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PRESEDENTIAL HOPEFUL

In Search of Romney

Mitt Romney, last time I checked, is running for president. But he’s determined to stay out of the spotlight for now.

Guess what? It’s not working. Instead, he’s drawing a bunch of stories about how he’s running by not running—which muffles any message about why he’s running.

I ran into the Team Romney mindset some weeks ago when I called his spokesman, who informed me that his main goal was to avoid 2012 stories about the boss.

Now there are rational reasons for this. The sooner Romney gets out there as a candidate on the hustings, the sooner the media scrutiny intensifies. Perhaps more important, the boredom factor rises over time and he looks less like a fresh face. The long slog of 2007 and 2008 convinced the Romneyites that there was no percentage in gearing up too soon.

Still, the former Massachusetts governor is the closest thing the GOP has to a front-runner, and journalists are not going to be denied. So you get stories like this one in the Boston Globe:

“This time around, as a still-unannounced but all but certain contender, his strategy seems strikingly different: Don’t make noise. Be the grown-up in the mix. Dare, for the moment, to be typecast as dull.”

And this one in the New York Times: “Mr. Romney himself has been scarce, with only one public campaign event in all of March. While other likely Republican contenders have actively sought attention, he has purposefully avoided it. His approach should not be seen as ambivalence; it is just that he is not eager for the campaign’s glare to begin a moment sooner than it must.

“This time, Mr. Romney is trying a less-is-more strategy.”

Romney can afford to wait, since he’ll have no problem raising money, but this is a missed opportunity to solidify his standing as the businessman best equipped to turn the economy around. On the other hand, no one will care six months from now that he sat on his hands in March and April.

THE DONALD

Trump Steals the Spotlight

For a brief, shining moment, the politico-media industrial complex is taking Donald Trump seriously.

A single poll has seemingly catapulted him from celebrity status to presidential threat. Journalists are poll junkies, and nothing gets their adrenaline pumping like fresh numbers—especially if someone famous is involved.

So when Thursday’s NBC/Wall Street Journal survey had The Donald in second place among Republicans—at 17 percent, tied with Mike Huckabee and four points behind Mitt Romney—he crossed some invisible threshold, from impossible to plausible.

Except I think most of my fellow pundits know better. That number reflects name recognition for a zillionaire playboy. It may also reflect a general sense that Trump is a take-charge businessman who would know something about fixing the economy.

But most of all, it reflects Trump’s recent television blitz—where he has talked far less about his business acumen than about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, again and again. And the media just keep giving him a platform for this nonsense because Trump is good box office. He boosts the ratings. And there’s a sense that birther conspiracy theories are hot-button stuff, even if they are, inconveniently, disproved by the facts.

So Meredith Vieira gives The Donald 10 minutes on Thursday’s Today show, and doesn’t object when he says of Obama: “His grandmother, in Kenya, said he was born in Kenya and she was there and witnessed the birth.”

Not even a “really? When and where did she say this?”

Chris Cillizza’s theory, on his Washington Post blog, is that “confrontation sells.” But don’t we in the MSM have a greater responsibility than to put on flat-earthers and say that “many scientists disagree”? Vieira pressed Trump on why he is pushing the birther line, but not on the claim about the grandmother.


I don’t know why Trump is going down this road, since he could get plenty of attention with other lines of attack. But there was a hint in the NBC sitdown. Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice (a “great show,” he assured us, with “phenomenal ratings”) runs until June. If he declares for president now, he said, NBC would be forced to take the show off the air. So he has to wait.

I doubt he’ll run and open up his business career and love life to journalistic scrutiny; he has done this tease before. He flirted with seeking the Reform Party nomination in 2000. So Trump climbing in the polls—wow, second place!—may be fun for reporters who’d rather not be delving into the complexities of Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan. But anyone who believes Trump is going to drag himself along the grueling path to the White House should be fired, maybe on national television.

BECKS' DIVORCE

Glenn Beck, Fox Agree to Divorce

The highly rated host became such a lightning rod that many at Fox wanted him out—and for Beck, the feeling was mutual. Howard Kurtz on the demise of cable's most radioactive show.

Despite his monster ratings, Fox News is bidding farewell to Glenn Beck as tensions between the incendiary host and the top-rated cable news channel have led to a near-total divorce.

I say near-total because the two sides announced a deal Wednesday in which Beck's production company will produce occasional content for Fox. But this is believed to amount to a only handful of specials, and many senior Fox executives are relieved to be rid of Beck, whose ratings have dropped 40 percent, and even more sharply among younger viewers. He was not offered a new contract.

Beck, too, has tired of the friction with Fox and is said by people close to him to be happy to end the partnership.

Whatever the genesis, for Beck to give up his daily 5 p.m. program, which at its peak drew more than 2.5 million viewers, is a case study in how even the most successful broadcast personalities can become too hot to handle.

