Jewish World Review Nov 2, 2011 5 Mar-Cheshvan, 5772
Daley: Uncivil Politics Reflects Us
By Roger Simon
"I said to my wife when we got here — and we had great press when we got here — I said: 'Six months, that's about how long, then they'll kick the s—- out of us.' So I got nine months out of it. That's pretty good," Daley told me with a laugh.
We were sitting in his West Wing office, he in an armchair and me on a couch. My digital recorder sat between us on a low coffee table.
"This is on the record?" Daley asked.
Yes, I said, but if you want to go off the record, just say so, and I won't use that part. In the hour or so that followed, Daley never went off the record. He spoke frankly about how difficult the first three years of the Obama administration had been and what President Barack Obama intended to do in the future.
The day that my column appeared, it was the subject of the first, second and fourth questions by members of the White House press corps at the daily briefing. (The third question was about the Occupy Wall Street movement.)
When I was invited on CNN's "John King, USA" to talk about my column that day, King's first question was whether Daley and I had been drinking. King was joking, and I laughed, but I also assured him (truthfully) that we had not been. But I took the question as a compliment.
There were other shows and stories and blogs and tweets. Which raises the same question after any White House interview that makes a splash: Who was using whom?
Had I really gotten Daley, a political veteran, to say anything he had not intended to say? Or had Daley used me, a press veteran, to convey White House talking points?
My answer is simple: Don't know, don't care. You can drive yourself crazy asking yourself that one. The column met my ultimate test, the test a column has to pass before I hit the send button: I liked it. I thought it was good; I thought it was fair; I thought it conveyed something.
Mike McCurry, Bill Clinton's very able press secretary, once told me: "The modern presidency is defined by the manipulation of the news flow 24 hours a day."
And I always keep that in mind. But the manipulation of that news flow has gotten more and more difficult over the years.
In my interview with Daley, I asked him: How much more difficult does the media make your job?
"What's the media today?" Daley replied. "Everybody's got a camera, everybody's got a website. Everybody whose got a telephone can be a media person. And how people get their information and communicate is very different.
"It's very much more difficult, I believe, today, to govern in this very diffuse way in which people get and give information. There isn't anything we do here (in the White House) that gets to the American people that isn't filtered."
I had first heard the term "filtered" applied to the media by the late Lee Atwater, who was George H.W. Bush's campaign manager in 1988. Atwater may not have invented, but he perfected, what is today nearly universal for political operations: formulating a "message of the day," the talking points that all members of the operation push to the media.
Either you control that message, or the media pick their own message. And you don't want the media picking their own message.
"It's not like a campaign where you buy ads," Daley said to me about the downside of White House incumbency. "So everything you do is filtered. There's a thousand ways people get that information, but every piece of it is filtered maybe multiple times, and it makes it very hard to get into the consciousness of the American people."
So the media is a filter, not a neutral conveyor of news? I asked.
"The fragmentation of the media over the last 25 years is a big change," Daley said. "There are liberal radio stations, TV stations, magazines. You've got conservative TV, radio, etc. You don't need to go near what you don't want to believe in today."
This may be a return to earlier centuries, when nearly all the press in America was partisan. But that is not necessarily a good thing. Today, many believe there is too much partisanship.
"The politics reflects the society," Daley said. "A lot of people say: 'Oh, politics is so uncivil. Isn't that terrible? Why can't they get along? Gee, I've never seen anything like this.' Well, it should be better, but maybe it's more reflective of society."
Daley talked about the popularity of reality TV, where "everybody yells at each other, they throw things at each other, they're obnoxious to each other, they swear at each other."
"And watch the cable (news) shows," he said. "What gets (ratings)? The angry, the nasty, the insulting, the edge thing. So maybe politics is just more reflective of society than we want to admit."
He paused. "We want to think politics should be better," he said. "But maybe it is more reflective of us. And that may be what we don't like to see."
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