WaPo and Times Go Softly, Softly with Barbour

Similar profiles tell similar tales

Pity poor Tim Pawlenty. The day after the former Minnesota governor made a shallow splash announcing his presidential exploratory committee, rival Haley Barbour picked up some very enviable real estate in the east coast’s political big two: The New York Times and The Washington Post.

In what’s something of a coup for Barbour—whose name recognition beyond Mississippi is probably comparable to if not lower than Pawlenty’s—the Times’s Jeff Zeleny and the Post’s Karen Tumulty each offer reasonably flattering, kid-glove portraits of the man whom many credit with much of the GOP’s 2010 success. As Tumulty writes, “As chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, Barbour took up the slack as the dysfunctional Republican National Committee imploded, reached into his golden Rolodex and raised a record $115 million.”

As well as a good fundraiser, Barbour comes across as likable, savvy, and less willing to transform himself with the current political winds. As such, in this particular overcrowded news cycle, he probably gets the edge on the so-called “T-Paw,” whose video campaign launch was a slight embarrassment.

But who gets the edge in the profile-writing showdown between Zeleny and Tumulty?

Each seems to have had about the same amount of access. Zeleny quotes Barbour frequently on the stump—outside the Iowa Capitol, at a luncheon for the Iowa Federation of Republican Women, at a dinner in Davenport—and Tumulty catches him swigging beer at a pub called Sweet Fanny’s and at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Each got a sit-down interview, too (Tumulty says they spoke on his chartered jet). And each drew most of their quoted material from their sit-downs; there isn’t much by way of sources speaking on the record about Barbour as a person, candidate, or governor.

The themes are much the same: Barbour is unapologetic about his past as a lobbyist for big tobacco and scary foreign governments; neither is he too sorry about being a very southern guy—though race is still a little touchy. There is in both, of course, less about his history and policy positions than about his impact on and place in that most important of all things: the presidential race.

The two ledes are similar in the way they trace these issues and their implications on the GOP primary contest.

Here’s Zeleny’s:

He became wealthy as a lobbyist, representing tobacco companies and foreign governments. A former Republican Party chairman, he would seem the ultimate Washington insider. A white Southerner, he has faced questions about his remarks on race.

As he steps closer to becoming a presidential candidate, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi has some explaining to do. And rather than running away from his background, he is embracing it.

And here’s Tumulty’s snazzier version:

Say you were a political party on the upswing, looking for the ideal candidate to defeat a president who had been elected on hope, change and the chance to make history.

Probably not high on your list would be: 1) a former lobbyist who made millions carrying water for tobacco companies, the oil industry and foreign governments; 2) the governor of a state ranked at or near the bottom in pretty much every measure of its residents’ well-being; and 3) a beefy southerner who kept a confederate flag autographed by Jefferson Davis in his office and who has a Delta drawl as thick as Karo syrup.

Yet standing here in a pub called Sweet Fanny’s, draft beer in hand, were all three in one person.

From there each author describes a candidate who doesn’t always follow the party line—the Pentagon could also do with budget cuts, he says—and uses his history as a lobbyist to argue for his experience across all areas of government. His line, “I saw the sausage factory up close,” gets a jersey in both profiles.

So do weight and race. “Mr. Barbour’s presence remains larger than life, even though he has been shrinking in recent months,” writes Zeleny. “As he walked at a relatively brisk pace from meeting to meeting on a two-day visit to Iowa, the traditional first stop of the presidential nominating season, he looked noticeably trimmer in his face and around the middle.”

Tumulty makes Barbour’s paunch more of a campaign issue: “One of the clearest indications of his seriousness about running is that Barbour, famously fond of fine dining and Maker’s Mark, said he has dropped 20 pounds.”

Note to Politico for a new section: Beltline 2012—Who’s Running? (Literally)

On race, after going through Barbour’s mini-scandals—“I just don’t remember it as being that bad”—the former Mississippi governor offers Zeleny this: “If someone had asked me about the racial situation in the segregated South when I was growing up, I would have said that while people at the time didn’t know—this was all they knew—they realized ultimately that it was indefensible.” Perhaps Tumulty quizzed him soon after Zeleny, as Barbour tells her shortly, “The only people who ever asked me about it are reporters.”

If you are going to take a few minutes to read a Haley Barbour profile today—and really, only if you have to—go for the Post’s. Tumulty’s has a little more pizzazz and its teeth are a touch sharper. She tells the story of Barbour’s press secretary resigning after reporters discovered tasteless jokes in daily e-mails he sent to staff, using it as an example of an operation that is “accident-prone.” And Tumulty notes that Barbour spent 175 days of his last year as governor outside of the state.

Or better yet, wait for one of the magazines to take a turn. Or a couple of them.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,