Swine flu. The economy. Pakistan. Iraq. Torture. Of all the pressing topics about which the president was asked during last night’s prime time press conference, the question that seemed to be the first focus of reporters and commentators was this, from the New York Times’s Jeff Zeleny:
During these first 100 days, what has surprised you the most about this office, enchanted you the most about serving in this office, humbled you the most and troubled you the most?
The question provoked a lengthy and, at moments, reflective answer from the president, who said he has been “surprised…by the number of critical issues that appear to be coming to a head all at the same time;” troubled or “sobered by the fact that change in Washington comes slow;” enchanted “when I meet our servicemen and -women, enchanted’s probably not the word I would use, but I am so profoundly impressed and grateful to them for what they do;” and “humbled by the fact that the presidency is extraordinarily powerful, but… there are a lot of different power centers…What you do is to make your best arguments, listen hard to what other people have to say and coax folks in the right direction.”
On CNN directly post-press conference, Wolf Blitzer pronounced himself “intrigued” by The “Enchanted” Question. The Hotline on Call’s Jennifer Skalka told CNN’s Larry King that it “felt like The White House Press Conference, The Musical, with how enchanted are you, what makes you enchanted?” On MSNBC, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman expressed “admiration for Jeff Zeleny for getting a four-part question,” while Rachel Maddow observed:
That was a four-part question for President Obama and the President’s slightly hilarious nonchalant handling of that complicated question. In the course of answering actually all four parts of the question President Obama got a little bit more, I guess the word is chalant. In answering the enchanted part, in particular, it was a very reflective moment. And it appeared to be a spontaneously emotional moment.
(Maddow, unlike many others chattering about The “Enchanted” Question, actually contemplated the answer Zeleny’s question provoked.)
At The Washington Post’s The Fix, Chris Cillizza was surprised by Obama’s “decision to indulge the New York Times’s one-hundred part question about what he was most surprised, enchanted, etc. by during his first 100 days in office.” At the Times’s The Caucus blog, Adam Nagourney felt compelled to live-blog this defense of his colleague’s question:
O.K., the question by our colleague Jeff Zeleny was not a set-up. Yes, we asked at the start of the night whether reporters here would go for the quick, let’s-make-news questions on such issues as, say, the flu and Pakistan – or whether they would instead ask Mr. Obama to be contemplative on what he has learned from his first 100 days. Mr. Zeleny was the first one tonight to pose one of those contemplative questions, asking Mr. Obama, in so many words, what he had learned. It was a long, multi-part question, with sub-questions about troubling, humbling, surprising moments. So long that Mr. Obama – who has known Mr. Zeleny for many years, from back in Chicago when Mr. Zeleny covered him for the Chicago Tribute – whipped out a pen and began writing down each section of the question. Definitely the fun moment of the night so far.
And on Fox News? Well, comedian Dennis Miller offered this thought to Bill O’Reilly:
First off, I find it weird that we’ve come to a point in history where a chick running for Miss USA gets harder questions than the President of the United States. I don’t know what that guy from the Times is thinking with that enchanted question. It was like I was watching a Brownie Scout meet the Jonas Brothers for god’s sake. I guess he’s back to the Times building sitting around the fondue pot with the guys putting their bread in the fondue pot.
(Notice how The “Enchanted Question” is now representative of all questions asked during the press conference — and the president’s answer to The Question is not considered.)
CQPolitics’s Adriel Bettelheim and Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren discussed the value of this question.
VAN SUSTEREN: There were some tough questions asked about abortion, and there was not a lot on the economy, but the New York Times asked him if he was surprised, enchanted, humbled. ..
BETTELHEIM: I actually think that these sort of open-ended questions, he was trying to catch him by surprise and and get him to go off of his talking points, and that is always good. I think those things tend to be good, because [Obama] is a smart guy, he thinks well on his feet, and at this time, he might have some reflections on what has surprised him, if he was able to accomplish what he wanted, whether he is awed by the responsibility he wakes up with every day.
VAN SUSTEREN: A lot of people have said— and Times has, of course, endorsed the president— that [the Times is] in bed with the president, but throwing those open-ended questions, hoping to attract someone into saying something… in a peculiar way, I thought it was a good question, but I knew he would be hammered for it as being soft.
Bernard Goldberg, in this exchange with Bill O’Reilly, also argued Zeleny’s wasn’t a bad question, but not because of the introspection it might have provoked from the president but because of what the question itself tells us about Men Today —particularly Men In Journalism.
O’REILLY: Did he actually say that word, enchanted?
GOLDBERG: Yeah, we’re saying this is the worst question, but it’s really a fascinating question. Let me tell you why. I cannot picture any journalist asking Franklin Roosevelt if he was enchanted or Harry Truman. I mean he had a foul mouth. Or Dwight Eisenhower or even Kennedy or Nixon because they were men of a different era, they were men of a John Wayne era. Today’s men — a lot of men today, even men in powerful positions, especially men in journalism— they’re softer, they’re what a friend of mine calls NPR men, they want to know about your feelings, whether you’re enchanted. If I did a piece about you, Bill, like for my web site or for a magazine, and I said, “Bill, what is it that enchants you?” you’d punch me in the head.
O’REILLY: I don’t know what that means. I know what The Enchanted Forest is.
GOLDBERG: It’s the kind of question that fits our metrosexual times.
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.