Obama, Legally Blonde?
By MAUREEN DOWD
Barack Obama looked as if he needed a smoke and he needed it bad.
Everyone knows you’re not supposed to make two big changes at once. But Michelle Obama’s price for letting her husband run was that he quit.
So there he was, trying to meet the deep, inexhaustible needs of both Iowa activists and the global press behemoth on his first swing across the state, while giving up cigarettes.
He was a tad testy. Traipsing around desolate stretches of snowy — and extremely white — Iowa to go into living rooms and high school gyms and take questions like “Are you willing to stand up for independent family farmers?” makes me want to sneak out for a drag, too, and I don’t even smoke.
“I’ve been chewing Nicorette all day long,” he told reporters at a press conference in Ames on Sunday, where he was getting irritated at suggestions that he lacked substance and at the specter of his vanishing privacy. And, oh yes, at the accusation by the Australian prime minister (sounding two sheep short of a paddock) that Mr. Obama’s deadline to get out of Iraq made him Al Qaeda’s dream candidate.
The Illinois senator didn’t have on an implacable mask of amiability, as Hillary did in Iowa. He didn’t look happily in his element, like Bill Clinton. But he certainly didn’t look as if he was straining to survive the Q .& A.’s, as W. did in the beginning.
Beyond his smooth-jazz façade, the reassuring baritone and that ensorcelling smile, the 45-year-old had moments of looking conflicted.
In the lobby of the AmericInn in Iowa Falls on Saturday night, he seemed a bit dazed by his baptism into the big-time. He was left munching trail mix all day while, he said, “the press got fed before me.”
Everything was a revelation for him: The advance team acronym RON, for Rest Overnight. Women squealing. “I saw a hat,” he noted with a grin, “that said, ‘Obama, clean and articulate.’ ”
Senator Obama’s body language was loose — and he’s so slender his wedding band looked as if it was slipping off — but there was a wariness in his dark eyes.
He is backed up by a strong, smart wife and a professional campaign team, but he doesn’t have a do-whatever-it-takes family firm with contract killers and debt collectors, like Bush Inc. and Clinton Inc.
He was eloquent, if not as inspiring as his advance billing had prepared audiences to expect. He made his first Swift-boat-able slip when he had to apologize for talking about soldiers’ lives “wasted” in Iraq. He sounded self-consciously pristine at times, as if he was too refined for the muck of politics. That’s not how you beat anybody but Alan Keyes.
After talking to high school journalists, he took a sniffy shot at the loutish reporters who were merely whispering where’s the beef: “Take some notes, guys, that’s how it’s done.”
No fewer than three times last week, Mr. Obama got indignant about the beach-babe attention given to a shot of him in the Hawaiian surf.
Using the dreaded third person that some candidates slip into, he told the press that one of their favorite narratives boiled down to “Obama has pretty good style, he can deliver a pretty good speech, but he seems to prioritize rhetoric over substance.” After an ode to his own specificity, he tut-tutted, “You’ve been reporting on how I look in a swimsuit.”
He poses for the cover of Men’s Vogue and then gets huffy when people don’t treat him as Hannah Arendt.
For some of us, it’s hard to fathom being upset at getting accused of looking great in a bathing suit. But his friends say it played into this Harvard grad’s fear of being seen as “a dumb blond.” He has been known to privately mock “pretty boys” (read John Edwards, the Breck Girl of 2004).
He doesn’t lack confidence, but he’s so hung up on being seen as thoughtful that he sometimes comes across as too emotionally detached and cerebral with crowds yearning for an electric, visceral connection. J.F.K. mixed cool with fire.
For a man who couldn’t wait to inject himself into the national arena, and who has spent so much time writing books about himself, the senator is oddly put off by press inquisitiveness.
When The Times’s Jeff Zeleny asked him on his plane whether he’d had a heater in his podium during his announcement speech in subzero Springfield, Mr. Obama hesitated. He shot Jeff a look that said, “Are you from People magazine?” before conceding that, unlike Abe Lincoln, he’d had a heater.
Take some notes, senator, that’s how it’s done.