Obama attempts a 'Full Ginsburg'

By Eamon Javers
|  Friday, Sep 18, 2009  |  Updated 8:45 PM EDT
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It’s a move few politicians have attempted. Even fewer have been able to stick the landing.

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On Sunday, President Barack Obama will execute what might be called a Modified Full Ginsburg — appearing on five Sunday morning talk shows to make a pitch for health reform.

It’s a move few politicians have attempted. Even fewer have been able to stick the landing.

The Full Ginsburg, of course, was named for Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer William Ginsburg, who first did the five-fecta of Sunday talk on Feb. 1, 1999. Obama’s move is slightly different – swapping in the Spanish-language network Univision for Fox News Channel.

But there’s no guarantee it’ll work.

Then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C) attempted a Full Ginsburg in October of 2004, only to go down to defeat as the Democratic vice presidential nominee weeks later. Hillary Clinton pulled a Full Ginsburg in September of 2007 at the peak of her political power – 22 points ahead of a long-shot named Barack Obama.

Even the maneuver’s namesake hit a rough patch afterward — widely criticized as star struck for his love of the camera, Lewinsky fired him a few months later.

“There is risk associated with this,” acknowledged White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “But it is also a unique opportunity to reach a pretty diverse audience.”

In the eyes of political pros, it’s also an opportunity for Obama to get dangerously overexposed. You’ve heard of “jumping the shark.” This might be “jumping the Ginsburg.” And on Monday, he’ll do another show, becoming the first sitting president to appear on the David Letterman show.

“More isn’t always more when it comes to a president’s words,” said former Clinton White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. “This is something they need to start to be concerned about.”

Obama, Myers said, believes that if he has enough time, he can convince anyone of his position on health care reform. “But there’s a limit to that,” she said. “You cannot convince everyone, even when your argument is indisputably airtight and true. You can’t convince people who believe in death panels that there aren’t any death panels.”

The overexposure theme is bipartisan. Former George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Obama is spreading himself too thin. “This is a mistake they can, and should avoid,” Fleischer said. “In the White House, you start to look at your boss through such rose colored glasses that you lose your ability to make objective decisions.”

The White House, though, has made the opposite calculation, figuring that the audience for the Sunday shows is politically active and interested, and therefore ripe for Obama’s pitch, whether they’re liberals or conservatives.

“I think it is important that the president continue to speak to a host of different audiences to reach as many people as possible to talk about the benefits of health care reform,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Friday. “People are getting their news from so many different places and so many different outlets, that we're going to use the president to communicate through that fragmentation.”

The audience may be fragmented but the message is not. Obama will say pretty much the same thing to each audience – and won’t try to offer some unique news nugget to each of the five interviewers. “Things will be pretty consistent across interviews,” Earnest said.

And of course, there’s one big advantage to pulling a Full Ginsburg when you’re the guy in the Oval Office: “When you’re the President, you make them come to you,” said CNN’s John King, host of State of the Union. “Ginsburg had to go to all five studios.”

The White House press office chose the order of the interviews at random — scrambling slips of paper on a desk and picking the names to draw up a list Thursday afternoon. Starting at 3:30 p.m. Friday, the hosts began rotating in and out of the room with Obama in this order: CBS, NBC, ABC, Univision, CNN.

 

CNN’s King says he doesn’t mind bringing up the rear. “I actually enjoy being last,” he said. “Ask me tomorrow when we’re done, though. There are two possibilities – either he’s tired and sick of us by then, or he’ll be somewhat liberated, knowing it’s the end.”

The interviews, which were pre-taped on Friday, were tightly choreographed. Each interviewer got 15 minutes with the president, seated by a fireplace in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. There were five minutes in between to switch interviewers, but all the networks had to use the same pool camera set-up, in this case, operated by NBC.

While each interview is going on, the other Sunday-show hosts had to cool their heels in the White House briefing room, and were unable to see what their predecessors asked the president.

That means that most of the questions will probably be the same from interview to interview. “The questions are health care, the anger in the country, and what’s going to happen in Afghanistan,” said Bob Schieffer, moderator of CBS’ Face the Nation. “I guess George [Stephanopoulos] and David [Gregory] or any of the others would say the same thing.”

Each of the networks were allowed to select one sound-bite for use on Friday evening’s newscast and in promos for the Sunday show. The rest of the content is embargoed from release until 9 a.m. Sunday.

The Full Ginsburg is in the elite pantheon of named maneuvers in any field. It is to pundits what Pugachev’s Cobra is to jet fighter pilots, or Fermat’s Last Theorem is to mathematicians. And as with jet pilots and mathematicians, the pundits who have actually completed a Full Ginsberg represent an extremely small elite corps in a highly selective field.

Only eight people, including Ginsburg himself, have ever pulled it off. Dick Cheney did it in 2000, during the Republican National Convention. Edwards did it in 2004. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff did it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And Clinton used her 2007 Full Ginsburg to trumpet a health care proposal.

Ginsburg’s 1999 feat amazed the Washington punditocracy. The Sunday network shows are known to be so protective of their bookings that guests are often banned from appearing on other broadcasts – even cable shows – for days in advance of their Sunday show appearances. To be invited on all five shows at the same time shows that an invitee has achieved a truly stratospheric level of newsworthiness.

Still, the networks grant Full Ginsburgs only grudgingly, even to a president. “We don’t like it when he does all the shows,” Schieffer said. “For us, it’s not quite as special as when you have an exclusive. But the president is a newsmaker, and it’s our job to show up and ask questions.”

Ginsburg himself, who ten years after his sex-scandal fueled Sunday show splash is practicing law in Burbank, Calif., joked that he’s proud of the legacy he’s left in Washington. “It’s nice to know that preeminent men and women like Secretary Clinton and President Obama can appreciate and are willing to commit ‘The Full Ginsburg,’” he said in an e-mail to POLITICO.

But his feat has been eclipsed. Earlier this year, three Obama administration officials pulled off a never-before-attempted Triple Full Ginsburg, when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and acting CDC Director Richard Besser appeared as a group on five Sunday shows in May to discuss the spread of swine flu.

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