Forty years ago today, Richard Nixon (the old guy in Frost/Nixon, for all you whippersnappers), hosted a 30-minute prime-time special. Part Ed Sullivan Show and part political all-star game, Nixon wanted to use the magic of television, which he thought cost him the debates against John Kennedy in 1960, to introduce his Cabinet to the country en masse.
Here's how Time covered it:
The men suggest cool competence ... rather than passion or brilliance. They are problem solvers rather than idea brokers. They span the Republican midsection from the moderate progressives to the responsible conservatives, stopping short of ideological extremes. They are mostly affluent, some in the millionaire bracket, but they earned their money rather than inheriting it. There are no blooded patricians in the lot, just strivers who have acted out the middle-class dream. Thus, as much as any dozen individuals can, Richard Nixon's new Cabinet members mirror the qualities of their boss, of the campaign he waged, of the aspirations of the constituency that elected him.
No president since Woodrow Wilson in 1913 had unveiled his Cabinet all at once, and no one had ever done such a thing on live television. It was a big deal. I was a 10-year-old geek and I had prepared my predictions, just as I did for the baseball all-star games. (I think Charles Percy and Scoop Jackson were on my list; I didn't score well.)
Nixon failed to reach one of his goals. According to Time, "All along, Nixon was looking for a Negro of stature and ability."
Well, 40 years later, a "Negro" has the stature and ability to be forming a Cabinet as president.
At the time, Nixon got high marks for his show. Announcing his choices all at once was thought to have minimized the carping and kvetching that normally accompany Cabinet-making. All of Nixon's selections but one were confirmed by the full Senate on the day he was inaugurated. Secretary of Interior Walter Hickel was blessed three days later. And only a few of Nixon's original 12 actually went to prison.
Obama is now getting extremely high marks for how he is handling the transition. But despite the fact that the press is supposed to be in the bag for Obama — and it probably was in the campaign — it is looking hard for bad news.
There have been stories about how the hard anti-war left and "progressives" are disenchanted, especially with the national security firm of Clinton, Gates & Jones. And there are the requisite silly stories about how hard it will be to get all these famous, powerful people to play nicely together. The Washington Post ran an absurd piece about how Obama's choices are too smart and educated. Yeah. Bring back James Watt, Mac McClarty and Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown.
But I've been doing a poll of real, gen-u-wine conventional wisdom and it runs something like this: "Obama's appointments reveal not just moderation but maturity — magnanimity to past opponents, a concern for continuity in a time of war and economic crisis, a self-confidence that allows him to fill gaps in his own experience with outsize personalities, and a serious commitment to incarnate his rhetoric of unity."
The author of that quote was Michael Gerson, President Bush's former speechwriter.
Having spoken to reporters, lobbyists, Democratic job-seekers, hacks and wonks, I haven't heard from anyone who doesn't think Obama isn't playing it smart. There have been few unintentional leaks. Candidates are being treated with dignity. The president-elect is not afraid to appoint lieutenants with high profiles, grand ambitions and big-league experience. He respects legislators and leaders. He held on to competent people working in crucial areas such as war and finance.
So it seems to me the poor guy has earned his honeymoon. The "facts on the ground" are rotten enough. The press doesn't need to prove its toughness (which is really pseudo-toughness) by inflating the quips of a few cranky kibitzers. As Nixon proved, there's plenty of time to mess up after a smooth transition.
But right now, the pros are impressed by the president-elect's performance, and that ought to be reported. And even though the pros are inside the beltway, jaded, elite and even smart — they may still have a point.