Milbank accuses Obama of "hubris" while cropping quotes, making false insinuations, and neglecting basic reporting
Research ››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI & MATT GERTZ
In his Washington Post column, Dana Milbank claimed that Sen. Barack Obama "has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee." As purported evidence, Milbank misrepresented quotes, neglected to do basic reporting, and advanced the baseless suggestion that actions Obama has reportedly taken are unprecedented for a presidential candidate.
In his July 30 Washington Post column, Dana Milbank misrepresented quotes, neglected to do basic reporting, and advanced the baseless suggestion that actions Sen. Barack Obama has reportedly taken are unprecedented for a presidential candidate -- all in support of his thesis that Obama "has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee." Specifically, Milbank accused Obama of "hubris" based on a quote attributed to an unnamed source by a different Washington Post reporter -- which Milbank gave no indication he had attempted to verify or obtain a reaction to from the Obama campaign. He falsely suggested that Obama's conduct in reportedly beginning to set up a transition team and in meeting with foreign leaders is unusual or unprecedented for a presidential candidate. Milbank also cropped two statements by Obama that resulted in a misrepresentation of what Obama said, baselessly suggested that Obama "excluded" The New Yorker from accompanying him on his recent foreign trip because the magazine "published a satirical cover about Obama that offended the campaign," and falsely reported that Obama "was even feeling confident enough to give British Prime Minister Gordon Brown some management advice over the weekend."
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis subsequently cited Milbank's column in a memo released to the media. Davis wrote: "As The Washington Post reported this morning, Barack Obama has gone from his party's presumptive nominee to 'its presumptuous nominee.' "
"I have become a symbol ..."
Discussing a July 29 meeting Obama had with members of the House of Representatives, Milbank wrote: "Inside, according to a witness, he told the House members, 'This is the moment ... that the world is waiting for,' adding: 'I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.' As he marches toward Inauguration Day (Election Day is but a milestone on that path), Obama's biggest challenger may not be Republican John McCain but rather his own hubris." Milbank did not cite a source for the quote, but Jonathan Weisman, also of the Post, reported on July 29: "In his closed door meeting with House Democrats Tuesday night, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama delivered a real zinger, according to a witness, suggesting that he was beginning to believe his own hype. ... The 200,000 souls who thronged to his speech in Berlin came not just for him, he told the enthralled audience of congressional representatives. 'I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions,' he said, according to the source."
Milbank gave no indication that he contacted the Obama campaign or anyone at the event to confirm the accuracy of the quote.
But Weisman reportedly did hear from people at the event: House leadership aides who disputed interpretations -- like Weisman's and Milbank's -- of the comment as self-aggrandizing. Weisman wrote in an update:
[O]ne leadership aide said the full quote put it into a different context. According to that aide, Obama said, "It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign -- that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol."
Moreover, if accurate, the version of Obama's remarks recounted by the leadership aide would not represent the first time that Obama expressed the view that the enthusiasm he generates "is not about" him or that he specifically stated he has become a "symbol" for something greater going on across America:
- The New York Times wrote of Obama in a December 2006: " 'It is flattering to get a lot of attention, although I must say it is baffling,' Mr. Obama said here [in New Hampshire] late Sunday afternoon. 'I think to some degree I've become a shorthand or symbol or stand-in for a spirit that the last election in New Hampshire represented,' he said, referring to the losses of two incumbent congressmen here in November. 'It's a spirit that says we are looking for something different -- we want something new.' "
- The Associated Press wrote in February 2007 about an appearance Obama made at George Mason University: " 'This crowd is not about me, it's about you,' he said. 'I've been a receptacle for your hopes and dreams.' "
- The Cleveland Jewish News quoted Obama in March 2007 stating: "I am an imperfect vessel for all your hopes and dreams. ... At times I am tired, I falter, I make mistakes. The election is not about me. It's about you."
- In the October 2007 issue of Essence, journalist Gwen Ifill quoted Obama stating: "Everywhere we go we've been seeing these terrific crowds. ... Twenty thousand people show up in Atlanta. Twenty thousand people in Austin, Texas. We had 15,000 in Oakland. People have asked me what accounts for all this. ... I would love to take all the credit myself and say it's because I'm just so terrific. But I have to say it's not about me. The reason people are coming out is they are burning with a want and a desire for change."