In the end, the man who drew a huge crowd to the Lincoln Memorial, but also became a lightning rod after calling President Obama a racist, lasted less than three years as a daily Fox host. More than 400 advertisers fled the Beck show, but he still delivered a huge lead-in audience for Bret Baier and others who followed him on the Fox lineup.

On his show Wednesday, Beck said he had resisted Fox's initial offer because he doesn't like conflict. He likened himself to Paul Revere, delivering a warning to America. "We will find each other… I have other things to do," he said.

Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes told the Associated Press that "half of the headlines say he's been canceled. The other half say he quit. We're pretty happy with both of them." He denied that economic pressure was involved, saying: "Advertisers who get weak-kneed because some idiot on a blog site writes to them and says we need to stifle speech, I get a little frustrated by that … Call CNN and MSNBC and ask them if they'd like to have Glenn's ratings at 5 in the afternoon."

But Ailes hinted at the fact that Beck's stand-at-the-chalkboard routine, warning the country of dark and dangerous developments to come, was wearing thin.

"I think he told that story as well as could be told. Whether you can just keep telling that story or not... we're not so sure," Ailes said. Beck will be fine; he has made more of his income from his production company, Mercury Radio Arts, as well as from speeches and his daily radio show, and is focusing on his new website, The Blaze. And whatever late-afternoon audience Fox loses will be partially offset by no longer having to defend Beck's most controversial utterances.

OBAMA SPEECH

Obama's Speech Bombs

The reaction to President Obama's military strikes against Libya can be described in three phases: shock and awe; skepticism, and bewilderment.

The reaction to President Obama’s military strikes against Libya can be described in three phases: shock and awe (when the bombs started landing); skepticism (when he failed to adequately explain what he was up to), and bewilderment (when his explanations didn’t match the facts on the ground).

There seemed to be a gap between the president’s professed goal (preventing a massacre) and military reality (U.S. and NATO forces are actively trying to help the rebels and topple Muammar Gaddafi).

That may help explain why Obama’s big speech on Libya, nine days into the conflict, landed with something of a thud.

The media coverage was mainly critical, with 55 percent of the sources quoted describing the speech negatively and 45 percent positively. If only nonpartisan sources are considered, 77 percent were negative, 23 percent positive.

The figures come from a new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, affiliated with George Mason University, which examined 32 major news stories that ran on March 29, the day after the speech.

Obama’s best-received argument was that the intervention was necessary for humanitarian reasons (91 percent positive). A much smaller majority (55 percent) welcomed his argument that the bombing would help the Libyan rebels oust Gaddafi.

But two-thirds of the comments were negative when it came to Obama’s insistence that the intervention was in America’s interest. Three-quarters had a negative assessment of the president’s description of the U.S. mission, and a striking 89 percent were negative about whether he was justified in taking military action under the War Powers Act.

Obama got the best ride on the broadcast networks—100 percent positive--which, as center president Robert Lichter points out, is in part because he granted interviews to the ABC, CBS and NBC anchors. Nothing like access to squeeze out time for critics.

The coverage was balanced (50 percent positive) at both the Washington Post and Fox’s Special Report; 54 percent negative in the New York Times, and 64 percent negative in the Wall Street Journal.

The most negative coverage? A virtual tie between USA Today (77 percent negative ) and Politico (76 percent negative).

And you will not be shocked to learn that most of the chatter broke down along party lines: 93 percent of the comments by Republicans were negative, 92 percent by Democrats were positive. The only thing surprising about that finding is that many in the GOP have been supportive of military action in Libya while nonetheless finding fault with Obama (he waited too long, explained it poorly, shouldn’t have let NATO take the lead).

Now that Gaddafi and the rebels seem locked in a stalemate and U.S. firepower is playing a lesser role, the intensity of the coverage seems to be receding as well. But if the morass drags on, the reaction to the speech could become the template for continuing carping about Obama’s kinetic military action, more commonly known as war.

FRIENDLY MCCAIN

McCain's New Pal

John McCain has just friended Mark Zuckerberg.

McCain says he learned on a visit to Egypt that the Facebook founder is considered a national hero there, given the role that his site played in helping protestors organize against the Mubarak regime. So he called Zuckerberg and told him.

Now the Arizona senator might not seem like a wild-and-crazy social networking guy, but as he reminded reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast this morning, he has 1.7 million followers on Twitter. In fact, he got plenty of buzz for tweeting about Snooki, recommending that the Jersey Shore star use sunscreen after she griped about President Obama imposing a 10 percent tax on tanning beds.

That, he said, “got more coverage than any foreign policy or national security statement I’ve ever made in my life.”

McCain tread lightly on questions about his 2008 running mate. “So far, Sarah Palin has not shown an inclination that she’s going to run,” he said. Asked if Michele Bachmann was stealing Palin’s thunder, McCain said he didn’t know much about the Minnesota congresswoman but that “obviously she has gained the attention and traction of a lot of the Tea Partiers and others.”

