Boston Globe: 'In a Stroke of Brilliance, Obama Defies Easy Caricature,' Reflects 'Devotion He Inspires'

“The New York Times Co. is threatening to shut down the Boston Globe and deprive the world of its hard-hitting brand of journalism,” James Taranto sarcastically noted in his Tuesday “Best of the Web Today” for the Wall Street Journal's online “Opinion Journal” page, mockingly citing “an example of what would be lost is a column by Peter S. Canellos, the paper's Washington bureau chief, titled 'In a Stroke of Brilliance, Obama Defies Easy Caricature.'”

Unlike recent Presidents, Canellos contended in his weekly “National Perspectives” column in the Globe's news pages, “Obama, so far, seems to occupy a place in the popular culture beyond humor. Ridicule doesn't touch him. His personality defies easy categorization.” Even the “few running gags to emerge from the Obama administration -- aides not paying their taxes, Treasury officials rewarding fat-cats” -- rebounds to Obama's benefit, Canellos argued, as he effused: “The only one that pertains to the President himself is the straight-faced devotion he inspires. Obama may not actually be perfect, but so many poor souls out there think he is.”

An observation about the press corps?

“He's come off, at times, as a bit pompous and humorless,” Canellos acknowledged before again turning a criticism of Obama into a positive:
[T]hat perception really hasn't taken hold. There was a point in the primary election campaign when Obama's opponents tried to call attention to his aloofness, but as president he has actually leveraged that same dignity-bordering-on-vanity to reinforce the idea that he stands apart from the detested politics as usual.
Pouring on the admiration, Canellos trumpeted:
The president's genius so far has been in casting his program as a pragmatic response to current emergencies and longer-term threats. His calm, serious manner, magnified by his intelligence and command over the issues, reinforces the perception of a diligent public servant at work.
Canellos is the editor of 'Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy,' a Simon & Schuster book based on a glowing Globe series on Kennedy. (The screen shot above is from an interview about it on the March 21 edition of CNN's The Situation Room.) The Weekly Standard's Philip Terzian ridiculed the book's premise in a March 30 review:
Last Lion purports to be a serious account of Kennedy's career, and his impact on American history. This would have been easier to accomplish if the Globe writers had undertaken an objective assessment of their subject, but that is not the intent here. The point of Last Lion is to transform Kennedy's undistinguished tenure in the Senate, and his thwarted ambition in national politics, into a kind of virtual triumph. To be sure, to pull it off would require the narrative skills of a gymnast -- to twist the facts to shape the thesis -- and the Globe writers are only newspapermen....

Instead of recognizing that Kennedy's political future perished with Mary Jo Kopechne, and that's that, Last Lion argues that the death of his presidential ambitions "liberated" Kennedy to dominate the Senate -- and by inference, his times.

This is complete nonsense. Kennedy's rear-guard warfare against a resurgent conservatism in the 1980s and '90s -- most notably his personal assault on Judge Robert Bork -- was purely reactionary. There is no major legislation, certainly nothing resembling a political philosophy, associated with Kennedy's name. And for all his passion in repeating Theodore Sorensen's sonorous prose, his most famous pronouncement is his incoherent response to Roger Mudd's innocuous question, "Why do you want to be president?"
An excerpt from the April 7 Canellos column:
WASHINGTON - Within a few months of a new presidency, most Americans usually have a line on their chief's personality -- a sense of his colorful foibles, annoying habits, and potential vulnerabilities.

Bill Clinton, who received a haircut on an idling Air Force One while other planes were waiting, was self-indulgent. George W. Bush, who was in the gym on a workday when a man fired a gun near the White House gates, was lazy in a frat-boyish way....

While these caricatures dominated late-night comedy, they provided -- to a surprising degree -- a road map to their future struggles. Personality was prologue for many presidents.

Clinton went on to tell lies. George W. Bush failed to think through his policies. "Tricky Dick" Nixon engaged in a real-world conspiracy. And Ronald Reagan, whose genial, grandfatherly manner could be reassuring, failed to pay enough attention to his aides' machinations in what became the Iran-contra scandal.

So what's Barack Obama's line? There isn't one yet, and that by itself could become his line.

Obama, so far, seems to occupy a place in the popular culture beyond humor. Ridicule doesn't touch him. His personality defies easy categorization.

Of the few running gags to emerge from the Obama administration -- aides not paying their taxes, Treasury officials rewarding fat-cats -- the only one that pertains to the president himself is the straight-faced devotion he inspires. Obama may not actually be perfect, but so many poor souls out there think he is.

Otherwise, Obama has successfully avoided the kind of pratfalls that loom large on TV and crystallize perceptions.

Once, he got caught making an unpleasant joke comparing his bad bowling skills to the Special Olympics. But he quickly apologized and no one believes that he's habitually insensitive.

He's come off, at times, as a bit pompous and humorless -- but that perception really hasn't taken hold. There was a point in the primary election campaign when Obama's opponents tried to call attention to his aloofness, but as president he has actually leveraged that same dignity-bordering-on-vanity to reinforce the idea that he stands apart from the detested politics as usual....

The president's genius so far has been in casting his program as a pragmatic response to current emergencies and longer-term threats. His calm, serious manner, magnified by his intelligence and command over the issues, reinforces the perception of a diligent public servant at work....
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center