- The Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported in February: "Obama, who capped the first day of his weekend Ohio bus tour in Cleveland Saturday night, said he is humbled by the historical weight the city's black community has ascribed to his candidacy. 'It's very important for me to understand that those feelings are not about me,' he said during an exclusive Plain Dealer interview between campaign stops. 'They are about us; they are about America. People feeling moved and hopeful about what has happened in our lifetime.' "
- Obama said in a May 6 speech: "So don't ever forget that this election is not about me, or any candidate. Don't ever forget that this campaign is about you -- about your hopes, about your dreams, about your struggles, about securing your portion of the American Dream."
Meetings with foreign leaders and Congress
Milbank reported that Obama recently returned from "his presidential-style world tour, during which foreign leaders and American generals lined up to show him affection." Milbank also wrote: "As Bush held quiet signing ceremonies in the White House yesterday morning, Obama was involved in a more visible display of executive authority a block away, when he met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani at the Willard." Further suggesting presumptuousness on Obama's part, Milbank wrote: "Obama's aides issued an official-sounding statement, borrowing the language of White House communiques: 'I had a productive and wide-ranging discussion. ... I look forward to working with the democratically elected government of Pakistan.' "
But contrary to Milbank's suggestion, there is nothing extraordinary in a presidential candidate meeting with foreign leaders. Indeed, Sen. John McCain has also taken trips during his presidential campaign to Europe, the Middle East, Canada, and Latin America, in which he met with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Colombian President Juan Uribe, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
Milbank also reported that Obama "went up to Capitol Hill to be adored by House Democrats in a presidential-style pep rally," but did not note that McCain reportedly received a similar response in a meeting with Senate Republicans. In a February 13 article, the Politico reported that McCain received "a loud standing ovation" during a meeting of Republican senators the day before. The article quoted Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (KY) assertion that McCain "got an extremely warm reception" and that he "was very warmly received."
Of Obama's meeting with congressional Democrats, Milbank wrote that "[a]long the way, he [Obama] traveled in a bubble more insulating than the actual president's. Traffic was shut down for him as he zoomed about town in a long, presidential-style motorcade. ... Capitol Police cleared the halls -- just as they do for the actual president. The Secret Service hustled him in through a side door -- just as they do for the actual president." Yet Milbank did not explain why the Secret Service's protection of Obama is evidence of "presumptuous[ness]" on Obama's part. Indeed, The Washington Post itself has repeatedly reported that Secret Service protection was assigned to Obama in response to "safety concerns" and "potential threats."
Nor did Milbank mention that McCain also has Secret Service protection. Noting Milbank's column, The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote: "The Capitol Police and the Secret Service, not the Obama campaign, closed the halls for Obama to pass yesterday. If you're inclined to think Obama presumptuous for this, then John McCain is also on your list; last week in Columbus, the police department there gave him full intersection control during rush hour."
"[T]he odds of us winning are very good"
Milbank reported: "Some say the supremely confident Obama -- nearly 100 days from the election, he pronounces that 'the odds of us winning are very good' -- has become a president-in-waiting." But Milbank cropped Obama's full quote. In fact, at a July 28 fundraiser, Obama reportedly said, "We are now in a position where the odds of us winning are very good. But it's still going to be difficult" [emphasis added].
Milbank also did not note that McCain has previously asserted that he will win the presidential election. At a June 2 rally, McCain said, "I guarantee you, if we do everything right -- and we can and we will -- I will win in January [sic], and I will be the next president of the United States, with your help and your support." At a July 28 fundraiser, McCain also reportedly said, "I will compete and I will win in the state of California." And as Politico senior writer Ben Smith noted in a July 25 blog entry, McCain sent a "fake news" story to supporters in a 2007 email, dated November 5, 2008, the day after the general election. It begins:
Republican Senator John McCain was elected president last evening, defeating Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic nominee. McCain's victory came by winning the "red" states that supported President Bush in 2004, while also winning independents to capture the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
McCain ran a disciplined campaign that focused on the issues of reforming the culture of Washington and vigorously prosecuting the war on terror. Political experts expressed surprise that McCain was able to wrest the mantle of change away from Clinton, given that she represented the party out of power which normally lays claim to being the agent of change.
