Throwing rotten eggs at “them lyin’ newspapers” has always been great sport in America, and sometimes even effective politics. But it has to be done with wit and humor, which may be above Barack Obama’s pay grade.
Thomas Jefferson despised newspapers, with considerable justification. They printed libels and slanders about him that persist to the present day. Yet he famously said that if he had to choose between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, he would cheerfully choose to live in a land with newspapers (even not very good ones) and no government.
Harry Truman threatened to demolish the manhood of a newspaper music critic who criticized his daughter’s singing. Richard Nixon compiled an enemies list, prominently including newspapermen. I made Bill Clinton’s enemies list and dined out on it for weeks. George W. Bush confessed, no doubt accurately, that he never read newspapers.
The president’s media environment is “target rich,” but as any bombardier could tell you, there’s more to scoring a bull’s-eye than opening the bomb-bay doors. In a fit of pique, John F. Kennedy canceled the White House subscription to the New York Herald-Tribune (may it R.I.P.) because he thought it relished stories about Democratic zits and covered up Republican pimples. The ban didn’t last; the White House soon subscribed again, and JFK poked a little fun at his over-the-top pique.
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Politicians who actually get their revenge on press tormentors do so with rapier thrusts of whimsy and clever insult. An early 20th-century governor and U.S. senator from Arkansas (from whom Mr. Clinton took pointers) delighted in sharp thrust-and-parry with the Arkansas Gazette (may it R.I.P.), the state’s leading newspaper.
“My wife and I have a little boy, and we have great ambitions for him,” he would tell audiences gathered on courthouse lawns at the foot of the monument to the Confederate soldier. “If it turns out that he’s as intelligent as we think he is, we hope to make a Baptist preacher of him. If he has just average intelligence, that’s all right, we’ll send him to law school. But if it turns out he’s the village idiot, we’ll just send him down to Little Rock to edit the morning newspaper.”
Good fun. But something more sinister is afoot in Mr. Obama’s carefully plotted campaign to destroy his perceived enemies in the press, television and even business. Rush Limbaugh is only the face of the opposition, and the ultimate target of the White House scheme is to marginalize and destroy the Republican Party first, and then everyone else unwilling to get in the lockstep parade toward the hazy dream of Utopia.
Mr. Obama and his White House can’t seem to get their brains around the fact that the election of ‘08 is over, and he won. A candidate feeds on red meat, but a president is the president of everyone, and must set a different table. Mr. Obama campaigned with promises of a post-racial, post-partisan, post-rancor administration, and millions of Americans responded with enthusiasm. The candidate who said he took inspiration from Abraham Lincoln of Illinois now acts as if he takes inspiration from the distinguished statesmen of the Third World, where press opposition to the leader is usually a bloody no-no.
The remarkable White House attempt to define which news organization is legitimate and which is not began in August, as Mr. Obama’s poll numbers began a dramatic slide. Suddenly the man who yearns to be the permanent president of the Student Body, loved by all and adored by the co-eds and their mamas, is rendered human after all. Anita Dunn, the director of White House communications, says that when the administration began planning for autumn (with important gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia), the president “needed to be more aggressive in defining what the choices are, and in protecting and pushing forward our agenda.”
Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and Fox News are big enough to take care of themselves, but the implications of what the Obamanauts are trying to do are scary, indeed. Brisk and even brutal opposition is something every president must endure; it’s a pity that Mr. Obama skipped school the day the class studied American history. The candidate insists that the critics who scoff that he isn’t really the messiah, but another Chicago politician, are just being cynical. This week Ms. Dunn insisted that the Obama image is intact. “He’s who he has always been.” So we are learning, to widespread sorrow.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.