What Goes Up

Barack Obama has everything going for him except what he really needs right now: a massive media disaster.

Barack Obama has everything going for him except what he really needs right now: a massive media disaster.

Presidential campaigns perform a constant tightrope act in the media. They crave the attention but live in fear of bad press. The latter comes in two basic varieties: 1) a scandal based on some damaging new revelation about the candidate's private or professional life (think Bill Clinton's draft evasion, or Gary Hart's Monkey Business); 2) an unfortunate media performance, where the candidate looks weak, stupid, or just silly (Michael Dukakis in the tank, or Gerald Ford's 1976 howler, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe").

In olden times, when the way a politician came across in the media was deemed synonymous with who he really was, both kinds of stories were candidate-killers. When Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie choked up in front of reporters in 1972, he was finished. And it was all downhill for Edward Kennedy in 1980 after he fumbled his response to the simple question: "Senator, why do you want to be president?"

The world is very different now. Two things happened in the 1990s to change the way that media disasters affect presidential campaigns. First was the explosion of news outlets, the ramping up of competition, and the resulting tabloidization of news itself. As scandal became routinized, the public grew both accustomed to it and skeptical about its value.

The second factor was Bill Clinton, who, for better or worse, showed again and again that media firestorms are no longer instrinsically fatal. The man survived dozens of them and lived to play Elder Statesman. Consider all of the negative media that both Clintons attracted in the '90s, then look at Hillary's poll numbers. This is the world we live in.

If you step back from the daily news cycle and watch the dynamic over time, it's even possible to argue that a big fat media mess can actually be good for a candidate. It's a troubling, downright cynical notion, but it plays out before us with startling regularity.

Five years ago, when John Edwards was in the role that Obama is now playing—the Pure One, the do-no-wrong ingenue—I laid out in this space an argument that political stars now emerge in the media in much the same way as movie stars, passing through several predictable stages. First the figure is introduced to us through scattered media appearances and "mentions." Next we get to know him on a deeper level through a moving personal story, such as the remembered loss of a loved one.

Then comes Validation, in which the subject is declared a big-leaguer in a Vanity Fair/cover-of-Newsweek sort of way. Our famous one then becomes the subject of "think pieces" interpreting his candidacy as an embodiment of our times. These are followed by "meta" stories that wonder in suitably contrarian fashion whether there's not something absurd in all of the hype.

The next stage is The Flop or Downturn. It happens to all major movie stars, either at the box office or the rehab center. And now it also happens to presidential candidates. John Edwards had his flop when he did Meet the Press in 2002 and was laid ignominiously low by Tim Russert.

Of course, Edwards eventually recovered. And that's the point. Ours is a culture of recovery. Ups are worthless without a few downs. Every candidate needs to have some kind of a very public downswing from which he or she can rebound. It's an ineluctable part of becoming a modern public figure. It gives the whole story texture and depth, qualities demanded by a culture accustomed to thinking of its idols in novelistic fashion. Hillary Rodham Clinton's ups and downs serve her well for this reason—in the conventional wisdom, she's a survivor.

Media disasters don't always end happily. If they come too late (think Dean Scream) or are dealt with ineptly (John Kerry's Iraq joke), all bets are off. In any case, Obama's reversal is almost certainly coming. Journalists are combing his life right now, looking for the stink bomb that will turn his rise into a fall. When it comes, it will not be pretty. But it will not be the end of the story, either.