After two NYT White House correspondents recently confessed in print their awe at the luxurious splendor of Air Force One, frankly, we don't know what to expect from NYT reporters and columnists anymore.
In Clark Hoyt's surprisingly hard-hitting column today attacking the NYT's excessive use of anonymous sources -- good one, Clark! -- the Public Editor noted that Brooks had recently kept the president's identity hidden in a March 2 column interviewing "four senior members of the administration." He then noted that Brooks's cover was "blown later." No details on how for print readers -- but web readers got a link.
If they followed it, they found themselves at "The Conversation," a regular web dialogue between columnists Brooks and Gail Collins. In their March 11 edition, Collins pressed Brooks for a confession that he had talked to Obama:
I was so impressed when you reported having been summoned to the White House by top members of the administration who wanted to convince you that they were moderates, too. More so, since I have it on good authority that one of those four unnamed Obamites was the man himself.Cool to have the president ask you to come over for a long policy discussion. So very much cooler not to mention it. Fess up.
Brooks responded with a confession, and a reference to getting the President's autograph:
You ask if the Big Man himself was one of my four unnamed sources for my column last week. I actually wasn’t clear on the ground rules for some of those conversations, so I decided to play it safe. Let’s just say when I say I speak to senior administration officials, I take the meaning of the word “senior” very seriously, and I now have a very cool autographed copy of a chart showing non-defense discretionary spending as a percentage of gross domestic product. It’s signed, “To Comrade Brooks” and then there’s a name underneath.
Commenters on our recent post about White House reporter Helene Cooper's wide-eyed worship of Air Force One criticized the NYTPicker for being too hard on a charmingly human response to the President's plane. But we stand by our belief that NYT reporters (and columnists) ought to maintain, at least publicly, a dignified disdain for the trappings of power.
That would include getting the President's autograph, and bragging about it to your fellow columnists.
Yes, of course, normal human beings are entitled to be somewhat amazed at the perks of the presidency. The White House has to be a super-cool place to live, and who wouldn't want four years of high-speed motorcades taking you through red lights? Plus the current president is our nation's celebrity-in-chief, so any contact comes with the sort of charge you might expect from an encounter with, say, Britney or Brangelina.
But at the risk of seeming excessively purist or humorless, accepting Obama's autograph at an off-the-record encounter strikes us as kind of wrong. It was bad enough that Brooks let the president go off the record, but we'll leave that to Hoyt to sort out. The autograph issue may seem less egregious, but as symbolism it's hard to ignore. Can you imagine Frank Rich or Maureen Dowd or Paul Krugman bragging to readers about accepting an autograph from a sitting president? Of course you can't.
The autograph may be worth a lot to Brooks, but to us it diminishes his worth as a columnist capable of keeping his cool in the presence of, as he puts it, "The Big Man himself."