Press Box

Beat Sweetener: West Wing Edition

The New York Times slathers sweet sauce all over the White House’s new stuffed animals.

There’s a new team running the White House for President Obama, and with a new team comes the inevitable: a story by a reporter who hopes to sweeten the beat, and hence win future access, with a piece of undeserved flattery.

Today’s (March 4) steaming tureen of molasses comes to you courtesy of the New York Times with a piece so syrupy that even the Web headline butters up its subjects: “Less Drama in White House After Staff Changes.” The print headline, “With a Change in Top Aides, The West Wing Quiets Down,” plays it a little closer to the vest, but neither headline prepares the reader for the tongue bath that is about to transpire.

Do you remember Rahm Emanuel? Former Washington colossus. Feared and respected by everybody. The guy the president depended on to get things done. Highly functional Tourette syndrome case. Now the mayor of some Midwestern city. Well, the acidic Emanuel has been replaced by a team of Care Bears, whose pH runs a corrective basic. There’s Good Luck Bear (William M. Daley), who is of Irish descent and who brings luck to everyone as he twirls through the revolving door between government and business. Smart Heart Bear (David Plouffe) is just the brightest bunch of batting ever stuffed into a fake-fur body. Obama carried Smart Heart Bear from hotel to hotel during the 2008 presidential campaign, and it’s believed that he whispered brainy things to Obama that Obama repeated on the stump to make people think he’s smart. And then there’s Baby Tugs Bear (Jay Carney), the sweet little tyke in the family. Baby Tugs Bear is still in diapers and just now learning to talk, so they’ve made him the press secretary.

That the Times didn’t catch the Care Bear connection is an oversight that I hope a future Editors’ Note or Public Editor item corrects. Also, the Times makes no mention of the man Good Luck Bear replaced as White House chief of staff—interim chief of staff Pete Rouse, the beneficiary of not one but twoNew York Times beat sweeteners last September when he stepped in for Emanuel. Have the Care Bears dragged him into the basement, where they’re dining on his living flesh? Bears are carnivores, after all, even teddy bears. Or did the Times decide that Rouse—Mr. Peace, Love, and Understanding and an honorary Care Bear himself—is too much like the new crew of bears running the show and that had they acknowledged his two months on the job they’d have to write a story titled “Relaxed White House Becomes Even More Relaxed.”

The only question the Times piece doesn’t answer is why would you have to flatter a bunch of sweeties in the first place? If they’re so nice and calm by nature, it makes no sense to invest in appeasing them the way the press corps felt it had to appease that vengeful little prick Emanuel. Call it force of habit, but here’s the honey the Times spoons into the White House Care Bears’ mouths:

Mr. Daley and Mr. Plouffe are bringing a new order and a different management style for different times, say people within the West Wing and others who deal with them. The White House is more disciplined and less personality-driven, more focused on long-term strategic goals and less consumed by the daily messaging skirmishes with Republicans—even when that means absorbing hits and pulling punches. …Unlike Mr. Emanuel, the idea-a-minute dynamo who would dart from floor to floor trying to control matters mundane and major, Mr. Daley, a seasoned former executive and a commerce secretary in the Clinton administration, has streamlined the operation and is more likely to keep to his office door closed and to delegate to subordinates. The big matters, however, demand his full attention. … Mr. Plouffe likewise is less available to reporters and party officials and keeps his office television turned off—to tune out the daily distractions of cable TV’s political play by play. Where Mr. Axelrod was an unabashedly sentimental true believer in the Obama brand, Mr. Plouffe, who managed Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, is a stoic, by-the-numbers master of organization. …[S]taff members describe a happier workplace with clearer lines of authority and less fear of being chided by the often brusque Mr. Emanuel. Responsibility for communications and messaging has been consolidated. Cabinet members who were often overlooked in the past say they are more in the loop. With Mr. Daley taking the lead, there is more outreach to Republicans and business groups. …

The best—therefore worst—paragraph in the article comes when the reporter states (emphasis added):

Mr. Daley and Mr. Plouffe declined to be interviewed on the record, in contrast to their accessible and often-profiled predecessors. White House aides and outsiders who work with them asked not to be quoted by name in discussing how the new team is affecting the administration’s inner workings. And most said they did not want to imply criticism of Mr. Emanuel or Mr. Axelrod; the White House makeover, they emphasized, reflects a response to factors beyond personalities.

In other words, Daley and Plouffe agreed to be interviewed but in a manner that would allow them to help the Times document how they’ve brought cow-cud quality contentment to White House deliberations—but also in a way that would include a disclaimer stating that they’re not, not, not knocking Emanuel (Grumpy Bear?) because they know if they anger him he’ll come back and soak their pelts in sewing-machine oil and set them on fire.

After the business of politics demolishes the Bears’ ability to do Obama’s bidding, he’ll appoint a new bunch of West Wing playthings. Here’s betting that the Times portrays them to be as wonderful and as spirited a herd straight out of My Little Pony.


Did you know that Good Luck Bear has been both a woman and a man? Send your Beanie Babies, properly sexed, please, to and go ahead and get androgynous with my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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