Eleven years and three days ago, when the nation was ten days into the trauma that was l’affaire [Monica] Lewinsky (or Lewinski, as the late Richard Grenier initially spelled her name in his Washington Times column), the personal attorney of the errant intern, William H. Ginsburg, came to the nation’s capital and introduced a new term into the language of broadcasting.
All four major broadcast networks and CNN frantically wanted to get Mr. Ginsburg on the air, with whatever revelations he might have about his client’s past deeds or future plans. And he happily obliged them. Between 9 am and noon EST that first of February 1998, he appeared on Fox News Sunday, Meet The Press, Face The Nation, This Week, and Late Edition — not revealing very much, but clearly enjoying the attention he’d garnered for being the keeper of the secrets of the minx sphinx in the Watergate.
The punditocracy was duly impressed, and “a full Ginsburg” afterwards became the chosen phrase to describe one who had managed to appear on the five Sunday morning talking-heads shows on the same day. For more than two years, Mr. Ginsburg remained the only person who had accomplished this.
Then in July 2000, future Vice President Dick Cheney, shortly after his selection by then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, became the second to do so. Four years passed, and then a few weeks before Election Day 2004, Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards blessed the airwaves with five different views of the most famous political coiffure before the Age of Blagojevich.
In September of the following year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff managed the elusive full Ginsburg, and in September 2007, Sen. Hillary Clinton, in her final months as President-presumptive, did the same — the only woman to undertake the feat so far, and the last person to date.
In this brave new world, the rules have changed a little. Last month Late Edition was replaced on CNN by State Of The Union, which concludes one hour after its predecessor did, at 1 pm. Therefore, a full Ginsburg, from now on, will not quite be the heroic achievement it once was.
And another fact which has diminished the luster of the full Ginsburg was that, until now, no sitting President had ever undertaken anything resembling it. But a variation on the old full G — which I’ll call the Ginsburg Slam — has proven to be yet another in the ever-growing list of the dubious achievements of the Obama Administration.
A little over forty-eight hours ago, as former Senator Tom Daschle sweated before a Senate committee not quite satisfied with his account of how he failed to pay taxes in timely fashion for the services of a limo and driver, the White House was still assuring one and all that no matter what, the President was solidly behind his nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services.
But at 11 am yesterday morning Nancy Killefer, Obama’s choice for the newly-minted post of “Chief Performance Officer,” announced that she was removing herself from consideration because of her own tax troubles, and about two hours later Daschle did the same. The President and his advisors decided that damage control was the order of the day. How to handle it?
It would seem that the most logical way to approach the problem would be for President Obama to simply stroll into the White House press room after arranging for a few minutes of airtime, inform the assembled reporters and the nation that he regretted that the decisions of Killefer and Daschle had to be made, wish them well, take no questions, and return to the Oval Office and more consequential tasks.
Instead, he arranged for face-to-face conversations with ABC’s Charles Gibson, CBS’s Katie Couric, NBC’s Brian Williams, CNN’s Anderson Cooper (take that, Lou) and Fox’s Chris Wallace, informing each of them by turn, and at some length, that he had Screwed Up and was Really Sorry. The mea culpas, taken together (or indeed separately), do not suggest Camelot redux. After all, when John F. Kennedy botched the Bay of Pigs invasion, he promptly took the blame for it — once — and was rewarded with the highest approval rating achieved by a President before George W. Bush topped him in the weeks after 9/11.
Instead, Obama’s use of several hours of President Time (time that could be employed to work on the economy, or terrorism, or finally choosing a pup for Malia and Sasha, or something) to repeat his regrets five times over and ask for forgiveness isn’t an approach calculated to impress our adversaries abroad, whether Hugo Chavez or Kim Jong Il or a nameless thug in western Iraq, that the Chief Executive is brimming with determination or resolve. Rather, it brings to mind some of the unhappier moments of the Carter era. You have to wonder what’s going to happen when the killer rabbit shows up.
The way in which the Daschle debacle was handled suggests that President Obama has a preoccupation with winning over the media that makes Lyndon Johnson’s agonies over each new Scotty Reston or Walter Lippmann column look almost, well, Nixonian. It’s 180 degrees removed from the approach of George W. Bush, who may well be concerned now with what the historians will write but, when in office, reasoned that if he did the occasional sit-down with Brit Hume or Tony Snow or Tim Russert, then everything else would take care of itself.
One has to wonder what the future has in store. Will MTV’s Kurt Loder or the correspondent from Disney Radio be added to the list of people to whom the President must speak whenever a bill fails to pass, or whenever he knocks over an unwary staffer on the basketball court? It’s time for some realistic thinking about media relations in the West Wing.