I covered a handful of Obama campaign events in 2008 and 2012 and concluded I’d never dealt with a presidential campaign that was so heavy-handed in trying to control media coverage.
I’m talking about little things, like instructing volunteers not to talk to reporters on Election Day and keeping reporters penned in a media area at events and away from local politicians or citizens who might wander off message.
The worst was in August of last year when campaign operatives at a Michelle Obama rally tried to keep me from interviewing supporters in line at a public high school, to the point of interrupting conversations and grabbing my microphone. You can hear audio of that encounter here.
These experiences left me with the feeling that Obama campaign operatives were determined not to be the kind of liberals who lost elections because they weren’t as tough as their opponents. It may be stretching things to call it Chicago politics, but it’s an approach that will stand you in good stead in a hard-fought alderman’s race or a South Philly ward fight for that matter.
An enemies list?
So when stories broke about the IRS targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny, I wondered if we were seeing the same thing – people with power playing for keeps.
Both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran longer pieces over the last two days about the IRS employees vetting non-profit applications. Both are worth reading, and they paint a picture of an overwhelmed bureaucracy confronting a new policy challenge and winging it – badly.
Neither story, and nothing I’ve seen so far including a chronology in Politico, suggests that anybody in the White House directed the IRS to go after conservative groups or knew it was happening until the inspector general’s report was nearing completion.
There is a reference in the IG report to Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin learning something of this in June, 2012. Does he not tell the treasury secretary something this potentially significant, and would a cabinet member not make sure the president knows?
My gut tells me this president just wouldn’t use the IRS to go after political enemies. But I don’t know.
The long view
I recently interviewed biographer Robert Caro, who’s written four volumes about Lyndon Johnson and a book about New York City power broker Robert Moses, all of them fascinating reads. Caro said his interest was not in the lives of these men, but in the acquisition and use of political power in the mid-20th-century.
“Not the textbook things we learn in high school and college but how power really works,” Caro told me, “the raw, naked reality of political power.”
I asked Caro if, when he looked at Washington today, he felt power was acquired and used differently than in the period he was writing about, decades ago.
“Good question,” he said with a laugh, “but the one thing I think I ‘ve learned is that you don’t really know how power is being used until years later when papers and documents have been opened and people are more willing to talk in interviews. Then you go back and you see what was really happening. So I follow things in Washington today, but I really wonder what I don’t know.”
Tools of communication and the media environment are far different from those of Lyndon Johnson’s day, of course. With computer servers preserving emails and thousands of bloggers and journalists digging away, maybe we know more in real time.
What do you think?
You can hear my conversation with Robert Caro here.