The Washington Post and New York Times pour sugar all over Pete Rouse.

Media criticism.
Oct. 1 2010 4:45 PM

Beat Sweetener: The Pete Rouse Edition

The Washington Post and New York Times pour sugar all over Pete Rouse.

Pete Rouse. Click image to expand.
Pete Rouse

The Washington Post and the New York Times shared a cab ride to the Pentagon City Costco yesterday, where each newspaper purchased 12 tubs of "beat sweetener" to pour on White House aide Pete Rouse, Rahm Emanuel's interim replacement as President Obama's chief of staff.

Uncorking the containers, the newspapers decanted several pounds of the sticky, flattering stuff on the man who they hope will give them the inside dope they need for their future White House stories.

Today's Washington Post calls him a "fixer," as does the New York Times, in not one, but two pieces. But who or what has Rouse fixed? Both papers note that Obama delegated the Guantanamo mess to Rouse, but all he has accomplished, according to the Post, is "getting the process under control and coming up with an alternate site in Illinois." And the second fix the papers credit to Rouse isn't much of a fix at all: He circumvented confirmation hearings for Elizabeth Warren by having her appointed as an adviser instead of an agency head.

If Rouse has ever failed at a task, you wouldn't know it from reading the Post and the Times. Instead of mining Rouse's past for conflict and variance, the two newspapers build a marshmallow temple to his easy temperament and blow dandelion seeds over it. The Post asserts that Rouse is "a quiet political player who avoids the spotlight," that his "calm demeanor resembles that of Obama," that colleagues describe his "calming presence," that other senior White House staffers view him as "unthreatening." The Times pieces call him a "soft-spoken insider who has worked quietly" for Obama, label him "low-key and lumbering," and mention that he "soothes." On the Web, the Washington Post's Ezra Klein adds that Rouse is "[q]uiet and retiring" and "like a black hole for drama."

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Will somebody call the paramedics and see whether they can raise a pulse on Rouse?

Both papers report Rouse's marital status (single), his devotion to his pets (two cats), and compare his bearing with Emanuel's (the opposite). Also, he doesn't socialize (the Times).

Does the press really know so little about a man who—except for his graduate education and a stint in Alaska as the lieutenant governor's chief of staff—worked on Capitol Hill for almost four decades before moving into the Obama White House?

Has the man left no fingerprints on anything wicked or great? That he "helped guide Obama's Washington rise" (the Post) doesn't count. That Obama once called him "completely ego-free" (the Post) doesn't count, either. That he's "a legend on Capitol Hill" and was known as the "101st senator" (the Post) definitely don't count. That he helped fellow staffers in Sen. Tom Daschle's office find jobs after voters dismissed Daschle doesn't count, and neither does the fact that he persuaded the Grateful Dead to campaign for Obama (both in the Times).

The most penetrating comment about Rouse comes from Daschle, who tells the Times how his former employee excels at negotiating. Then he makes Rouse sound like Being There's Chauncey Gardiner. "There's a constant need for somebody to do something for which there is no job description. He is that person," says Daschle.

I hope the bland nothings whispered into Rouse's ears by the Post and Times yield future scoops, because readers got almost nothing out of today's coverage. Nobody gets to Rouse's position without making enemies. Even the serene, unflappable types like the Buddha have made a few enemies, because there's always somebody who can't endure the imperturbable. Are there no Republicans with interesting or informative stories to share about Rouse's work? Because if he's been as effective on the Hill as the Post and Times say, he must have a few frenemies on the other side of the aisle.

I don't expect the press to explain on short notice what makes a human cipher like Rouse click. But I do expect them to open up the back of the clock and show me a few spinning gears.

******

A peanut-butter and beat-sweetener platter for my friends at the Post and the Times. Send your a la carte orders to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. See my Twitter feed for tasty swigs of bile. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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