Nothing cleanses a Washington reporter's palate like the out-of-power party taking over the White House, the Senate, or the House. Politicians whom the press corps once treated like pygmies are accorded the respectful status of giants, and the former giants shrink to pygmy-hood.
The new assessments the press hands out have nothing to do with the politicians having recently "grown," though that's often how it is presented. It's all about access. If a reporter covering a political beat expects access to the newly powerful, he must genuflect, he must charm, he must write a beat sweetener that tells the new boss everything he wants to hear about himself.
The Washington press is already ladling the sugar on Nancy Pelosi, and she's hasn't even been crowned speaker of the House yet. Yesterday's (Nov. 9) Page One story in the Wall Street Journal painted the presumptive speaker in such a thick coat of butter-cream frosting that I scarcely recognized her. Strategically placed after the jump to reduce professional embarrassment, Neil King Jr., Yochi J. Dreazen, and Greg Jaffe canonized their subject, writing:
Much as the president freely speaks of his conservative evangelical faith, Mrs. Pelosi reflects a Catholic sense of social justice when it comes to aiding the poor and disabled, and frets about missing Mass on hectic weekends.
Framing Pelosi's redistributionist views as an extension of her Catholic sense of social justice neatly removes her from the New Deal compost pile from which her political career blossomed. Pelosi's father, Thomas "Old Tommy" D'Alesandro, was a Baltimore political hack who held every office—state delegate, city council, member of Congress, mayor—but dogcatcher.
A quality beat sweetener doesn't just dispense syrup, it also collects it. One technique journalists use is to go to the close colleagues of the politician they hope to flatter. The troika of Journal reporters lassoed Rep. Edward Markey to exalt her speakership:
Associates say that it is her roots in the heavily ethnic and practical politics of Baltimore that define her, and the Republican caricature of Mrs. Pelosi as a San Francisco liberal is just that. "She's San Francisco on the outside, and Baltimore inside," says longtime Democratic Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, calling her "liberal, but a pragmatist."
"It will be very much like when Tip O'Neill explained the political facts of life to Ronald Reagan," Mr. Markey added, referring to the way some Democrats like to recall the relationship. "If the president presents the opportunity, she will work with him." But much depends on whether Mr. Bush hews to a conservative line or returns to the bipartisan style he adopted as Texas governor, Mr. Markey added. "We really don't know the answer."
Markey double-dribbled his line about Pelosi being "San Francisco on the inside, Baltimore on the outside" in the same day's New York Times. Can we please pass a moratorium on this quip? Pelosi has served in Congress from San Francisco for 20 years!
The Washington Post also attempts to Baltimorize the San Franciscan in today's (Nov. 10) lede Style section story. Written by Lynne Duke, "Pride of Baltimore" romanticizes Pelosi as part of her father's caring-sharing political dynasty, noting, as the Journal does, that Pelosi's brother, "Young Tommy," also served on the Baltimore City Council and held the office of mayor. Acting more like Pelosi's press secretary than a skeptical reporter, Duke smothers the D'Alesandros in honey with this passage:
Theirs was the politics of the New Deal, of the hand up for those who were down.
"It was always about the progressive economic agenda for a fair economy, where many Americans, all Americans, could participate in the economic success of our country," Pelosi said yesterday when asked about the influence of her family's politics on her own.
"What I got from them was about economic fairness," Pelosi said. "That was the difference between Republicans and Democrats all those years ago." She also learned about the power of loyalty, both extending it and enforcing it.
Back to the Journal: Pelosi wins undeserved praise from the paper for having tended to the needs of the moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog Democrats as well as the fervent liberals. Um, isn't keeping all party members in the same tent the job description of a congressional leader?
Who is the real Pelosi? Slate's John Dickerson called her "tactically stupid" six months ago for promising to launch a series of congressional investigations of the Bush administration—going back to its first year—if the Democrats took the House. Will her party or the press hold her feet to that flame?
Joe Klein captured Pelosi perfectly just after the2002 election, writing in Slate:
Last week, Nancy Pelosi—the very sort of political anachronism the party should studiously avoid—launched her campaign for House minority leader with a self-delusional whopper: "The Republicans are the party of the special interests," she said. "The Democrats are the party of the people." What nonsense. It was the Democratic Party's obeisance to its special interests—specifically, to the public employees unions, the trial lawyers, and the AARP—that helped lose the election. Organized labor forced the party's disastrously witless position against the homeland security bill. The trial lawyers insisted that punitive damages be included in the terrorism insurance bill. The AARP has backed the Democrats' foolish and expensive prescription drug plan.
How long will we be fed all this Pelosi pap? Until she screws up royally, which shouldn't be long, or until the press starts pouring sugar all over Sen. Harry Reid. Whoops! Did I write too soon? Mark Leibovich gives Reid the semi-sweet treatment in today's New York Times.
Disclosure: Leibovich is a friend—but perhaps not anymore. On the long shot that you care, Wonkette and FishbowlDC track who I've identified in my column as a friend. To keep the rankings straight, Leibovich is a much better friend than Michael Isikoff but much worse than David Corn, my current No. 1. Seen a good beat sweetener lately? Send it my way: firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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