The Weekly Standard on "The Anti-Obama"

July 28, 2004

The Weekly Standard on "The Anti-Obama"

Though I disagree with its politics, I've always kind of liked The Weekly Standard, a ten-year-old conservative political magazine edited by William Kristol. The Standard publishes its share of mediocre articles and silly political pieces, of course, but its commentary on certain issues has been really good; the magazine has printed cultural criticism that should appeal to readers of all political stripes, and has made a serious effort to formulate a new conservative vision of foreign policy and politics.

The Standard has impressed me less since the beginning of the Bush administration, however, and this week's issue includes a sloppy article that exemplifies its fallen standards. In an article called "The Anti-Obama," Matthew Continetti paints a sympathetic portrait of Justin Warfel, an aide to former GOP Senate candidate Jack Ryan. As The New Yorker recently noted, Warfel resigned from the Ryan campaign when he became the center of a local political controversy:

Another Ryan campaign worker started making news last week. Justin Warfel, a young man with a shaved head, suddenly attached himself to Obama, and, armed with a video camera and a tape recorder, began following him everywhere around Springfield. His mission, according to the Ryan campaign, was to “make sure Obama has a consistent message,” and a campaign spokesperson called it “standard practice in national politics.” Warfel’s methods, however, were unusually aggressive. He followed Obama’s every movement, even private conversations, holding his camera, according to the Associated Press, “less than two feet from Obama’s face, barking questions.” Tom Massey, who has been the pressroom manager in the Springfield statehouse for twenty-five years, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before. This is a new low in Illinois politics.” The Republican leader of the state senate, Frank Watson, was also critical, telling the A.P., “I don’t care if you’re in public life or who you are, you deserve your space.”

To Continetti, however, Warfel was the victim of the liberal media. He was a perfectly innocent campaign worker, doing a job that every candidate considers necessary, until Obama took advantage of the press to portray himself as the victim of unscrupulous Republicans:

One day in May, Warfel walked down a hall in the state capitol towards the tall, thin Obama, who was speaking to a group of reporters, photographers, and television camera crews. "I heard my name coming out of his mouth," Warfel said. The cameras, the lights, and the press all shifted their attention from the candidate to Warfel. Suddenly "they were tracking me."

Warfel kept his camera running, taping the cameras taping him.

Obama had made the young man a campaign issue. It was a clever move. "It's taking politics to a whole other level," Obama told the Associated Press. "He stops short of the bathroom, but gets me right when I come back out." Articles in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times soon followed. William Finnegan, writing in the New Yorker, called Warfel's methods "unusually aggressive." One journalist said Warfel was "bald"; another said he had "a shaved head." According to AP, Warfel "held the camera less than two feet from Obama's face, barking questions and interrupting Obama's conversations with reporters."

"Never happened," Warfel said. "That's the single most erroneous piece of reporting I've ever seen." He spoke on his cell phone. Dogs barked in the distance. "Obama wanted to be viewed as a victim of the Jack Ryan campaign. And he played it well. And the press played into his hands."

Continetti's article as a whole was bizarre and amusing. I loved the way he portrayed Warfel as an innocent naif who bravely kept going forward in the face of a nasty political trick. (See how he heroically kept running his camera and taping Obama, even as the Democrats got the press to tape him? That's grace under pressure!) Given that plenty of Republicans like to criticize liberals for playing a game of victimology, I was also amused to see a conservative magazine portraying a young political operative as a victim of savvy liberals. Couldn't Continetti have picked a more appealing target of the liberal media?

To be fair, it's possible that Continetti's main argument is correct. Maybe Warfel was telling the truth when he denied taping Obama's phone conversations with his wife, denied interrupting the candidate with hostile questions, or portrayed his tracking of the candidate as a run-of-the-mill political tactic. I can't say for sure, since I wasn't there.

The problem with Continetti's article is that he just assumes that Warfel was telling the truth, without (as far as I can tell) making any effort to corroborate what he said. There were plenty of people Continetti could have talked to, after all. Why not interview Frank Watson, the Republican floor leader in the Illinois Senate who took Obama's side in the controversy? Why not talk to Tom Massey, the pressroom manager at the Illinois statehouse? Why not look for tapes of the press events where Obama spoke, to see whether Warfel interrupted him? Common sense would tell you that if you're interviewing a man charged with sleazy political tactics, he'll try to deny or minimze the accusations against him. That's exactly what Warfel did.

Obama has been the subject of informative articles in both The New Yorker and The New Republic, but Continetti's piece seems like hackwork. You can even make a case that it hurts the Republican effort to defeat Obama: Warfel claimed that his main interest was in highlighting the divide between Obama's liberal politics and his moderate rhetoric, but the main consequence of his interview was to play up a minor campaign incident that helped the Obama campaign. Unless Republicans figure out a better way to oppose Obama, they're going to have to deal with him for a long time to come.

Posted by Ed at July 28, 2004 12:45 PM
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