E. J. Dionne, who has been writing columns for The Washington Post since 1993, figures that he now has the potential to reach “a bigger audience” than Lippmann ever did. David Brooks, with a syndicated New York Times column and regular weekly political wrap-up gigs on National Public Radio (with Dionne) and on the PBS NewsHour (with Mark Shields), is an omnipresent opinion-dispensing megaphone to all close—and millions of casual—followers of American politics. When he devoted his July 5 Times column to a plea for Republicans to accept revenue increases as part of a deal to raise the debt limit, Politico quickly followed with an entire story on reactions from prominent voices in the blogosphere.

So traditional print columnists still matter—and, for sure, are perceived to matter by the political powers that be—for a reputed ability to influence public opinion. And in the Barack Obama White House, after a 2008 campaign relying heavily on the new tools of social, interactive media and, as ever, television images, the most prominent columnists have been assiduously courted from his first days in office. “I think their feeling was that, even in this world of infinite voices, there are X number of people who shape what we do as a society,” with the columnists as a key segment of that elite, said Ronald Brownstein, a National Journal columnist who has spent time with the president and key advisors. It may be, Brownstein added, that Obama took a media-strategy page from Bill Clinton’s playbook: “You campaign in television and you govern in print.”

As part of this governance strategy, certain columnists come to be seen as political proxies, with Brooks, on the center-right, viewed as a stand-in for independent voters open to persuasion from Obama, and Brooks’s Times colleague, Paul Krugman, on the liberal end of the spectrum, seen as the embodiment of a restive Democratic base.

Today’s columnists, as ever, frankly treasure their presidential access. “To me, the big temptation is, if you’re tough in your columns, they won’t invite you over any more,” Brooks said. He added, though, that Obama had not displayed a punitive streak: “I don’t think it’s necessary to soften what you think.”

Indeed, the president has a reputation for straightforward, wide-ranging dealings with the pundits. He typically meets them in off-the-record sessions with either one particular columnist or about a half dozen at a time. He’s not known as a leaker, willing to drop some juicy bit of inside, not yet public, information. “In many ways, he thinks like a columnist,” with an interest “in what ideas are hitting” in the political culture, Brooks said.

“They’ve been pretty philosophical discussions—not on the news of the day,” Jonathan Alter, an ex-Newsweek columnist now with Bloomberg and an MSNBC analyst, said of his off-record talks. One, held in the Roosevelt Room in the summer of 2010, focused on education policy and was also attended by Brooks and Joe Klein of Time among others.

Alter also pointed to a difference in style between the respective approaches to the pundits of Obama and Bill Clinton, also a Democrat but a very different kind of cat in dealings with journalists. “He doesn’t really kiss our ass, and I respect him for that,” Alter said of Obama. Clinton, even though he seemed at heart to despise the press, sometimes flattered the pundits—“He’s just a seducer in every part of his life,” Alter noted.

But while Obama may be a soft or even an indifferent seller, he had by his side in his first two years in office a salesman extraordinaire—his irrepressible chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Now Chicago’s mayor, he was a legend among the pundits for a morning to midnight full-court press (usually pushing column ideas) via the telephone, e-mail, and face-to-face talk-fests. During the health care debate, for example, Emanuel pounded home the notion that the lack of a public option shouldn’t be a litmus test for whether any final piece of legislation truly was progressive or not. (His successor, William Daley, is more apt to leave such outreach to others in the White House.)

At the same time, this administration, just like its predecessors, shamelessly uses every perk at its disposal to win pundits’ favor. Take state dinner invitations, the most treasured party pass in Washington. The scorecard is running at two invites for Thomas Friedman of The New York Times (India and China affairs), and one each for Zakaria (India), Dionne (Germany), David Ignatius of The Washington Post (China), Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times (China), and James Fallows of The Atlantic (China). At the reception line, the pundit is typically introduced by the president to the state leader guest of honor as one of America’s most important journalists. Picture the pundit’s spouse beaming with pride.

The White House can also offer a ride on Air Force One, the ultimate symbol of presidential power and luxury. Back in February 2009, five columnists got to join Obama for a flight back to Chicago—Dionne and Brownstein along with Clarence Page of The Chicago Tribune, Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post, and Bob Herbert, then of The New York Times. Then there were the eighteen holes that Friedman, whom the president has consulted on Middle East policy, enjoyed with Obama on an Andrews Air Force Base golf course back in the fall of 2009.

And, maybe best of all, there’s the book plug. Many pundits write books, whose sales can’t be hurt by an endorsement from the Reader in Chief. Typical of his predecessors, Obama or his aides occasionally lets it be known what the president is reading; the titles have included Alter’s Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope and Zakaria’s The Post-American World, which he was photographed holding during the campaign. (The New York Times website published the image under the headline, “What Obama Is Reading.”) “Our authors have definitely benefited from President Obama’s endorsements,” said Jonathan Karp, publisher of Simon & Schuster, who noted that Alter’s fdr book became a trade paperback best-seller “largely as a result” of being on Obama’s list.

The attention Obama lavishes on pundits’ books can be surprisingly durable. Though he has been referring to Friedman’s 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America since he ran for president, in August 2009, it was included on Obama’s official vacation book list. The president, a Harvard Law graduate, is not known to be a slow reader.

What if anything, then, is Obama getting for all this scripted attention devoted on the pundits? The question is difficult to answer if only because no self-respecting columnist will ever admit to pulling punches to stay in the White House’s good graces.

“Some columnists are spinnable,” said Peter Baker, a White House reporter for The New York Times, who explained that, on occasions, a pundit (he declined to name names) will write a column almost exactly parroting some recent background briefing from senior officials.