The last Republican nominee said that “as a loser” he would not be endorsing in the party’s primary, though there’s certainly no law against it.

He chose his words carefully when it came to his former rival Mitt Romney. “Obviously he’s going to have to confront the issue of Massachusetts health care,” McCain said, referring to the plan Romney passed as governor, which includes a health insurance mandate and which critics have likened to Obamacare.

The senator took a swipe at the Supreme Court, which gutted his signature achievement—the campaign finance reform law—in the Citizens United decision. Paraphrasing LBJ, McCain said: “I just wish one of them had run for county sheriff.”

McCain reserved his harshest words for former congressman Tom Tancredo, who ran for Colorado governor last year on a platform targeting illegal immigration. McCain, who still favors some form of immigration reform, said some Hispanics in the state regarded Tancredo’s views as “racist.”

“We have to let Tom Tancredo not be the image of the Republican Party,” he said.

SECURITY

Shutdown Protection

Capitol Police will stay on the job, and handle new frustration with members of Congress.

After the brutal shooting that incapacitated Re. Gabrielle Giffords in January, calls filled Washington to beef up security protection around members of Congress. But if the government shuts down this weekend, would the Capitol Police be affected?

"We're considered essential, so we'll be here," says Sergeant Kimberly Schneider, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Police. "Congress and the Capitol building will be safe."

The Office of Management and Budget exempts military, health-care, and law-enforcement workers from the effects of a shutdown, which means that an agency like the Capitol Police will be left untouched if the government stops working.

But even as they stay on the job, officers are cognizant of increased anger at members of Congress. More than a dozen lawmakers received credible death threats last year, according to House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who said after the health-reform law passed last spring that political rhetoric was getting out of hand. After the Giffords shooting in January, senior Capitol officers launched an internal inquiry into how best to protect members from new threats. Leadership officers generally travel with security protection, and considerations for other members of Congress are made on a case-by-case basis, like last month, when Rep. Peter King (R-NY) was assigned a personal detail before a controversial hearing on American Muslims.

Still, one Capitol Hill aide acknowledged "new awareness" that a shutdown of government services, including issuance of tax refunds, national park operations, and even weather forecasting, could bring a new wave of frustration at lawmakers for failing to make a deal.

Police officers generally don't discuss security plans publicly, but Sgt. Schneider says that a detailed contingency plan in case of a shutdown has taken into account the various complexities. "Capitol Police are prepared for many different situations. This is one of them."

MIDDLE EAST

Early Suspicions About Pakistan

The top U.S. military official accused the regime of hindering the war on terror shortly before bin Laden was killed.

The revelation that Osama bin Laden was hiding in a oversized compound in a posh Islamabad suburb, and not some remote mountain cave, has sparked questions about whether Pakistani authorities knew of his sanctuary.

There was a telling clue just 10 days ago that the Obama administration was becoming increasingly frustrated with Pakistan’s lack of cooperation. And it looms even larger now that we know the U.S. military was in the advanced stages of planning a helicopter raid on the suspected bin Laden compound—one that was conducted Sunday without the knowledge of Pakistani officials.

During a visit to Islamabad in late April, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dropped the usual diplomatic niceties. Perhaps mindful that his term as the nation’s top military officer will expire this fall, Mullen vented his frustration. He charged that Pakistan's spy agency, ISI, was supporting and aiding the Haqqani network, a militant group closely allied with the Taliban. U.S. officials have long blamed the Haqqani organization for many of the American deaths in Afghanistan but rarely say so publicly.

In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper, Mullen said Pakistan’s relationship with the Haqqani network was “at the core” of the difficulties between the two countries. He told another paper that “it is the Haqqani network which is killing Americans across the border.” And in a local television interview, Mullen said: “The ISI has a long-standing relationship with the Haqqani network, that doesn't mean everybody in the ISI but it's there ... I believe over time that has got to change.”

After the admiral held what was described as a tense meeting with Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s top Army officer, Kayani said in a statement that he "strongly rejects negative propaganda” about “Pakistan not doing enough."

Those denials now sound a bit hollow, considering that the bin Laden compound was a short distance from Pakistan’s military academy. In fact, CIA Director Leon Panetta tells Time magazine: “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission: They might alert the targets.”

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told NBC that Pakistan is “playing a double game…It is very difficult for me to understand how this huge compound could be built in a city just an hour north of the capital of the Pakistan, in a city that contained military installations, including the Pakistani military academy, and that it did not arouse tremendous suspicions.”

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, has come up with a questionable strategy: blaming the media. The “baseless speculation” that his government knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts, he said, “may make exciting cable television” but is not true.

About the Author

Author headshot

Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN’s weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.

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