Saturday, March 24, 2007

Tribune tip-toes on Barack

We've mentioned here before how the Chicago Tribune is highly energized to make sure it finds any big revelations about Barack Obama's past before other national media outlets. The paper simply can't be taken seriously as a journalistic force if it gets badly scooped by an out-of-state competitor in Barack's backyard.

That is, if there are any revelations to be found. That constitutes the other part of the Tribune's quandary—being aggressive without inventing scandal.

In Sunday's early editions, that schizophrenia is fully on display. The Tribune has several stories about Obama's school days in Indonesia and Hawaii. The paper said he did more than 40 interviews and judging by the bylines, used about a half dozen reporters.

The Indonesia narrative when Barack was in grade school is not as well researched as the Hawaii days when he attended high school. Tribune reporters essentially knock down the Barack-attended-a-Madrassa-and-was-a-practicing-Muslim story, although they confirm Barack had some limited Muslim upbringing.

In high school, the Tribune found there were a few discrepancies between Obama's autobiography and the recollection of those around him at the time. But the Trib's story said the apparent errors were not particularly important.
Some of these discrepancies are typical of childhood memories -- fuzzy in specifics, warped by age, shaped by writerly license. Others almost certainly illustrate how carefully the young man guarded the secret of his loneliness from even those who knew him best. And much of Obama's self-portrait as someone deeply affected by his father's abandonment yet able to thrive in greatly disparate worlds is born out by the reporting.

Still, the story of Obama's early years highlights how politics and autobiography are not such different creatures: The framework of both is shaped to serve a purpose.

In its reissue after he gave the keynote address at the Democratic convention in 2004, "Dreams from My Father" joined a long tradition of political memoirs, such as John Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," that candidates have used to introduce themselves to the American people.
In other words, in politics, it's OK to make a few things up. In this instance, I mostly agree with the Tribune because the examples it cites do not seem very frequent or consequential in the big picture.

One episode is sure to have resonance. The Tribune told the tale of Keith Kakugawa, one of his best friends in high school. In his autobiography, Barack refers to him as "Ray" to protect his identity. Reporters and researchers appear eager to find out what Kakugawa says about his friendship with Obama, because, among other things, the friendship was during the period where Obama acknowledges he was smoking pot and trying cocaine. Kakugawa's path led him to prison for drug offenses since high school.

The Tribune was scooped on the Kakugawa angle by the Wall Street Journal on Friday, where it was revealed that Kakugawa and Obama recently spoke for the first time in years and subsequently Kakugawa asked the campaign for money in an apparent extortion attempt.

Coming back, the Tribune repeated the allegations from a day earlier in the WSJ. I will be surprised if we don't see Kakugawa in the tabloids because he is homeless and needs the money and the tabloids always need dirt.

As it stands, the Tribune is inadvertently doing the Obama campaign an enormous favor by airing his past in a largely passive tone. That's probably not the way it would handle a conservative Republican in the same situation but I don't have many complaints at this point about the Tribune's coverage. We'll see in coming months whether the Trib has been tough enough on Obama.

As it stand now, it looks to me like Obama's life has been unusually varied in terms of culture and geography but with a normal quota of situations that are embarrassing but not deeply damning. Obama appears to have led a decent and honorable life overall.

I don't think ethics will be his downfall. I believe his weakness on national security and his far left policies overall will doom him in the general election if he somehow slips by Hillary Clinton.

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