For an outfit known for its lack of drama, Team Obama has become a downright thrill show.
Bill Richardson! Rick Warren! Rod Blagojevich! Roland Burris! Talk about a ride through the fun house.
President-elect Barack Obama doesn’t bear responsibility for all these speed bumps on the road to a better, happier, more respected America, but he certainly bears responsibility for some of them.
Obama’s selection of Bill Richardson for secretary of commerce didn’t seem like an awful idea. Richardson certainly has accomplished some things in his life, and he wanted an administration job really, really badly. He wanted to be vice president and didn’t get it. He wanted to be secretary of state and didn’t get it. So he lowered his sights to “Anything in the Cabinet Whatsoever,” and he got it.
Exactly why Obama felt he had to give Richardson something is unclear. Maybe it was an act of compassion. Maybe Richardson had threatened to hold his breath until he turned blue. In any case, he got the nomination.
But Richardson clearly did not get the vetting that is supposed to go along with it.
A few weeks
ago, I bumped into Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, who told me about his own vetting for vice president this time around and all the forms he had to fill out and how he had a personal interview with Obama.
Obama asked Bayh if, in essence, there were any skeletons in his closet.
Bayh mentioned a minor incident that didn’t really touch on him directly and also said that he had once tried marijuana. That was it, Bayh said.
Obama looked at him. “You really haven’t had much of a life, have you?” Obama said.
Both men laughed. One hopes, however, that the vetting process for high office goes beyond what the potential nominee tells you.
In the case of Bill Richardson, however, it seems not to have.
Jonathan Martin of Politico recently reported: “Barack Obama’s transition team pressed Bill Richardson about a federal probe into ‘pay to play’ allegations against his office. ... But a Democratic source said Obama’s questioners came away empty-handed.”
Jake Tapper of ABC News recently reported that “officials on the Obama transition team feel that, before he was formally offered the job of commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was not forthcoming with them about the federal investigation that is looking into whether the governor steered a state contract towards a major financial contributor.”
See something slightly off-kilter in both of those examples? I do. Maybe it’s because I was a criminal courts reporter for several years, but in my experience, people with something to hide often hide it.
Hey, call me cynical.
The transition team “pressed” Richardson and came away “empty-handed.” The transition team felt he was “not forthcoming.” But he got the nomination anyway? How did that happen?
How come somebody didn’t say, “Gov. Richardson, we think you are very well-qualified for the position of commerce secretary, but so are about 11,000 other people in these United States, and we think we can find somebody who is a little more forthcoming.”
Or how come somebody didn’t say to Obama, “Before we name this guy, let’s keep looking into this. After all, a late appointment is better than an embarrassing appointment.”
So blame this drama on Team Obama.
Then there is the matter of Rick Warren, the pastor of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., whom Obama has invited to give the invocation at his inauguration. This is no small thing. Even though Warren preaches at a megachurch, this will undoubtedly be the largest audience he has ever addressed.
Warren has certainly done good works in his life, including fighting global poverty and AIDS, but he also was a prominent supporter of California’s Proposition , which outlaws gay marriage in the state. “This is not a political issue,” Warren wrote in a church bulletin. “It is a moral issue that God has spoken clearly about.”
Obama opposes gay marriage, but he also opposed Proposition 8, calling it “divisive and discriminatory.”
So why did Obama give a prominent role in his Inauguration to Warren? It is understandable in terms of raw politics. The Democrats want to reach out to evangelical voters (Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean has been meeting with groups of evangelicals for years), and Warren is considered a moderate by many. So why not toss him a speech? After all, 2012 is right around the corner.
But the angry reaction of the gay community and others caught the Obama people flat-footed. They didn’t fully appreciate how volatile Proposition 8 had become as an issue.
Nor was Obama’s defense especially satisfying. Obama said that Warren had invited Obama to Camelback Church to give a speech, and now Obama was inviting Warren to speak.
But this isn’t just any speech. It is an inaugural invocation, and it has huge symbolic importance. And the new administration is going to be on tenterhooks until it hears what Warren actually plans on saying.
So for this drama, blame Obama.
As for Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris, neither has learned the difference between being spectacular and being a spectacle.
More on them in the future, but Obama has shown a wise amount of distance from both. Their drama cannot be laid at his feet. But, unavoidably, he is going to have to bear their burden on his shoulders.