Milbank wrote that Obama "has already amassed the trappings of the office, without those pesky decisions. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported last week that Obama has directed his staff to begin planning for his transition to the White House, causing Republicans to howl about premature drape measuring." However, Milbank did not note, as Media Matters for America documented, that Obama's reported transition plans are not unusual or unprecedented. Indeed, Republican presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan -- in addition to Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter -- planned for a White House transition months before the November election, and Clay Johnson, the executive director of the Bush-Cheney transition team, reportedly said that it would be "irresponsible not to be doing this."
Gordon Brown and "management advice"
Milbank falsely stated: "Obama was even feeling confident enough to give British Prime Minister Gordon Brown some management advice over the weekend. 'If what you're trying to do is micromanage and solve everything, then you end up being a dilettante,' he advised the prime minister, portraying his relative inexperience much as President Bush did in 2000." In fact, Obama made those comments during a conversation with British Member of Parliament and Tory Leader David Cameron, not with Brown, and Obama appeared to be simply providing his own management philosophy in response to Cameron's statement that "what politics is all about" is "[t]he judgment you bring to make decisions." Further, Milbank left off the rest of Obama's sentence, in which Obama said "but you have to have enough knowledge to make good judgments about the choices that are presented to you." Milbank then used this cropped quote to compare Obama to President Bush, asserting that the statement "portray[ed] his [Obama's] relative inexperience much as President Bush did in 2000."
From a pool report transcript provided to the Associated Press of the conversation between Obama and Cameron:
CAMERON: You should be on the beach. You need a break. Well, you need to be able to keep your head together.
OBAMA: You've got to refresh yourself.
CAMERON: Do you have a break at all?
OBAMA: I have not. I am going to take a week in August. But I agree with you that somebody, somebody who had worked in the White House who -- not Clinton himself, but somebody who had been close to the process -- said that, should we be successful, that actually the most important thing you need to do is to have big chunks of time during the day when all you're doing is thinking. And the biggest mistake that a lot of these folks make is just feeling as if you have to be ...
CAMERON: These guys just chalk your diary up.
OBAMA: Right. ... In 15 minute increments and ...
CAMERON: We call it the dentist waiting room. You have to scrap that because you've got to have time.
OBAMA: And, well, and you start making mistakes or you lose the big picture. Or you lose a sense of, I think you lose a feel ...
CAMERON: Your feeling. And that is exactly what politics is all about. The judgment you bring to make decisions.
OBAMA: That's exactly right. And the truth is that we've got a bunch of smart people, I think, who know 10 times more than we do about the specifics of the topics. And so if what you're trying to do is micromanage and solve everything then you end up being a dilettante, but you have to have enough knowledge to make good judgments about the choices that are presented to you.
Milbank reported: "Then came Obama's overseas trip and the campaign's selection of which news organizations could come aboard. Among those excluded: the New Yorker magazine, which had just published a satirical cover about Obama that offended the campaign. Even Bush hasn't tried that." But in suggesting that The New Yorker was "excluded" from Obama's trip to Europe because it "published a satirical cover about Obama that offended the campaign," without providing any evidence to back up the charge, Milbank did not note that the campaign reportedly received 200 requests from reporters seeking seats on the press plane and reportedly took only "about 40 journalists."
Moreover, while writing of Obama's purported exclusion of reporters that "[e]ven Bush hasn't tried that," Milbank did not note that McCain reportedly has. In a March 10 Politico article, staff writer Michael Calderone wrote that a reporter from The Arizona Republic was removed from the McCain campaign bus during his 2000 presidential campaign after the paper's editorial board criticized McCain. Calderone further reported that according to then-national editor of the Republic Tina May, John Weaver, who was working as a strategist for the campaign, told another Republic journalist that he was "off the bus" during the 2008 presidential campaign, after that reporter "wrote that McCain's temper might once again become an issue if he sought the White House again." From Calderone's article:
Meanwhile, McCain's relationship with local journalists worsened. The Republic, which had previously backed McCain in his congressional elections, published an editorial in October 1999 that questioned his fitness for the Oval Office. McCain called it further evidence that the paper had a "vendetta" against him.
