Monday, March 23, 2009

Personal Aside: Frightening Words from a “60 Minutes” Interviewer Conjectures a Scary Scenario.


Frightening Words.

Words I never, ever, expected a reporter to ask a president:

“Are you punch-drunk?”

They’re frightening. Unnerving. No one had been moved to ask this even of Richard M. Nixon when he was so unnerved by the prospect of impeachment that he was saying goodbye to the oil paintings on the wall… and when he asked a startled Henry Kissinger to kneel down in the Oval Office and pray with him.

But the words were asked incredulously by…not a conservative talk show host or a Republican critic…but by Steve Kroft for the consistently liberal CBS-TV’s “60 Minutes” after President Barack Obama was pressed by the TV reporter on the serious economic status of the country, in answer to which Obama (to quote “Politico”) was “laughing and chuckling several times while discussing the perilous state of the world’s economy.”

“Are you punch-drunk?” asked Kroft.

“No, no,” said Obama. “There’s gotta be a little gallows humor to get you through the day”—and he laughed again.


All along…from the very first interview Obama gave me as a freshman state senator in 1997 on my Sunday night WLS program…until today Obama’s great strength has been to lean back relaxedly and talk jocularly, mixing some statistics with light stuff. Later on he worked closely with David Axelrod to perfect a style that is indisputably popular with the entertainment-focused 18 to 29 year set that comprised the largest single bloc of voters who supported him. The cool-cool demeanor he showed me in 1997 worked because as the Prince of Suave he fielded calls from the audience where he parsed the answers so deftly that almost everything he said made some sense to everyone. They were interlaced with the conjunction “but.” He favored gun control BUT understood the 2nd amendment. He favored progressive taxation BUT wanted incentives increased for entrepreneurs.

The style worked wondrously…running for the Senate and president. He seemed to be an entirely new creation: passionate when needed (ala Hubert Humphrey)…ironic when needed (ala Gene McCarthy)…hip but not like JFK, rather like Robert Redford in “The Candidate” with the film’s poster showing Redford blowing a massive bubble with his gum. Smooth ,witty but disturbingly off-center. All these things.

Last week on “Chicago Tonight with Jay Leno”…even granting the blip on the Junior Olympics (which for others would have made them toast but for Obama was a slight gaffe)…he mingled discussion of the economy with a comment on how guitarist Kevin Eubanks had dressed up with suit and tie for the occasion…a funny story told with a professional’s understatement about the Secret Service wanting him to ride 500 yards to an event rather than walk. In a sense as I watched it, I admitted the coolness but I was also frozen in my seat: anyone who joshed about Eubanks’ attire when facing what could conceivably be a recession worsening into global depression must not appreciate the gravity of the situation.

And then last night. Today (Monday) the administration will announce yet another new government entity, the Public-Private Investment Program, to purchase as much as $1 trillion in toxic assets on banks’ books. He has already proposed a $3.1 trillion budget and insists that he will press forward with radical and extremely costly expansions of health care, education and environmental programs.

These are obviously such grandiose projects when contained all together…and now with the toxic bank assets $1 trillion…and with Obama chuckling lightheartedly about it…that they obviously prompted Kroft to ask this.

For contrast, consider if Franklin Roosevelt went on his first Fireside Chat where he described his banking reforms and spun off a few gut-busting jokes. Or in addressing Congress on Dec. 8, 1941 citing the Pearl Harbor attack as one “which will live in infamy,” he first allowed himself to make an observation about the bald pate of Speaker Sam Rayburn who was sitting on the podium above. Or if Bill Clinton, interviewed on “60 Minutes” by the self-same Steve Kroft, , over his alleged marital infidelities while holding hands with this tense wife, would have tossed off a one-liner to lighten the situation.

Yesterday the entire “New York Times” editorial page was after him for one reason or another: the main editorial, Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich. They all came at him from different perspectives…mostly because he wasn’t liberal enough. But the underlying tone was the agenda is half-baked…and while the style is appealing in a theatrical way, an insouciance…lighthearted nonchalance inconsistent with the nation’s grave problems… comes through.

Well, he isn’t showing gravitas. So what? The liberal press argued for eight years that Bush was lighter than a Panama hat. But this lack of seriousness is something else. Chuckling as he answered questions on what may well become the worst economic crisis in the nation’s modern history?

No wonder Kroft asked the president of the United States if he were punch-drunk.

I know this: if this insouciance doesn’t change, the Democratic party in the Congress will be leading the charge to the exits. Those pols don’t have the same TV charm and damn if they’re going to go down the drain for this guy in 2010.

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