Indeed, on occasion, a column is written that seems helpful to Obama when he needs it most. This spring, Obama received sharp criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for being way too tough on the Israelis after declaring that negotiations with the Palestinians should begin from the 1967 borders. On May 25, Zakaria supportively disagreed, weighing in with a column strongly defending Obama’s position and arguing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should actually be “thanking” the president for “publicly condemning the Palestinian strategy to seek recognition as a state from the UN.” Zakaria made no mention in the column of his private meetings with Obama to talk about the Middle East. (He did not respond to requests for an interview, but has said elsewhere that he has refrained from advising Obama “on a specific policy or speech or proposal.”)

It’s also true that Obama has often taken criticism from pundits he has courted, including on a persistently biting basis from Krugman, not just a columnist but a Nobel Prize winning economist, whose ideas the president has openly solicited and with whom he has privately met in the White House at least once. The debt-ceiling deal reached in August was “an abject surrender on the part of the President,” Krugman wrote. Obama did not win over David Brooks on health care or on the administration’s economic stimulus package, and he took a mocking shot from golf-buddy Friedman for caving to Republicans and opening more federal lands for oil exploration. “Great: Let’s make America even more dependent on an energy resource,” Friedman wrote in May. Zakaria has cast skepticism on Obama’s Libya engagement, bluntly warning of “mission creep.”

And yet, to hear it from the pundits themselves, Obama does help his cause by explaining his policies and offering a frame of reference for the messy set of decisions he is confronting—if only by getting inside their head when it comes time to write. “It’s easy to say that they should do just x, y, and z, but if they’re facing constraints, a, b, and c, then you have to account for that, rather than just bashing them,” Brooks said. “It does affect what you write.”

“Of course, it helps Obama,” Dionne said. “Even if he doesn’t persuade you on the point, you realize that this is an impressive, intelligent man, who can also be very charming, and warmer in groups like that than he is in public appearances.”

Pundits are different than so-called straight journalists in having a license, indeed a duty, to opine, but the columnists are still journalists. So what are the rules that govern, or at least should govern, their encounters with the president and his aides?

For starters, it seems fair to give them wider berth than straight reporters get. If a pundit is having an argument with the president on some policy in a print column, then it doesn’t seem wrong to have that argument continued in an actual sit-down with the President.

Still, some rules ought to apply. There should be a rule of proportion in social engagements with the White House. One state dinner? Sure. One golf game? OK. But if this sort of thing becomes a habit, then the pundit, in the public’s mind, is sure to look like a crony of the president—who is always going to be seen, correctly, as the vastly more powerful member of this pair.

There also should be a rule of transparency. If pundits are dining or golfing or otherwise meeting with the president, even if off the record, they should bend over backwards to tell the public. Ignatius and Fallows showed how this could be done by providing their readers context and reporting on Hu Jintao’s state dinner.

But the occurrence of such encounters is not as thorny, in terms of ethics, as what happens at them. When pundits give specific advice to presidents and their aides in private, they become, in effect, counselors. It’s one thing for a columnist to carry on a debate of ideas with the White House—and another to dispense programmatic tips.

The columnists are of different minds on this practice. “Giving advice is tricky,” Joe Klein of Time acknowledged in an e-mail exchange. “If a president hasn’t done something I think might be useful, I’ll usually pose it as a question: ‘Why haven’t you done such and such?’ or ‘Why did you do this and not that?’ This, I believe, keeps me within the white lines of our craft and broadens my information stash.”

And for Klein, there is something like a privilege that even a journalist owes a president, who is not just any politician but, uniquely, the head of state. “Just about every private one-on-one session I’ve had with a sitting president,” Klein recalled, “came after I’d been someplace they couldn’t go (at least, not in the same way that I’d been)—to China, Iran, Afghanistan or after I’d spent some time concentrating on a specific issue in the US.”

“Such meetings,” Klein continued, “tend to be conversations, with the president asking as much as answering. These sessions usually take place after I’ve written something that has piqued their interest and I don’t have any problem with answering a president’s questions—indeed, I’m honored to do so.”

Against this shades-of-gray view is the purist perspective that private counsel simply should not be offered, no matter the importance of the president. “I am in the business of giving advice to the president twice a week”—in a newspaper column, David Ignatius of The Washington Post said. “We’re not here to be patriots,” he said of his fellow pundits. “We’re here to serve our readers and offer the best commentary we can. I think there is a dividing line in life.”

From my vantage point—and admittedly it’s the perspective of one who has never been asked for advice by a president—the purists have it right: the pundits should save their advice for their columns. Presidents, all presidents, are political animals. The technique of asking advice from pundits seems designed to co-opt them—if not to assure favorable coverage (unlikely), at the least to soften criticism. It’s a form of flattery, and the thing about presidential flattery, as Evan Thomas said, is that “it works—it has worked with me, on a human level.” Let’s face it: while Obama can no doubt glean insights from a Joe Klein, a Tom Friedman, or a Fareed Zakaria, journalists have no monopoly on expertise, and the president has at his fingertips instant access to the world’s smartest, most plugged in people, inside and outside his administration. Even Nobel Laureate Krugman surely is more prized by the Obama White House for his media platform than for his policy prescriptions, which are of a standard Keynesian variety.

Beyond that, pundits who offer private advice to presidents risk breaking faith with their readers, from whom the journalists should not make a habit of keeping secrets. On this, I’m with Patrick Pexton, my friend and former editor who is now The Washington Post’s ombudsman. “I think the White House is a little bit like a flame and we’re the moths circling it,” Patrick told me, with the “we” referring to all journalists, pundits included. “You have to be careful about getting too close because you could get burned.” As for pundits with hearts set on serving Obama as an advisor, there is a ready and an honorable out: give up your jobs in journalism and apply for one with the White House.

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Paul Starobin , a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week, is the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.