POLITICS MARCH 11, 2010
Allow me to posit a case study: Two high-ranking government officials are the subject of multiple newspaper and magazine profiles in the span of a few weeks. The first official resists the attention. He isn’t so much as quoted in any of the pieces, whose authors glumly note his lack of enthusiasm for their projects. By contrast, the second official goes out of his way to cooperate with the profile-writers. He submits to numerous, on-the-record interviews and mounts a detailed defense of his actions. His aides even distribute one of the articles after the fact.
Now, which of these officials would you expect to be pilloried for hogging the spotlight and deflecting blame onto the president? Right--me, too.
I refer of course to Rahm Emanuel and Tim Geithner. Since mid-February, Emanuel has seen his performance as White House chief of staff dissected in at least four pieces that were, to varying degrees, sympathetic: two in The Washington Post, one (by me) in this publication, and one in The New York Times Magazine. Similarly, Geithner’s tenure as Treasury secretary is the topic of thousands of words in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and Vogue. Emanuel is basically a ghost in his pieces—you sometimes think you detect his presence, but it vanishes when you do a double-take. Geithner is the central presence in his profiles, delivering lengthy soliloquies on the political economy of financial crises.
But whereas Geithner’s participation is seen as benign, even salutary—virtually everyone in Washington (including me) thinks the administration could benefit from a better explanation of its economic successes—Emanuel’s studious non-participation is held up as evidence of malign intent. “It sounded, for all the world, like the kind of orchestrated leaks that often precede a forced resignation in Washington,” the Post’s David Broder wrote of his paper’s Emanuel stories. “Except that the chief of staff doesn't usually force the president out.”
So, according to this thinking, Emanuel has been serving as Washington’s de facto assignment editor in addition to his other responsibilities. It might all make perfect sense--if it weren’t completely nutso.
Let's not kid ourselves: Any time you see a spurt of stories about an operator as prodigious as Rahm Emanuel, there’s reason to think he might be involved. Emanuel is “as relentless in working reporters as he is in working congressmen,” the Times’ Peter Baker, who authored one of the profiles, recently told The New Yorker. “He cajoles, lobbies, berates, and trades information because he understands it’s better to work with the media than to shut us out.” Suffice it to say, it’s hard to believe such a person wouldn’t take an interest in his own press clippings.
Moreover, it would be naïve to assume Emanuel wasn’t involved in a piece just because he didn’t advertise it. As The Wall Street Journal’s Naftali Bendavid notes in The Thumpin’, his book about Emanuel’s turn at the House Democratic campaign committee (DCCC), the chief of staff’s longstanding mantra when dealing with reporters is “no fingerprints.” Bendavid illustrates the approach in the context of several DCCC-initiated stories about Republicans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Having said all that, the far more important thing to understand about Emanuel is that he has an acutely-honed sense of his own self-interest. Which is why he surely knew that drawing attention to himself, and to the ways the president erred by rejecting his advice, would have been a recklessly self-defeating act. All the more so back in February, when the Obama administration faced its most turbulent moment yet. This is, after all, one of the most fanatically discreet White House’s in recent memory. The average "West Wing" fan could have told you that airing dirty laundry amid all the scrutiny would completely tick off this president.
Between this and my own writing about Emanuel—a piece I can assure you he didn’t initiate, and that I actually started back in December, long before he became Washington’s chief preoccupation—I’m confident the recent profiles had little to do with any lobbying on the part of their subject.
What the pieces mostly had to do with is the fact that Emanuel is a compelling figure in his own right. Since I published my take last week, a variety of people have privately expressed amazement that Emanuel and the White House would allow such a piece to be written. The observation often takes the form of a comparison to a previous chief of staff—something like, “I can’t imagine John Podesta or Andy Card ever going along with a piece like this.” But, as much as I respect Podesta and admire his work for Bill Clinton, the situation isn’t close to analogous. Emanuel was a widely known—and much-profiled—figure long before he joined the Obama White House; in his own prior life, Podesta was a career staffer known only to politicos. There was always going to be a much bigger appetite for Rahm Emanuel profiles than John Podesta profiles. And some fraction of those were going to see the light of day, regardless of how Emanuel felt about them.
As for the orientation of the recent Rahm pieces, that has much more to do with broader media tidal-movements than any intervention by Emanuel himself. Back in January and early February, a handful of reporters and pundits alleged that Emanuel’s mistakes as chief of staff were threatening Obama’s presidency (see here, here, and here). At that point, a second group of journalists noticed that the anti-Rahm narrative, whatever truth it contained, had overshot its mark. Being opportunistic players in a competitive industry, they (er, we) gambled that some additional reporting and analysis might produce a corrective to the conventional wisdom. Better yet, the corrective would have the virtue of being both novel and true!
Unfortunately, as any economist will tell you, people in a competitive market tend to bid away profits pretty quickly. And so it was that we ended up with not one corrective piece but four.
It’s not surprising that people like Broder--and Bloomberg columnist Al Hunt, who also harrumphed about the recent Rahm coverage--would read multiple pieces on someone like Emanuel and assume they must be orchestrated. These writers came of age in an era when practicing political journalism meant channeling the thoughts of powerful insiders. The main reporting challenge back then was breaking into the establishment—becoming the guy Bob Strauss or Jim Baker called with a juicy scoop.
But the cardinal virtue for this generation’s political journalist isn’t access; it’s counter-intuition. Everyone wants to say something surprising, and to generate it by dint of their cleverness and resourcefulness, not at the urging of some wise man they’re cultivating. You spend weeks working sources at varying distances from your subject, praying that the scraps of news you collect don’t first wind up in the hands of widely-read web reporters like Mike Allen or Marc Ambinder. So you can imagine how it feels when, just as you’re pulling it all together, you learn that two or three other journalists have been up to exactly the same thing. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. I’ll tell you: It’s kind of annoying. But that’s the way the world works. (And, for the record, I wouldn’t trade jobs with anybody…)
It’s all a little ironic, I guess: As much as we Rahm-ologists like to believe we’re independent arbiters, our pieces suggest we’re only slightly more free-thinking than the establishment journalists of yore. Maybe the only difference is that we’re chained to a predictable meta-narrative rather than to a particular source. Granted, I hope that’s not the case. But, if it is, you can hardly blame Rahm Emanuel.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.