Can the Cover of Newsweek Double As a Campaign Poster?

Last week’s Newsweek starkly illustrated on its cover again just how much it’s rooting for the perpetual Obama-Biden campaign. Next to a picture of firm, smiling Vice President Biden were the words "WHY JOE IS NO JOKE: From Afghanistan to Health Care, a Vice President to be Reckoned With." It looked so much like a campaign sign, readers might have been unsure whether to read it or nail to a piece of wood and post it in the front yard.

Inside were several pictures of Joe Cool – Biden in sunglasses rocking the tarmac at the Atlantic City airport. The headline of the article was "An Inconvenient Truth Teller: From Health-Care Reform to Afghanistan, Joe Biden Has Bucked Obama – As Only a Good Veep Can."

This is not the way Newsweek saw Dick Cheney, obviously. In February of 2006, they made a cover story out of the Cheney hunting accident.

The Biden cover story by Holly Bailey and Evan Thomas insists that Biden is getting over his gaffe-prone ways, not that they were "damaging" – what with the media trying hard to ignore them, unlike the Dan Quayles of the world. Biden was never a buffoon:

In the early days of the administration, Biden was a bit of a joke in some quarters of the White House. He was never the buffoonish character portrayed by late-night comics, but his off-message blurts were the source of eye-rolling and some irritation among the president's men and women. None of the gaffes was particularly damaging, but aides who'd been with Obama through the campaign knew that the president valued very tight control...

Biden can still be irrepressible and long-winded. But in the Oval Office he has learned to be more disciplined without losing his edge. His persistence and truth telling have paid off, and he's found a role for himself.

For Newsweek, "truth telling" means they like how Biden is trying to talk Obama out of deep involvement in Afghanistan. Ironically, the liberals at Newsweek are also cheering Biden for staying loyal and keeping his mouth relatively shut to the media. Biden may be a "truth teller," but he’s no "backstabber," and Obama is sold as one of the world’s greatest listeners:

Across the board, Biden's real value to the president is not really his specific advice. It's his ability to stir things up. Senior government officials who have participated in small meetings with the president and vice president have noticed Obama and Biden engaged in a duet. "The president will lean over, and they will quietly talk to each other. Biden will then question someone, make comments, and the president just leans back and seems to be taking it all in before he speaks," Attorney General Eric Holder tells NEWSWEEK. Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff, describes the interaction like this: "President Obama is one of the world's greatest listeners; you can't tell what he is thinking. He's able to watch the VP ask tough questions and doesn't have to do that himself. [In that way] he doesn't have to reveal what he's thinking. That's very valuable."

After the election, Obama spoke of wanting a "team of rivals" in the White House. That sounds very Lincolnesque, but in the wired world of cable and bloggers, rivals (or, more typically, their staffers) can quickly become leakers and troublemakers. Presidents can soon come to feel embattled and besieged; the natural inclination is to surround the presidency with yes men and true believers. Biden is a truth teller, almost congenitally so, but he is no backstabber. There is an appealing, slightly vulnerable quality about his eagerness to please. He may run off at the mouth, but he is known for his loyalty.

This whole exercise in assisting in Obama-Biden campaign rhetoric and message control gets a little stranger when former Time White House reporter Jay Carney encouraged his new boss the Vice President to say nothing embarrassing:

Asked by NEWSWEEK as he flew on Air Force Two in the spring if he could describe any moments when he had influenced the president's thinking, Biden stared down at his hands for a few seconds. "I think I should let him tell you that," he finally said. "Good answer!" exclaimed his relieved communications director, Jay Carney.

Carney’s message is also clear at the end of the article, which again insists on Biden’s loyalty and "candor."

He can also be confident that he won't be second-guessed by his vice president. Biden is determined to be a "team player," says a close friend who asked for anonymity while commenting on Biden's motivations. "He wants to help the president. Joe is someone who is probably not going to run again. This is the apex of his career, and there is no separate agenda. There are people close to the president who are driven crazy by Joe's candor," says the friend. "But that's what you get with Joe."

How would Newsweek editor Jon Meacham explain this servile exercise in White House damage control in his "Top of the Week" feature. But he avoids any discussion of the cover story and writes instead about how General McChrystal should be free to speak his mind -- the general on the other side of the Afghanistan debate with Biden.

That's the closest Newsweek gets to fair and balanced.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis