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The Meme Prisoner

All these theories contain at least some truth, but it’s the last one that edges closest to what I think has actually gone on. Campaigns are, at bottom, a competition between memes: infectious ideas that gather force through sheer repetition. The most powerful of these memes are what Just refers to as meta-narratives, the backdrops against which everything plays out in the media. “Clinton’s meta-narrative,” she says, “is that she’ll do anything to win; she can’t be trusted, she’s ethically challenged; she’s manipulative, calculating, and programmed.” Obama’s meta-narrative is decidedly otherwise. “It’s the same, in a way, as John McCain’s,” says Just. “He’s authentic, honest, free of taint. Then you add in new, charismatic, and an agent of change.”

For any candidate and his or her team, the formation and management of the meta-narrative are paramount strategic challenges. And these challenges were especially daunting for Clinton because she started out with much of hers already baked in. Even so, early on, her campaign had ample opportunity to alter the vestigial perceptions of her. They had done so effectively, after all, when she first ran for the Senate in New York. But instead, the affect she presented to reporters was in perfect keeping with all the stereotypes about her: She was guarded and relentlessly, robotically on-message on the rare occasions when she sat for interviews, displaying little of her charm or humor. She adopted an arch-Establishmentarian posture rather than an inspiring, transformational one—an alterna-stance that wouldn’t have been such a stretch for someone who stood a reasonable chance of becoming our first female president.

And, in fact, it was worse than that. By arguing that one of Clinton’s key virtues was her ability to go toe-to-toe with the GOP attack machine, her campaign exacerbated instead of ameliorated her reputation for ruthlessness. “By bragging about how tough they were,” says John Edwards’s former chief strategist, Joe Trippi, “they reinforced the sense of the media that everything they did had a negative cast to it.” At the same time, Trippi argues, “it made it really hard for them to call Obama on his shit. How can you complain about Obama being negative when you’re bragging about your willingness to do the same thing against the Republicans?”

Obama, by contrast, was in the enviable position of being able to author his own meta-narrative. With his two autobiographies, he was able at once to accentuate his positive qualities and, in pointing out the potentially damaging aspects of his past (his teenage drug use preeminent among them), to inoculate himself against attacks. The grassrootsy, bottom-up, decentralized campaign structure that he and his team built, funded by small donors via the Internet, enhanced the impression of him as a man committed to a different kind of politics. And his strategists were wise enough to understand that when it was time to go negative, they should never do so with TV ads but stick instead to more sub-rosa media, from radio and direct mail to robo-calls. “In my experience in politics,” Trippi says, “nobody ever really gets called out on that crap.”

The implications of Obama’s and Clinton’s respective meta-narratives for their press coverage have been profound. For Clinton, the inability to change the story line meant that any vaguely negative maneuver was interpreted in the darkest possible light, for it reinforced a preexisting supposition. For Obama, however, any criticism could be fended off as a manifestation of grubby old politics. And any act he committed that could be perceived as nefarious created cognitive dissonance. As Just points out, a prime example is the case of Tony Rezko, the now-indicted Chicago fixer and slumlord to whom Obama has been linked for many years. “There was no way for the press to believe it wasn’t true—because, you know, it looks like people are going to jail,” she says. “So instead the press dismisses the story as an aberration.”

The trouble for Obama is that the Republicans aren’t terribly likely to let that dismissal stand—nor the polite avoidance of discussing his controversial minister, his wayward youth, or, indeed, his blackness itself. Again and again, as Clinton often points out, the GOP has proved painfully adept at taking compelling, carefully honed meta-narratives and blowing them to pieces. In ways too numerous to mention, Obama has been toughened up by the primary process. But no matter what his handlers say, the notion that he’s been subjected to the most withering press scrutiny imaginable is—how to put this?—a fairy tale. His success has turned in no small part on his skill at avoiding such flyspecking, and on his rival’s inability to muster the same kind of dexterity. If Obama winds up facing John McCain, a man whose meta-narrative is spun from pure gold, he is unlikely to be so fortunate again.