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Pablum and Propaganda in New York Magazine


There’s something a little fishy about the excerpt of Double Down, the new book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, which appeared in the November 11th edition of New York magazine. The book, dubbed a “fast, fun, and gossipy read” by the Salt Lake Tribune, gives a behind-the-scenes account of the 2012 general election; the excerpt zeros in on Obama’s comeback after being trounced by Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate:

The debate was only a few minutes old, and Barack Obama was already tanking. His opponent on this warm autumn night, a Massachusetts patrician with an impressive résumé, a chiseled jaw, and a staunch helmet of burnished hair, was an inferior political specimen by any conceivable measure. But with surprising fluency, verve, and even humor, Obama’s rival was putting points on the board. The president was not. Passive and passionless, he seemed barely present.

From here, Halperin and Heilemann take us on a melodramatized tour of the next several days, chronicling the terse mock debates between Obama and John Kerry, a last-minute intervention on behalf of his advisors (David Axelrod, Anita Dunn, David Plouffe, and Ron Klain), and the President’s candid confession that he is “…wired in a different way than this event requires.” The pair’s reportage seems decent enough (they purportedly interviewed over 400 sources, treating them with “…alcohol in a private suite or restaurant to get them to open up.”), but lacks a certain skepticism where the motives of politicos are concerned, especially when said politicos are given an opportunity to reframe a narrative to suit their interests.

For instance, after a “disengaged and pedantic Obama” snaps on John Kerry in a mock debate, we read that,

“For the past six years, [Axelrod, Plouffe, et al] had watched Obama struggle with his disdain for the theatricality of politics—not just debates, but even the soaring speeches for which he was renowned. Obama’s distrust of emotional string-pulling and resistance to the practical necessities of the sound-bite culture: These were elements of his personality that they accepted, respected, and admired.”

Obama’s “distrust of emotional string-pulling…”? His “disdain for the soaring speeches for which he was renowned”? Hmmmm. Given that the preponderance of his professional time is/was spent engaging those very “necessities”, one might suspect he rather enjoys them—or is at least comfortable deploying them. Does the empty sloganeering of the “Hope and Change” campaign not ring a bell? What about the pathos-charged appeal to wage war with Syria under the thinly-veiled pretext of humanitarianism?

Following the ‘Mock From Hell’ debate, his advisors arrange an intervention:

“We’re here, Mr. President,” Klain began, “because we need to have a serious conversation about why this isn’t working and the fundamental transformation we need to achieve today to avoid a very bad result tomorrow night.”

At which point Obama opens up:

“Guys, I’m struggling,” he says somberly…. “It’s against my instincts just to perform. It’s easy for me to slip back into what I know, which is basically to dissect arguments…. I am wired in a different way than this event requires…. I just don’t know if I can do this.”

Really. Against his instincts “just to perform.” This from the guy who, even after the NSA is revealed to be running the single largest spying operation of all time, is able to call his administration, “the most transparent in history.” This from the guy who with a straight face can claim he supports immigration reform while his administration deports more immigrants per annum than George W.

As for the “I am wired in a different way than this event requires” bit, well, gee, Mr. Prez, when you promote insidious pacts like the Trans Pacific Partnership, the implementation of which would permit corporations to sue governments for the loss of “expected future profits”,  it sort of feels like you’re wired just fine, thank you.

After Obama’s almost-believable disclosure of genuine sentiment, Halperin and Heilemann regale us with the following didactic summation:

All through his career, Obama had played by his own rules. He had won the presidency as an outsider, without the succor of the Democratic Establishment…. He had ignored the traditional social niceties of the office, and largely resisted the media freak show, swatting away its asininities…. Now he was faced with an event that demanded an astronomical degree of fakery, histrionics, and stagecraft—and while he was ready to capitulate, trying to capitulate, he found himself incapable of performing not just to his own exalted standards but to the bare minimum of competence. Acres of evidence and the illusions of his fans to the contrary, Barack Obama, it turned out, was all too human.

Excuse me while I throw up into my mouth.

Firstly, Obama was not an Establishment Outsider: The top contributors to his’08 campaign included JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Google, and Citigroup, for crying out loud. Secondly, not only did Obama not resist the media freak show, he was its prime attraction, its Elephant Man, its bearded lady. Like all shrewd politicians, he secretly welcomed the attention while paying lip-service to his displeasure with it. Thirdly, how was this debate any less devoid of “fakery, histrionics, and stagecraft?” than any other?  And fourthly: “Acres of evidence…  to the contrary, Barack Obama…  was all too human”? Come on, guys. Everyone knows full well that the “acres of evidence” point to one thing and one thing only: Obama, like nearly every President before him, is a pathological liar, a warmonger, an enemy of Democracy, a defender of state secrecy, an ardent promoter of wealth stratification, and an unabashed power whore. “All too human”, my ass.

Maybe it did not occur to Halperin and Heilemann that, the drinks and private suites notwithstanding, politicians and their advisors will almost always feed you whatever line they think best serves their brand. Or maybe the five million dollar advance they received for their kitschy potboiler rendered such considerations quaint. Or maybe it’s just easier to stay squarely within the lines of the establishment narrative, to recycle hackneyed “Comeback Kid” plotlines, and to challenge no one and nobody.

Maybe New York magazine would be better served by eschewing the Democrats-Are-Basically-Good-Guys-And-Republicans-Are-Mainly-A-Holes boilerplate and sticking to what they do best: snarky critiques of Slavoj Zizek and chic photologues of NYC’s nightclubs of yore.

Maybe when presented with the contrived-sounding testimonials of Obama’s coterie, the authors should have said, “I just don’t know if I can do this.”

Jeremy Tucker can be reached at:





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