Off Message March 2007

Twinkie Time

The recent dustup between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama over remarks by David Geffen was a classic specimen of the wispy stuff of modern campaign coverage.

With 20 months to go before the 2008 presidential election, the candidates have to work hard to keep the campaign interesting and the voters engaged.

Meanwhile, news outlets are in exactly the same predicament: make this race feel fresh every day, or risk losing the readers—the eyeballs, the audience share—that keep the old media barge afloat. Political news has become a wildly competitive business, and to thrive you need a constant flow of content.

It's not easy. Once a candidate has announced for president and made the usual rounds—Iowa, Russert, New Hampshire, Stephanopoulos—the string starts running short. There are only so many ways that a campaign can frame and reframe its message, only so many times that a scribe can slice and dice the same bio, voting record, and stump speech.

So what are these two supposedly antagonistic tribes, the news people and the political people, to do? What comes naturally, of course. They work together, hand in glove, to keep the campaign stories coming. It's not a true conspiracy. There's no secret clubhouse where they gather to plot tomorrow's story line. Nobody ever says, "Hey, gang, let's make up some news!" Both sides just stay alive to the possibilities: potential tempests, dustups, flares, and flaps that are the wispy stuff of modern campaign coverage.

Last week's Clinton-Obama flap was a classic specimen. As you'll recall, Hollywood billionaire David Geffen gave an interview to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd "by a crackling fire" at his Beverly Hills home. Geffen was once a great supporter of the Clintons, but as the column made clear, he has ditched them in favor of the senator from Illinois.

Dowd opened with one of her trademark gum-snappers—"Hillary is not David Geffen's dreamgirl"—and dished on richly from there. "Obama is inspirational," Geffen told Dowd, "and he's not from the Bush royal family or the Clinton royal family. Americans are dying every day in Iraq. And I'm tired of hearing James Carville on television."

The Clintons, he said, are "unwilling to stand for the things that they genuinely believe in. Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it's troubling."

It was exactly what '08 campaign types—on both sides of the notebook—needed, as all players immediately recognized. The next day, the news migrated to the front of The Times in a story that began, "The sun was not yet up yesterday, and members of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign team were confronted with the kind of attack that most infuriates them: one questioning the character of Mrs. Clinton and her husband." A Clinton spokesman demanded that Obama cut his ties to the mogul and return campaign donations that Geffen helped raise.

The following day brought another front-pager, reporting that "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has drawn Mr. Obama onto a muddy political field, engaging him in a back-and-forth that recalls the kind of Washington bickering Mr. Obama has decried." Obama, the story said, "seemed to acknowledge that he may have been outmaneuvered."

The tentative verbs ("seemed," "may have been") lent the story a floaty, not-quite-real quality, while "outmaneuvered" reminded us we are watching a game that has only just begun. Your move, Obama, it said. Far from wounding Obama, the story kept him in the limelight and served as a reminder that he has not lost momentum. Everyone (Geffen, Hillary, Obama, The Times) got a piece of the action.

Beyond that, there wasn't a lot to the spat—David hates Hillary, Hillary hates Obama, nyah, nyah, nyah. But it was covered in hundreds of news stories and columns around the world. For a few days, the controversy was the beating heart of the '08 campaign coverage. One man in a mansion before a crackling fire.

There will be many more of these stories. They are the Twinkies of political news—light, synthetic, tasty, and strangely unfilling. Some have more to tell us than others. Geffen's comments tapped a real vein of unease within the Democratic Party about the Clintons. It was more substantial than, say, Obama in the surf. But then, what isn't?

Twenty months is a long, long time.

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