Thursday, August 21, 2008

Bob Barr in the Washington Post

As much as I hate to admit it, I had a pile of newspapers accumulate over the weekend while I was entertaining out-of-town guests, so I am just catching up on my reading tonight.

To my surprise, Monday's Washington Post carried a Style section feature on Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr. The story was placed well above the fold on page one of the section, and continued for a full broadsheet page on the inside.

Written by Libby Copeland (who, curiously, had another piece on the same page, this one on soap opera actors posing as Presidents and First Ladies for a magazine scheduled to be published coincident to next year's inaugural festivities), the article emphasized Barr's human side, with little attention to policy positions.

For instance:

Is there any human being on the planet more committed to his seriousness than Bob Barr? The 59-year-old Barr is so into the Founding Fathers that most of his phone numbers, including his cellphone, end in "1-7-7-6." He only reads weighty books, his wife says, like "George Washington on Leadership." He talks about himself in the third person. In his office, he keeps a photo of himself as a Republican congressman -- calling for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Even Bob Barr's mustache is serious.

Bob Barr's law: "Never run a 100-yard dash in a 90-yard room."

What does that mean?

"It doesn't mean anything," he says, and then adds, sternly, "It's a joke."

And yet, every once in a while, the strangest thing happens. He does something surprising, like announces he really likes Bob Marley. Or says he kind of liked that Borat movie, except for the part where he was unwittingly in it as the butt of a joke, eating cheese purportedly made from human breast milk. He's still Bob Barr the bulldog, but in person he can be quite solicitous. And every so often, he smiles.
I have been following libertarian presidential candidates since the 1992 campaign, when Andre Marrou was running, and I never remember seeing such a big article about one of them placed so prominently in a newspaper of record. (Marrou was able to snag a column by George F. Will, published in the dog days of July and thus earlier than election day than even this piece, but that was also the year that Ross Perot stole the bulk of third-party thunder, so any coverage at all, at any time, was gratifying.)

Despite the lack of attention in Copeland's article to policy issues, I can appreciate any attempt to humanize (and therefore make more familiar) a Libertarian candidate. As political consultants know, voters care less about issues than they do about their inchoate feelings about candidates. Remember the contest in 2000 about which candidate voters would rather drink a beer with at a backyard barbecue? Al Gore came out short on that one. So did John Kerry four years later, though he did win the brie-and-chardonnay vote.

I hope that this Style section piece will reassure editors of other newspapers that it is acceptable to publish features about Barr.

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