Monster’s Ball

The (Samantha) Power of political insult

Stop the presses! This is huge! Late last night, Big News broke: Samantha Power, one of Obama’s campaign advisers, called Hillary Clinton a “monster.”

Hmm. Okay, so it’s not huge news. Maybe it’s trivial and petty news. Maybe it’s not even, really, news. Doesn’t really matter: none of that stopped the Power(ful) epithet from becoming one of today’s big stories. Indeed, the word “monster” has been stomping and snarling its way through the mass-media landscape since “news” of its use broke last night. Epithet-zilla led MSNBC’s news coverage this morning. Mika Brzezinski, having introduced the morning’s top three stories—the monster comment, the Times Square explosion, the murder of UNC’s student body president, in that order—elaborated: “First up, though, politics: she’s a monster.” (To make the monstrous point crystal-clear, an image of Clinton’s face blazed on the screen as Brzezinski spoke, next to the words SHE’S A MONSTER.) “Words” Brzezinski continued, “a top Barack Obama adviser can’t take back. The name-calling tops our First Read this morning.”

Looks like it topped a lot of people’s first reads: the “monster” mash led the morning shows, network and cable. It got parsed in the blogosphere. Most In-Depth Analyses of the name-calling treated Power’s comment as a symptom of the frustrations of a too-long primary season, in which the back-and-forth of Campaign Warfare takes its toll on the psyche and, as a result, the common sense. “I think you’re seeing frustrations boil over,” Chuck Todd, NBC’s politics guru, put it. “When you’re fighting this long, you develop these sometimes irrational hatreds of the other side.”

Many also compared the epithet to the Clinton campaign’s “Obama’s using Ken Starr-like tactics against Clinton” commentary. But that’s a false equivalency. Never mind the metaphor-versus-simile distinction, being like something versus just being something. (That level of rhetorical subtlety is pretty much a moot point when it comes to political discourse.) What really matters is sourcing: who made the comments—and who, therefore, should be ultimately accountable for them.

The Starr comment came from Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s chief spokesman, on a conference call yesterday afternoon. “I, for one, do not believe that imitating Ken Starr is the way to win a Democratic primary election for president,” he said. Wolfson is Clinton’s spokesman; as such, it’s fair to assume that what he says, for good or ill, has been vetted by the Clinton campaign. But Power, the political Proteus of today’s monster’s ball, is merely an adviser to Obama; we can’t assume that her comments have any official sanction with the Obama campaign. In fact, Power made the “monster” comment while conducting an interview with the U.K. paper The Scotsman in promotion of her new book. The interview was entirely on the record, though Power tried, retroactively—and unsuccessfully—to remove the “monster” comment after she uttered it.

We can talk all we want about the on-the-record versus off-the-record question here (though it’s worth noting that Power, in addition to being a Harvard professor, public intellectual, and foreign-policy phenom, is also a journalist—a Pulitzer winner, at that; she’d know as well as anyone that her “monster” comment was ripe for the printing). More interesting to me, however, is the distinction between Wolfson and Power in terms of their relationship to their respective (if not respectful) campaigns—and whether that distinction should matter when it comes to the commentary they make in relation to those campaigns. Sourcing matters, after all; and there are profound differences between an advisor and a spokesman—not the least of which is the fact that the latter is officially sanctioned to speak for a campaign. The former is not.

Power’s “monster” comment was probably made off the cuff; it probably was, as Chuck Todd assumed, the result of campaign frustrations boiling over. But it’s not too hard to imagine that it wasn’t—that, in fact, Power’s “monster” comment was part of one of politics’ most time-honored media management strategies: having someone else do your dirty work. As a result of Power’s “impromptu” commentary, after all, everyone, today, is talking about whether/why/how Clinton is a monster—and having to defend the fact that you’re not a monster is, you know, rarely a good political situation in which to find yourself. Obama benefits even more from the Power play in that he gets to respond—from his vaunted, above-the-fray posture—that, you know, this isn’t the kind of campaign he wants to be running. As for the media coverage itself, Power’s comment, its provenance notwithstanding, means that one of today’s leading stories combines the terms “Clinton” and “monster.” You don’t have to be George Lakoff to know how powerful that is for Obama—and how damaging it is for Clinton.

Even worse for Clinton-the-Maybe-Monster is the fact that many outlets felt obliged, apparently, to include Power’s sound bite in its full context. After her none-too-subtle “Clinton is a monster!” commentary this morning, Mika Brzezinski continued: “Let me read exactly what these words are—from Samantha Power, who’s an Obama campaign adviser. She said this to a reporter with The Scotsman.” Brzezinski then read the following (this is the uncensored version):

“We fucked up in Ohio,” she admitted. “In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio’s the only place they can win.

“She is a monster, too - that is off the record - she is stooping to anything,” Ms Power said, hastily trying to withdraw her remark.

Ms Power said of the Clinton campaign: “Here, it looks like desperation. I hope it looks like desperation there, too.

“You just look at her and think, ‘Ergh’. But if you are poor and she is telling you some story about how Obama is going to take your job away, maybe it will be more effective. The amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive.”

As Brzezinski read “the quotes,” their text, in all its fairly uncouth glory, flashed on the screen. “Desperate” and “deceit” and “ergh” became an audio-visual extravaganza.

Power has, as of a few hours ago, resigned from Obama’s campaign; there was little else to be done, given how often that campaign has framed itself as transcendent of petty name-calling. But a lot of Power’s resignation can be blamed on the media, who, in disseminating Power’s comment, made it A Thing. They could have left it alone, dismissing it, rightly, as the personal views of an accidental pundit, not worth their audiences’ time. Or they could have at least made more of a point of clarifying Power’s role in the campaign—and the fact that she has both a life and personal opinions outside of it. They could have; but they didn’t. The coverage made virtually no mention of caveats; all we heard was a white-noised refrain: Clinton is a monster, Clinton is a monster

That kind of hero/villain coverage—born of that classic combination of stenography and dramatic appetite—is nothing new, of course. And in the current primary season alone, we’ve seen the same kind of tension between the-message-of-the-candidate and the-message-of-the-surrogate with McCain and Bob Cunningham, Clinton and Bob Johnson, and others. Those instances of tension, on their own merits, weren’t catastrophic—though the Johnson episode was particularly damaging, as it provided the spark that led to the flames of MLKgate. What is worrisome, however, is the slippery-slope aspect of each episode—with the press being the Crisco.

The particular absurdity of Monstergate provides a good opportunity to step back and consider where we ought to be drawing the line of accountability between a candidate and his or her associates. On the one hand, campaigns can’t be held responsible for everything those associates say. But neither, to add some traction to the proverbial slope, can they be entirely immune from accountability. The kind of we’ll-bite-at-anything-no-matter-who-says-it approach to campaign coverage we saw today leaves the political press open to becoming mere stooges of campaigns. (Hey, politicians! Have someone—an adviser, a friend, the boyfriend of your cousin’s accountant—say something incendiary about your rivals, and we’ll happily repeat it!) And in that, it may have created a monster.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.