Out of Line

05.24.12

Michael Tomasky: Shame on You, Cory Booker and Richard Grenell

Yes, we need strong leaders—but those leaders also need loyal followers on the payroll. That’s a lesson Cory Booker and Richard Grenell need to learn.

Watching Cory Booker and Richard Grenell try to salvage their reputations took me back. When I was young I debated: do I want to go into politics or journalism? I actually did work in politics, for a year or so, for a long-gone member of Congress. I was in charge for a time of constituent correspondence. At one point, someone up the food chain noticed that the letter the congressman was sending out concerning events in Nicaragua was a shade or two left of what would likely be judged sensible in the hollows of West Virginia (the boss did oppose aid to the contras, but not quite for the reasons I elucidated). No one had previously told me what I should or should not write, but I learned that day: work for a politician, and you have no views of your own. Off to journalism I sauntered. I would never be a good follower.

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To this day I can’t for the life me understand how those spokespeople or spokespersons—or mere “spox” as they are called, now that we’re all in the business of typing as few characters as possible—can do it. On both sides—yes, this is definitely one arena in which both sides are guilty. How they can sit there and spin the things they spin with a straight face is beyond me. There is no way I could ever have done it. I’d have broken out laughing at some point, or immediately apologized for spooning such manifest garbage out on television. And so over the years, even as I rolled my eyes at Howard Wolfson (one of the better ones) whenever he explained that Hillary (this was 2000) really did just feel an immediate and deep connection to the people of New York, I thought: You know, I have to admire that in a way. It’s got to be damn hard to do every day.

Grenell is the Romney aide and foreign-policy spokesman who was fired three weeks ago either because he was gay, which displeased some right-wingers, or because of his impertinent tweets, which ... also displeased some right-wingers (“Do you think Calista’s hair snaps on?”). On Wednesday he took to The Wall Street Journal op-ed page and to Fox News to announce that it’s possible to be gay, be “proud of” Barack Obama’s support for gay marriage, but still be conservative: “Like many voters, I rarely agree with a candidate’s every position.” Yes, pal, but unlike many voters, you were on the inside. You had access to the highest levels of power. For that access, you cash in your own views. Them’s the rules. I don’t know which offense he was fired for, but he sure deserved to be fired for the second one.

Booker has now eaten more crow than Jed Clampett could shoot in a year, so he’s probably set things right. And in a way, it will be in Obama’s interest to have him speak at the Democratic convention, provided Booker agrees that he’ll really ram it to Romney in every imaginable way. But if I were Axelrod, I’d nonperson the guy. That was just an unbelievable performance. Have you been watching Hardball this week? Chris Matthews has been popping out of his shirt. I have to say I’m with him. Booker disgraced himself. And no, he is not entitled to his own views. He was there to speak for Obama and he is entitled only to Obama’s views, exactly as Grenell was entitled only to Romney’s views. That’s what they signed up for.

If there was a problem on Meet the Press, the problem was that Booker was there in the first place. In the olden days, the roundtable segment on which he appeared was limited strictly to journalists: People who were entitled to, indeed paid to, express their own opinions. They came on after the pols and spin doctors. The differences were very clear to viewers—first segment, party positions; second segment, analysis of same.

Former Romney spokesman Richard Grenell says he rarely agrees with politicians on all issues. But for the access he enjoyed, he was supposed to suppress his views. Them’s the rules.

But now the two species are merged. The roundtable featured Booker, Mike Murphy (Republican consultant), CNBC’s Jim Cramer, and Kim Strassel of The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Murphy, I suppose, was intended to be Booker’s foil. But Murphy doesn’t work for Romney. So you had three people more or less free to give their opinions, and one guy who is a clear agent of a campaign. Meet the Press shouldn’t be mixing fish and fowl like that, pouring spin and analysis in the same blender, but they all do it these days, so that’s another line blurred and battle lost, and it’s the networks’ fault, not the campaigns’.

The best surrogates manage to regurgitate the party lines while occasionally winking, as if to say, “I know this is bullshit.” That subtle departure from the script can be reassuring, as I found Mike McCurry to be in the way he handled the Lewinsky-related questions back in 1998, like a patient teacher waiting for the third-graders to sit down. But distrust those who make themselves the story. Booker is going to gobble up checks from private-equity men when he runs for higher office—but among elected Democrats, nobody is going to stick their neck out for the guy, nor should they.