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Barack Obama tries to repair a PR blunder, but 2 days too late

July 16, 2008 |  5:20 am

He's been a quick learner. But it's too late this time for the Democrat who wants to move into the White House next January. And then get his kids a dog.

As our Swamp colleagues report, Barack Obama finally commented last night on the highly controversial cover of this week's New Yorker magazine. And he said all the right things. But he was about 54 hours tardy.

The controversial New Yorker magazine cover showing Barack Obama as a Muslim and his wife Michelle as a liberation fighter 72108

Sunday, as soon as the elitist magazine released its provocative cartoon cover, Obama declined to comment, not wanting to elevate it to something important enough for a candidate to speak about. Fine. But, as The Ticket promptly reported here, advisors still sent out his communications director, Bill Burton, to denounce it:

"The New Yorker may think, as one of their staff explained to us, that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Sen. Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create. But most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree."

The McCain campaign immediately (and ultimately self-servingly) issued a similar statement quoting Tucker Bounds as saying: "We completely agree with the Obama campaign. It's tasteless and offensive."

The cover of this week's New Yorker magazine depicts Obama in one-piece Muslim garb and headdress fist-bumping his booted, Afro-wearing wife Michelle in camo clothes with an AK-47 and ammo-belt slung over her shoulder beneath a portrait of Osama bin Laden while the American flag burns in the fireplace -- in the presidential Oval Office. Other than that, nothing particularly ...

... incendiary in an election year full of rumors about the freshman senator's little-known past.

The cartoon has every detail that an intellectual magazine would think makes perfectly obvious over-the-top satire. And every detail that the Obama campaign would like the world not to think about or associate with its guy.

Denouncing it Sunday was an instinctive act. Genuine, to be sure. But really dumb damage control.

It was a huge PR mistake by a campaign that doesn't make many. The denunciations by both presidential campaigns accomplished one thing: They pushed a simple cartoon to the top of most-searched terms online and the top of the news lists of countless online sites, commentators, cable news shows, commentators and network TV newscasts for more than two days. No doubt it also helped the bottom line, boosting New Yorker single-copy sales this week.

Worse, the coverage of the strong reactions understandably made many curious to see what the fuss was about.

But think a minute. If the cover is so tasteless and offensive, why purposely call it to the attention of millions of Americans with a strong denunciation on an otherwise slow news Sunday afternoon? It turned a mere magazine cover that the Obama campaign would rather no one see into a must-see for millions. Say, the magazine prints a million copies. A million covers. But there are nearly 305 million Americans.

But as a result of the campaign-induced uproar, that image has now been reproduced and received countless millions more voter impressions than the magazine itself could ever dream of. It's been viewed hundreds of thousands of times already just on this blog. And, by the way, what was the Obama campaign doing calling the magazine, trying to get an apology, or intimidate someone?

Consult Public Relations Rule No. 3, maybe even 2.  Even gangsters know this, which is why they don't sue newspapers for calling them gangsters. Who wants a nice long libel trial with people arguing over your alleged gangsterdom? Even if you win, you lose.

Ignoring the magazine would have been ideal. But if that's not possible, what if Burton had made himself available -- that's not hard to do with reporters circling like hawks -- and waited for the inevitable New Yorker question and said something like, "C'mon, guys. It's a magazine cover, for Pete's sake. A cartoon. They think it's satire. It's a free country. It's sure not funny. We think there are far more important issues to put on the cover of a magazine, like the looming mortgage crisis that the Bush administration and its McCain cronies have ignored so long."

That dismissal and redirection would have made it hard for the McCain folks to point it out because they'd also be calling attention to their Bush connections.

Without an explosive response, that magazine cover story would have been a minor one-day story in far fewer places than it was. In fact, even assuming the McCain camp's denunciation was genuine, both campaigns joining in added more gasoline to the fire, which to be honest doesn't exactly hurt McCain's cause. It sure got all the chatter off the Phil Gramm whiner stuff quickly, an Obama gift to the GOP.

We're now in Day Three of discussing the magazine cover that Obama didn't want many to see.

So, last night on "Larry King Live," right out of the box before asking about Obama's main message, his big Iraq speech, old Larry goes right to the top issue: "We welcome to 'Larry King Live' Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. He made a major foreign policy address today in Washington. We'll get to that in a moment.

"But I've heard a lot of others comment on it. We haven't heard you speak about it yet. That New Yorker cover which depicts you and your wife, and you dressed in a Muslim outfit, your wife in a kind of military outfit, Osama bin Laden's picture burning [sic], what do you make of that?"

And Obama calmly replied: "Well, I know it was the New Yorker's attempt at satire. I don't think they were entirely successful with it. But you know what? It's a cartoon, Larry, and that's why we've got the 1st Amendment. 

"And I think the American people are probably spending a little more time worrying about what's happening with the banking system and the housing market, and what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, than a cartoon. So I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it."

Smart stuff. Too late.

Imagine what else we might all be talking about this morning if that had been the campaign's opening response Sunday.

-- Andrew Malcolm

(By the way, no one's talking about it much, but here's the actual article on Obama's early political days in Chicago that goes with the controversial cover. Warning: It's very long.)

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