Five years ago, the political press decided as a group that Al Gore was a stuck-up weenie and George W. Bush was just a really swell guy. The journalists then set out to get us to elect the guy they preferred as president; the election coverage in 2000 was biased accordingly.
Three years from now, that could happen again -- and if you want to see what the coverage of the chosen one is going to be like, read this profile of Mississippi governor Haley Barbour from today's Washington Post. Barbour is seriously considering running for president.
Yeah, the story lingers briefly over the question of whether it's seemly for the quality of a state's hurricane relief to be predicated on the impressiveness of the governor's circle of friends. It doesn't stay there long, though, because Barbour is just too perfect -- appealingly powerful (a tad ruthless, actually), yet folksy and courtly as all-get-out; devoted to The Little Woman (an old-fashioned gal who excuses herself to go to "the little girls' room"), yet equally devoted to amber-colored adult beverages and fine cigars; mildly prayerful, yet quite fond of an off-color joke. Reporters who still hate the fact that they never got to see LBJ in action must be slavering at the prospect of a Barbour presidency -- they think they'll get to write about a pol from the old school, and some of that intoxicating non-metrosexuality will rub off.
It's enough to give an overeducated yuppie scribe goosebumps and a schoolgirl crush.
Here's the lead:
Gov. Haley Barbour's favorite political memento is a framed sequence of four photos of himself trading off-color jokes with his former boss, Ronald Reagan. In the first photo, the young White House aide is seen telling the president a joke, "the one about the three couples joining the church," Barbour says. He adds, rightly, that the joke is not suitable for the newspaper -- its punch line features one of the couples doing something enormously inappropriate in the frozen-food section at Kroger.
In the third picture, Reagan is saying, "Haley, have I ever told you the one about the two Episcopal preachers?"
This joke can't go in the newspaper, either....
Here's the middle:
Barbour is not a starry-eyed idealist or a politician compelled to mention his religion at every chance. He generally eschews public self-reflection, the feel-your-pain deal. "I'm just not that kind of guy," he says, responding to a Barbara Walters-ish inquiry about whether Katrina has "changed" him.
But Barbour was clearly shaken by the storm. He kept saying, "Pray for us," says Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers, Barbour's longtime friend and business partner.
"We've never been 'pray for us' kind of guys."
And here's the end:
..."You can't explain it to people unless you're in the arena," he says of what it's like to lead a state during a catastrophe. "All these people who are relying on you. And suddenly you've got to rise to that occasion." He closes his eyes, enunciating his words. He speaks of the importance of "hitching up your britches." That's what you do when you get knocked down: "Hitch up your britches." Like Mississippi did after the Civil War, after Reconstruction, after Camille in 1969.
Barbour's voice quiets to the tone of a bedtime story. He finishes off his sixth glass of wine. Another visit to the devastation looms in a few hours.
"We'll overcome Katrina," he vows, "just like she overwhelmed us.
"And with that, good night."
In other countries, heads of state have to maintain torture chambers to get journalists to write about them like this. Here in America it's done voluntarily, even on behalf of pols who haven't reached the White House yet.
UPDATE: Julia did a much better job of taking the measure of the man in this post from 2004.