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His crime? Acting too presidential

THE NATION : ON THE MEDIA / JAMES RAINEY

August 04, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

America, meet Barack The Arrogant.

Did you hear, this guy's already talking about redecorating the Lincoln Bedroom? Or that a few weeks back, he stood behind a podium bearing a faux presidential seal? The young upstart from Illinois has even got his minions planning a White House transition!

We have reporters, columnists and TV talking heads to thank for exposing these outrageous displays. So apparently the verdict is in: Sen. Barack Obama, too confident to govern.

It all would be quite funny if many people didn't seem to be inhaling this multimedia stink bomb as if it were fragrant truth.

I've spent a few days on the campaign trail with Obama and know people who've traveled with him for months. I wouldn't argue that portrayals of the candidate as occasionally aloof, or a little professorial, are imagined.

But it's a long ways from, in the words of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, acting like "the presumptuous nominee" whose "biggest challenger may not be Republican John McCain but rather his own hubris."

Milbank, who is often wickedly revealing, last week seemed mostly wicked as he turned benign campaign tableau -- an Obama motorcade, a talk with the Treasury secretary, a "pep rally" with congressional Democrats -- into evidence that Obama thinks he's already the winner.

Milbank at least leavened his thesis with humor, unlike others piling on the campaign to turn Barack into Slick Barry.

Fox News host Sean Hannity told viewers last week how "presumptuous" Obama had become. Proof: The candidate told congressional Democrats that the world had been waiting for his hopeful message and that to some he had become a symbol of a "return to our best traditions."

That may not be humble pie, but doesn't even come close to breaking the narcissism barrier. Don't our politicians routinely boast about how essential they are to the republic?

Then came the stunning revelation that Obama had begun planning for a transition to the White House.

Fox News hostess E.D. Hill -- who dubbed Obama's playful knuckle bump with his wife a "terrorist fist jab" -- reminded viewers recently that the Democrat was "not commander in chief just yet, which is why some find his decision to start planning his transition into the White House a bit presumptuous."

Hill wondered whether Obama was "jumping the gun or just covering all the bases?"

Never mind that McCain advisors have acknowledged that they too were planning for a White House transition or the fact that history has rewarded those who looked ahead. Early transition planner Ronald Reagan hit the ground running in 1980. Bill Clinton initially struggled after dawdling on White House preparations in 1992.

Yeah, but what about that talk of remodeling the Lincoln Bedroom? Surely that proves Obama thinks he's destined for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

That whopper grew out of an entirely benign moment last month in Fargo, N.D. A woman asked if Obama would consider remodeling the room with African kente cloth.

"No," Obama said with a laugh. He mused that when he had toured the White House in 2005, he thought a copy of the Gettysburg Address would look more appropriate in the historic chamber than the flat-screen TV on the wall.

What about that seal, complete with American eagle, that the Obama faithful trotted out a few weeks back? No question it was a cheesy would-be stature-builder -- but it was far short of counting electoral votes before they're cast.

The candidate's crowning demonstrations of hubris, according to those building a case, came during his extended trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe. Recall the pundits demanding the freshman Illinois senator prove he could be presidential in the foreign arena?

So he appeared at ease with world leaders, talked animatedly with beaming American troops and drew huge civilian crowds. Then the pundits -- who had been taking a round of bashing for supposedly going easy on Obama -- told Obama he needed to beware of appearing too presidential.

Opponents would like to put the Democrat in another can't-win box over his "failure" to visit wounded troops at a military hospital in Germany. Obama canceled a visit to the Landstuhl hospital and was accused of being self-centered.

What if he had appeared at the hospital? David Kiley reported in BusinessWeek magazine how a Republican operative described plans to attack Obama for -- that's right -- using wounded troops as campaign props, if he had gone through with the visit.

These red herrings, a veritable school of 'em, are amusing for those who put them in perspective. But how many take the time to do that?

In 1992, George H.W. Bush reportedly was surprised to find a price scanner in a grocery store, which "proved" he was out of touch with the common man. In 2004, John F. Kerry windsurfed and knew how to speak French. He was pegged as an elitist snob.

McCain launched a television ad last week lumping Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton: just a trio of celebrities handed fame they haven't really earned.

"There's an interesting line building on Obama that somehow success and intelligence are a handicap," said Mark Sawyer, a UCLA political scientist. "If he wasn't extraordinary, he wouldn't be there. But then he is extraordinary and it becomes, 'He is just too good, too well spoken, too accomplished.' "

So here are a few lessons for would-be commanders in chief:

Inspire attention, but not too much. Act presidential, but not like you already have the job. Be confident, but in an obsequious kind of way.

It's really not that complicated.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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