Why Washington feeding frenzies aren't what they used to be.
But in “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” Janny Scott, a reporter for the New York Times, tells a different story. She reports that Dunham’s fight with the insurance company CIGNA was not over medical coverage but over a disability claim related to missed work resulting from the cancer. In truth, Scott writes, Dunham had an employer-provided health insurance policy that paid her hospital bills directly, leaving her “to pay only the deductible and any uncovered expenses, which, she said, came to several hundred dollars a month.”
CIGNA behaved obnoxiously in penalizing Dunham for seeing an unapproved doctor in Hawaii, and she did spend some of her last days battling that insurance company, as Obama said. But his mother was not discriminated against because of a preexisting condition, and the disability insurance that was troubling her was not ultimately part of Obama’s health care proposal.
The fact that the president based a chunk of his campaign—and the centerpiece of his legislative program—on a story that wasn’t quite true never registered in the public debate. It never became a major topic of conversation, much less a scandal, and only in part because his mother is dead.
The bigger reason is that it didn’t conform to any perceived pattern in Obama’s behavior. A critical variable in aggressive press coverage is whether a story is consistent with what we think we already know about a politician. If it is, the story is more likely to resonate. If Obama had developed a reputation for tall tales about his background or his family, this story might have ignited.
Contrast this to Richard Nixon, who was seen as shifty and corrupt going back at least to when Dwight Eisenhower nearly dumped him from the GOP ticket in 1952. (He saved himself with the lachrymose “Checkers speech.”) So reporters, egged on by their liberal friends, were prepared to believe the worst when Watergate came along. Even then, it took many months after the June 1972 break-in and aggressive reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein before the scandal broke.
Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977 surrounded by fellow Georgians and carrying a reputation for cold political calculation cloaked in piety. So when his budget director, a good ole boy named Bert Lance, ran into trouble with a bank he owned, the press pounced. New York Times columnist William Safire, determined to prove that Carter was as corrupt as his old boss Nixon, won a Pulitzer for his hounding of Lance (the two later became friends). Unlike Obama’s mother, the president’s clownish brother, Billy Carter, who farmed and owned a gas station, was fair game, especially after he began scheming for business deals with the government of Libya. The Billy Carter scandal coverage also fell into a well-worn genre of reporting on oddball presidential siblings (Sam Johnson and Donald Nixon) and presidential sons (Elliott Roosevelt and Neil Bush).
Ronald Reagan was routinely depicted as detached, even out to lunch. So the Iran-Contra scandal, in which an off-the-shelf foreign policy of trading arms for hostages was run by Oliver North from the White House basement without the president’s knowledge, fell in fertile soil. So did now-forgotten scandals involving a government contractor called Wedtech, Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford, who was held in contempt of Congress and forced to resign for trying to gut her agency.
Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, ran a relatively clean administration, but he inherited Reagan’s lax view of regulation, which gave some juice to a scandal at HUD in 1989. The savings-and-loan failures, and the resulting bailouts (which cost the taxpayers far more than it looks like TARP will), fit into a pattern of crony capitalism and were often covered as scandals. John Sununu had to resign as White House chief of staff after charging the government for unauthorized trips. That story might not have had legs if it hadn’t fit a different kind of pattern: the press thought Sununu was a jerk and was looking for a way to make him pay for it.
Bill Clinton was dogged by stories of womanizing (Gennifer Flowers) and real estate shenanigans (Whitewater) before coming to office, and the media obsession with them continued once he got there. In those pre-blogging days, the White House had no media defense against right-wing assaults and pseudo-scandals like the travel office firings (allegation: that the Clinton White House used the FBI to go after a former travel office official named Billy Ray Dale), trumped-up charges against former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, alleged Chinese spies, and on and on. As Hillary Clinton complained to me at the time, the so-called “liberal” media—the New York Times and NPR—did nothing to defend the Clintons against coordinated assaults by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, talk radio, and right-wing staffers on the Hill. Worse, this was the era of the special prosecutor, an institutionalizing of the scandal culture that gave reporters a steady stream of leaks, culminating in the Monica Lewinsky story.
Under George W. Bush, scandals like torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, cozy contracts with Halliburton (Dick Cheney’s former employer), and the corrupt firing of U.S. attorneys who didn’t toe the White House line all fit a pattern of abuse of power after 9/11. Cheney and others were determined to restore the pre-Watergate culture of unaccountable authority in times of war, and they largely succeeded.
With Obama, the perceived pattern of behavior that he carried with him into office was mostly positive. Being seen as a professorial type who stands above the fray hasn’t always endeared him to the public, but it hasn’t exactly set the stage for scandal either. That, plus his history-making debut as the first African American president and the intense news climate of 2009, may have given him a longer-than-usual honeymoon from the scandal machine.
THE NEWS CLIMATE THEORY
This is the political science theory of the case. There has been surprisingly little scholarship about scandal, but Nyhan, the political scientist, has set out to change that. His explanation is simple:
Got that? Actually, once you ignore the abstruse equations that have come to define modern political science, Nyhan is on to something. His study of scandals going back to the Carter administration suggests that two factors are especially important for a scandal to catch fire: first, an opposition party that views the president more negatively than normal; and second, a slow news period that allows scandals to emerge. Under this theory, scandals are a “co-production” of the press and the opposition party, with each feeding off the other. The party needs the press to publicize allegations of wrongdoing, and the press needs quotes from partisans to legitimize scandal reporting and protect itself against charges of bias.
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