"If McCain is truly a serious contender for the presidency, it is time the rest of the nation learned about the John McCain we know in Arizona," the editorial stated. "There is also reason to seriously question whether he has the temperament and the political approach and skills we want in the next president of the United States."
Not long after, during the 2000 primary campaign, Republic reporter Kristin Mayes was removed from McCain's Straight Talk Express campaign bus -- according to two former Republic staffers -- at a time when political reporters at East Coast papers and magazines couldn't get enough of the rambling road trip through New Hampshire and South Carolina.
When asked about Mayes, John Weaver, a McCain aide at the time who often dealt with Republic reporters, described her in an e-mail as "a fine reporter and person" who just "happened to be only a victim of the poor management of the Arizona Republic at that time."
Covering the preliminary stages of McCain's second run for president was equally tense at the Republic.
In August 2006, reporter Billy House wrote that McCain's temper might once again become an issue if he sought the White House again. To House, given the focus on McCain's temper in the 2000 race and the fact that the senator raised the issue himself in his 2002 memoir, the topic seemed fair game.
But the McCain camp didn't see it that way. Shortly after House's story was published, Weaver told House he was "off the bus," according to then-Republic national editor Tina May. (By e-mail, Weaver told Politico he remembered "having a strong discussion with Billy back then, but there was nothing to kick him off of.") House declined to comment.
Further, in a May 15 Wall Street Journal article, Monica Langley wrote that after Newsweek published what she reported McCain adviser Mark Salter called "a 'biased' cover story on Sen. Obama that 'framed this race exactly as Sen. Obama wants it to be framed,' " Salter "threatened to throw [Newsweek's] reporters off the campaign bus and airplane."
From Milbank's July 30 column:
Barack Obama has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee.
Fresh from his presidential-style world tour, during which foreign leaders and American generals lined up to show him affection, Obama settled down to some presidential-style business in Washington yesterday. He ordered up a teleconference with the (current president's) Treasury secretary, granted an audience to the Pakistani prime minister and had his staff arrange for the chairman of the Federal Reserve to give him a briefing. Then, he went up to Capitol Hill to be adored by House Democrats in a presidential-style pep rally.
The 5:20 TBA turned out to be his adoration session with lawmakers in the Cannon Caucus Room, where even committee chairmen arrived early, as if for the State of the Union. Capitol Police cleared the halls -- just as they do for the actual president. The Secret Service hustled him in through a side door -- just as they do for the actual president.
As he marches toward Inauguration Day (Election Day is but a milestone on that path), Obama's biggest challenger may not be Republican John McCain but rather his own hubris.
Some say the supremely confident Obama -- nearly 100 days from the election, he pronounces that "the odds of us winning are very good" -- has become a president-in-waiting. But in truth, he doesn't need to wait: He has already amassed the trappings of the office, without those pesky decisions.
The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported last week that Obama has directed his staff to begin planning for his transition to the White House, causing Republicans to howl about premature drape measuring. Obama was even feeling confident enough to give British Prime Minister Gordon Brown some management advice over the weekend. "If what you're trying to do is micromanage and solve everything, then you end up being a dilettante," he advised the prime minister, portraying his relative inexperience much as President Bush did in 2000.
In the latest issue of the New Republic, Gabriel Sherman found reporters complaining that Obama's campaign was "acting like the Prom Queen" and being more secretive than Bush. The magazine quoted the New York Times' Adam Nagourney's reaction to the Obama campaign's memo attacking one of his stories: "I've never had an experience like this, with this campaign or others." Then came Obama's overseas trip and the campaign's selection of which news organizations could come aboard. Among those excluded: the New Yorker magazine, which had just published a satirical cover about Obama that offended the campaign.
Even Bush hasn't tried that. But then again, Obama has been outdoing the president in ruffles and flourishes lately. As Bush held quiet signing ceremonies in the White House yesterday morning, Obama was involved in a more visible display of executive authority a block away, when he met with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani at the Willard. A full block of F Street was shut down for the prime minister and the would-be president, and some 40 security and motorcade vehicles filled the street.