Ryan Lizza's People Magazine love letter to Rahm Emanuel

The competition to see who will be the Bob Woodward of the Obama administration heats up.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published February 23, 2009 1:11PM (EST)

(updated below)

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- who The New York Times described as "arguably the second most powerful man in the country" -- is certainly one of the most controversial figures in Washington.  Prior to joining the Obama administration, Emanuel -- in the Clinton administration and then as a high-ranking member in the House Democratic caucus -- was at the center of countless political and personal controversies.   Emanuel has played the central role in much of the Blue Dog dominance in the House and many (if not most) of the worst Democratic capitulations to the Bush agenda.  Even in the four weeks that he's been in his current job, Emanuel has been the target of severe criticisms of his management skills from many precincts for his role in the Judd Gregg and Rod Blagojevich fiascoes and the Obama administration's questionable negotiating tactics in the stimulus package.   Both Jane Hamsher and Howie Klein yesterday identified just some of the current and past controversies that Emanuel has triggered.

Despite all of that, The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza has written a very lengthy profile of Emanuel -- almost 5,300 words -- that is so reverent, one-sided, and glorifying that it is hard to believe it wasn't written by Emanuel himself.  In fact, much of the piece consists of Emanuel praising himself and Lizza writing it all down uncritically.  It's almost impossible to walk on the streets of Washington, DC, without bumping into a vehement critic of Emanuel, but Lizza doesn't manage to include any comments from any of them. 

Instead -- like a writer from People Magazine wanting to ensure continued access -- he confines himself to quoting only Rahm's best-est friends:   David Axelrod ("one of Emanuel’s best friends"); Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen ("a friend of Emanuel’s"); and Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg ("an old friend" whose DC house Emanuel lives in).  Other than Lizza's inclusion of some light mockery by Fidel Castro of Emanuel's name, those are the only people who are allowed to speak about Emanuel in Lizza's piece (other than Emanuel himself).

We thus "learn" from Lizza's story that Emanuel really loves his kids ("I’m going to finally get to see my kids after a month. So that’s all I give a fuck about," and at the end of the interview, "he seemed more cheerful, knowing that he was that much closer to seeing his family"); he's "one of the more colorful Beltway celebrities . . . known for both his mercurial temperament and his tactical brilliance" and for "intimidating opponents and referees alike but never quite losing himself in the midst of battle"; his first-grade teacher praised him for "being larger than life"; Emanuel was key to the "historic" stimulus victory ("The last President to preside over a legislative victory of this magnitude so early in his Administration was Franklin Roosevelt"); he has been dealing with Congress "politely and with due deference"; when he spoke about his grandpa ("Gramp"), "his eyes welled up with tears"; Obama's selection of Emanuel "shows that [Obama] is honest enough about what he doesn’t know to try to fill in the gaps in his own experience" and reflects "an emphasis not on ideology but on details and problem-solving."  

Rahm, you see, is -- as his good friend Stan put it -- "not an ideological Democrat.  He’s not ideologically liberal.  He comes out of Chicago politics, which is more transactional."  He gets things done.  Every political slogan of the Obama White House -- pragmatism over ideology; we're problem-solvers not partisans -- magically weaves its way into Lizza's narrative paean to Rahm.  The only thing missing is Rahm's favorite color and recipes (though we do learn one of his winter get-away spots:  Park City, Utah).

Lizza even allows Emanuel several paragraphs to attack and mock Paul Krugman, who had been critical of the concessions the administration made as part of the stimulus package.  Yet Lizza didn't include (and, apparently, didn't seek) any reaction from Krugman (or from anyone else critical of the White House's negotiating tactics), and as a result, Emanuel was permitted to glorify himself and rail against Krugman's critique without having even to describe the criticism accurately.

Obtaining reaction from Krugman to Emanuel's attack was left to Jane Hamsher, who emailed Krugman yesterday and immediately received a reply making clear that Krugman's principal criticism -- that by foolishly trying to accommodate the GOP from the start, Obama's initial proposal was too small and thus guaranteed an ultimate package that would be even smaller  -- was one that Emanuel never bothered to address.  He didn't have to address it.  Instead, Lizza just let Emanuel speak without any real challenge.  He wasn't on a mission of examining claims from powerful government officials in order to allow their truth to be assessed (i.e., journalism), but instead devoted himself to transmitting and endorsing those government claims without scrutiny (i.e., stenography and propaganda).

* * * * *

In order to write this profile, Lizza had to be chosen by Emanuel and was given access to him.  Lizza describes one of his visits to Emanuel's White House office, when he was chatting with Rahm and began playing with some of the objects on his desk:

During a visit hours before Congress passed President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, on Friday, February 13th, I absently jostled one of Emanuel’s heavy wooden letter trays a few degrees off kilter. He glared at me disapprovingly.

The former TNR writer is the ideal choice to glorify Emanuel and to be the uncritical spokesperson for the White House generally.  His history of uncritical water-carrying for establishment Democrats is close to unparalleled.  In February, 2006, Russ Feingold infuriated much of the Democratic leadership by disrespectfully proposing that George Bush be censured by the Senate for breaking the law when spying on Americans without warrants.  Senate Democrats were horrified at Feingold's impertinence and ran away in fear as fast as their little legs could carry them from any proposal suggesting that Bush had done anything wrong.

