Monday, February 22, 2010

Picking one's battles, presidential-style

There are times when I watch President Barack Obama at work and wonder if he ever thinks to himself about wishing he were in a less high-profile position. Such as back at the Statehouse Scene trying to craft public policy, and spending his off-hours in low-stakes poker games with people like failed lieutenant governor candidate Terry Link and possibly-failed gubernatorial hopeful Kirk Dillard?

I wonder that because when I read about some of the “no-win” situations in which the president has been put, it makes me think that maybe he wishes he had never been so ambitious to want to be a part of the federal government – let alone oversee it.

I’M NOT WRITING about anything as major as health care reform or the nation’s immigration laws (where he’s going to “lose” no matter what side or action he takes). I’m talking about the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet (which China refuses to recognize and takes great offense that the United States does).

When the Dalai Lama was in Washington last week, he got to come to the White House and got a few minutes of “face time” with which to discuss his situation (ie., confronting a China that would prefer he be obliterated) on the international scene.

Personally, I think it says more about China than the Dalai Lama that they consider him to be a subversive element. So I’m glad to see that Obama was willing to include a meeting with him, even though it meant going through such mechanizations as having the two talk informally in the White House “map room,” rather than in any place ornate enough that usually would be used to celebrate ties between a world leader and the Obama administration. This image of President Barack Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama is being dismissed by some as "propaganda." What do you think? Photograph provided by the White House.

But that also means many of my colleagues were cut off from being able to see the two talk, and weren’t able to get any photographs of their own. The White House issued its own photo of the two (the shot included with this commentary), although many news organizations are refusing to use it on the grounds that it constitutes materials best described as “propaganda.”

SO NOW, HE has the press corps having hissy fits, in addition to Chinese officials upset that any kind of contact took place last week.

I would guess Obama justifies the restrictions on the grounds that the outcry from China had he given the Dalai Lama an all-out reception to recognize him would have been so intense that he’d rather put up with an irritated Washington Post.

After all, the last time I checked, the Post didn’t have long-range nuclear weapons like China does (and their ally, North Korea, appears to possess the materials to make).

He’s picking his battles, figuring few people will care enough to get that worked up. He may be right. This “controversy” may be long forgotten by week’s end (I would hope more people would get concerned about whether or not Republican politicos try to cooperate with Obama and his Democratic allies on health care reform).

IF THIS COMMENTARY reads like I’m not getting all bent out of shape about this issue, perhaps it is because I realize that at the highest levels of international policy there is going to be a certain amount of secrecy and limited access.

The practical part of me realizes that the Dalai Lama came to the White House, got the “face time” that will be perceived as positive by the Tibetan monk’s worldwide followers and that reporters at the White House were even able to corner him afterwards when he tried to leave the White House.

The reporter in me expects occasionally to have to hustle to get a story, and also realizes there are some ramifications to events that can involve certain limits. If that means a live photograph wasn’t obtained, that is a shame. For the biggest “complaint” I can make out of this whole affair is that the official White House photograph (taken by one-time Chicago Tribune photographer Pete Souza) is that it is kind of a boring shot.

The two men talking to each other, with a teacup on the table near the Dalai Lama. What does he take in his tea? Somehow, I think the world will “survive” without the answer to that particular question, although we did find out that the Dalai Lama was supportive of Tiger Woods.

NOW I KNOW some of my colleagues like to link all attempts to restrict access to information as being equal. They’re not.

This incident involving our former state senator from the Hyde Park neighborhood is not as significant as the Illinois Senate’s behavior last week when they had their private briefing of state finances. Upon learning the material that was presented, there really was no legitimate reason for not letting everybody else learn the data simultaneously. Not like ticking off China by too openly greeting the Lama.

One other aspect of this “issue” to keep in mind. This probably won’t be the last time (or even the most egregeous) that the Obama administration gets accused of keeping something secret from, “the American people.”

If it is, then that fact alone would probably qualify the Obama years as one of the most open in U.S. history. I’m not naïve enough to expect that, not from any government official.


EDITOR’S NOTES: The Associated Press is upset that they weren’t allowed to take their own generic ( posed photograph of Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama engaging in a brief chat.

If the best that some reporter-types could come up with for news from a talk with the Dalai Lama was ( to ask about Tiger Woods and infidelity, then maybe some limits weren’t misguided.

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