And yet, to hear it from the pundits themselves, Obama does help his cause by explaining his policies and offering a frame of reference for the messy set of decisions he is confronting—if only by getting inside their head when it comes time to write. “It’s easy to say that they should do just x, y, and z, but if they’re facing constraints, a, b, and c, then you have to account for that, rather than just bashing them,” Brooks said. “It does affect what you write.”
“Of course, it helps Obama,” Dionne said. “Even if he doesn’t persuade you on the point, you realize that this is an impressive, intelligent man, who can also be very charming, and warmer in groups like that than he is in public appearances.”
Pundits are different than so-called straight journalists in having a license, indeed a duty, to opine, but the columnists are still journalists. So what are the rules that govern, or at least should govern, their encounters with the president and his aides?
For starters, it seems fair to give them wider berth than straight reporters get. If a pundit is having an argument with the president on some policy in a print column, then it doesn’t seem wrong to have that argument continued in an actual sit-down with the President.
Still, some rules ought to apply. There should be a rule of proportion in social engagements with the White House. One state dinner? Sure. One golf game? OK. But if this sort of thing becomes a habit, then the pundit, in the public’s mind, is sure to look like a crony of the president—who is always going to be seen, correctly, as the vastly more powerful member of this pair.
There also should be a rule of transparency. If pundits are dining or golfing or otherwise meeting with the president, even if off the record, they should bend over backwards to tell the public. Ignatius and Fallows showed how this could be done by providing their readers context and reporting on Hu Jintao’s state dinner.
But the occurrence of such encounters is not as thorny, in terms of ethics, as what happens at them. When pundits give specific advice to presidents and their aides in private, they become, in effect, counselors. It’s one thing for a columnist to carry on a debate of ideas with the White House—and another to dispense programmatic tips.
The columnists are of different minds on this practice. “Giving advice is tricky,” Joe Klein of Time acknowledged in an e-mail exchange. “If a president hasn’t done something I think might be useful, I’ll usually pose it as a question: ‘Why haven’t you done such and such?’ or ‘Why did you do this and not that?’ This, I believe, keeps me within the white lines of our craft and broadens my information stash.”
And for Klein, there is something like a privilege that even a journalist owes a president, who is not just any politician but, uniquely, the head of state. “Just about every private one-on-one session I’ve had with a sitting president,” Klein recalled, “came after I’d been someplace they couldn’t go (at least, not in the same way that I’d been)—to China, Iran, Afghanistan or after I’d spent some time concentrating on a specific issue in the US.”
“Such meetings,” Klein continued, “tend to be conversations, with the president asking as much as answering. These sessions usually take place after I’ve written something that has piqued their interest and I don’t have any problem with answering a president’s questions—indeed, I’m honored to do so.”
Against this shades-of-gray view is the purist perspective that private counsel simply should not be offered, no matter the importance of the president. “I am in the business of giving advice to the president twice a week”—in a newspaper column, David Ignatius of The Washington Post said. “We’re not here to be patriots,” he said of his fellow pundits. “We’re here to serve our readers and offer the best commentary we can. I think there is a dividing line in life.”