Lizza, as part of a New Republic profile he was writing at the time of Wall Street's Senator Chuck Schumer that was almost as sycophantic as the fanboy giggles he just produced about Emanuel, was dispatched on behalf of Senate Democrats to attack Feingold and impugn his motives in wanting Bush censured.  This is what Lizza wrote, almost all of which turned out to be untrue:

Feingold is mystified by the reaction. Democrats, he said this week, are "cowering with this president's numbers so low."  The liberal blogosphere, aghast at how wimpy Democrats are being, has risen up in a chorus of outrage: . . . .

The nature of the split is obvious. Feingold is thinking about 2008. Harry Reid, Charles Schumer, and other Democrats are thinking about 2006. Feingold cares about wooing the anti-Bush donor base on the web and putting some of his '08 rivals--Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Evan Bayh--in uncomfortable positions. Reid and Schumer care about winning the six seats it will take for Democrats to win control of the Senate . . . .

So the partisans on the left cheering Feingold appear to have both the policy and the politics wrong. Censure is meaningless. Changing the FISA law is the way to address Bush's overreach. And the only way for Democrats to change FISA is for them to take back the Senate. This week, Feingold's censure petition has made that goal just a little bit more difficult to achieve.

Lizza mindlessly spat up every standard -- and patently false -- Beltway platitude to defend Democratic passivity ("pragmatism") in the face of Bush lawbreaking and to scorn the handful of Democrats -- such as Feingold -- who wanted to take some action:  According to Lizza, Feingold was speaking out against Bush not because of any sincere belief that there was anything wrong with Bush's lawbreaking (perish the thought) but only because Feingold was running for President and wanted to court "the left" (in fact:  Feingold announced shortly thereafter that he wasn't running for President and yet remained every bit as aggressive on these issues).  Standing up to Bush would jeopardize the Democrats' chances to win the election (in fact:  Feingold spent all year attacking Bush on these issues and the Democrats crushed the GOP in 2006, because Americans weren't exactly supportive of Bush).

And most hilariously of all, by seeking to censure the President, Lizza actually claimed that Feingold was ruining the master secret plan of centrist, "pragmatic" Democrats to first win control of the Senate in 2006 and then make Bush pay for his illegal eavesdropping (in fact:  once they obtained control of the Congress in 2006, Democrats enacted two separate laws -- the Protect America Act and FISA Amendments Act -- that essentially legalized the Bush warrantless eavesdropping program, and they never investigated any of it).  Lizza, disguised as a journalist, has long been one of the Democratic establishment's favorite uncritical message-transmitters.

Emanuel likely views Lizza as a particularly reliable messenger for reasons beyond Lizza's TNR-grounded contempt for "the Left" and his reverence for so-called "centrism."  Lizza needs White House access -- lots of it -- to justify the large book contract he was awarded to write about the Obama administration's first year in power:

New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza finalized an agreement Monday with Vanessa Mobley of the Penguin Press to write a book about President-elect Barack Obama’s first year in office. Mr. Lizza’s contract, worth a sum in the mid-six-figures, was negotiated by his D.C.-based literary agent, Gail Ross.

As Jane Hamsher put it:  "Lizza is writing a book on Obama's first year in office, which no doubt depends on. . . access." 

As has already become apparent, there is an intense competition underway to see who will get to be this administration's Bob Woodward -- the semi-official royal court spokesperson who is given constant access in exchange for good behavior (i.e. amplifying the viewpoints of high government officials and churning out hagiographies).  There are many rewards to be had for those who perform that service most loyally and subserviently.

These press management tactics are so redolent of the "journalism" that defined the Bush years, with only some of the names changed.  Lizza's love letter to Emanuel follows exactly the model used by Politico's Mike Allen to glorify Bush's highly controversial Communications Director Dan Bartlett -- a piece in which Allen (under the headline:  "Bush's 'truth-teller' leaving president's side") included nothing but glowing praise by quoting four different sources:  Bartlett himself, Bartlett's lawyer, Bartlett friend and former Bush aide Michael Gerson, and George W. Bush.  Just as Bush followers loved those Mike Allen fan letters to their favorite White House officials, so, too, do Obama's most enthusiastic supporters love Lizza's equally adoring tribute to Rahm.

None of this is to say that there is no value in hearing from royal court spokespeople about the messages which high court officials wish to convey through them.  Fans of celebrities typically find value in one-sided, scripted cover story profiles of their favorite stars.  That's what keeps People Magazine in business.  It's just important to keep in mind what the people are who produce such profiles, and what their mission is.  It isn't journalism.  It's anything but.


UPDATE:  The New York Times online edition has asked five writers -- including me -- to opine on this question:  "should President Obama continue to aim for bipartisanship in carrying out his broader agenda?"  You can read all five of the submissions here.

Glenn Greenwald

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