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.”
From my vantage point—and admittedly it’s the perspective of one who has never been asked for advice by a president—the purists have it right: the pundits should save their advice for their columns. Presidents, all presidents, are political animals. The technique of asking advice from pundits seems designed to co-opt them—if not to assure favorable coverage (unlikely), at the least to soften criticism. It’s a form of flattery, and the thing about presidential flattery, as Evan Thomas said, is that “it works—it has worked with me, on a human level.” Let’s face it: while Obama can no doubt glean insights from a Joe Klein, a Tom Friedman, or a Fareed Zakaria, journalists have no monopoly on expertise, and the president has at his fingertips instant access to the world’s smartest, most plugged in people, inside and outside his administration. Even Nobel Laureate Krugman surely is more prized by the Obama White House for his media platform than for his policy prescriptions, which are of a standard Keynesian variety.
Beyond that, pundits who offer private advice to presidents risk breaking faith with their readers, from whom the journalists should not make a habit of keeping secrets. On this, I’m with Patrick Pexton, my friend and former editor who is now The Washington Post’s ombudsman. “I think the White House is a little bit like a flame and we’re the moths circling it,” Patrick told me, with the “we” referring to all journalists, pundits included. “You have to be careful about getting too close because you could get burned.” As for pundits with hearts set on serving Obama as an advisor, there is a ready and an honorable out: give up your jobs in journalism and apply for one with the White House.