Washington journalists who covet places aside the thrones of power will happily season their copy to ingratiate themselves to the powerful. Known inside the trade as “beat sweeteners” or “source greasers,” such praiseful articles lavish flattery upon officials in hopes that the subject will come to trust the reporter and return the favor in the future by leaking inside skinny or providing other access.
Sweetening the beat this week is Damian Paletta of the Washington Post, who pours so much steaming hot journalistic honey all over Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, the tableau resembles that sexy Ohio Players album cover from the 1970s. The Post calls Cohn an “unlikely player” who is “exercising new influence on the direction of President Trump’s administration.” The secret to his sway? He’s a moderate aligned with other White House moderates, including Prince Jared and Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser for strategy (who received a mini-beat sweetener of her own this week), in pushing “a centrist vision” and courting “bipartisan support” against the evil forces of Bannonism.
Conservative press critics can’t shut up about liberal media bias, but for my money the enduring bias in the Washington press is for moderation, centrism and bipartisanship. If a politician or policymaker signals a willingness to make deals in Washington—no matter what the deal—the press will treat him like a wise and worldly figure. “People who have met with Cohn in his new role said they weren’t aware of what his ideology was,” Paletta notes. Has no ideology? Or camouflages it? Pick one. As long as a Washington figure camouflages his policies in neutral colors, he can expect reporters to lap treats directly from his hand.
The lead Wall Street Journal editorial in Friday’s edition pegs Cohn—accurately, I think—as a “pragmatic Wall Street Democrat” who is deficient in the “vocabulary of free-market conservatives.” In other words, he’s very Trumpy. Today, he’s reaping praise from centrist-lovers for having changed Baby Donald’s economic course to the usual Washington route. How long that will hold is anybody’s guess. It’s worth pointing out that the Journal credits Cohn with have built an “impressive team,” which is the page’s way of saying “conservative.” Even should Bannon leave, the conservative policy voice would still sound in the administration, the page concludes—a polite way of saying the White House’s chief strategist won’t be missed.
Cohn’s smartest move has been to position himself inside the Trump administration as the anti-Bannon. Bannon has embraced his image as Darth Vader and Satan and others who possess carbuncled souls, creating the niche for a lighter, more conventional hero. And into it Cohn steps. In persuading the president to flip-flop on China, government subsidies, his views on Federal Reserve boss Janet Yellen, moving him closer to the Wall Street mainstream of that of many Republicans and Democrats—essential restoring the status quo ante—Cohn has already persuaded willing scribes that he’s an effective power broker.
The Post weirdly salutes Cohn for finding “an edge by hiring two dozen policy experts, most with government experience” in contrast to other White House shops, which have failed to fill their slots. In the annals of beat sweeteners, this must be a first: Cohn deserves stroking for having hired some competent people? “His team produced detailed proposals on overhauling the tax code, rebuilding infrastructure, cutting back financial regulations and restructuring international trade deals,” Paletta continues. Well, one would hope that two dozen policy experts, most with government experience, would have something to show for their time on the White House clock. By this standard, I’m due a raise and a promotion. How about it, boss?
Any moth holes in the man’s armor? None accounted for in the piece. Instead, we’re treated to his well-traveled back story—middle-class; struggled with dyslexia; charmed his way, Don Draper style, into a his first Wall Street job while sharing an airport-bound taxi with an executive and rose to become a master of the universe as the president of Goldman Sachs. No skeletons. No closets.
Cohn doesn’t get a totally free ride. The beat sweetener formula demands the collection of a few discouraging words about the subject. In Cohn’s case, pro-Trump hardliners Larry Kudlow, Sam Nunberg and Rush Limbaugh—wingers all—appear in the piece to heave a few rocks. But the missiles strike the honey-soaked Cohn and slide off, inflicting no damage.
Why soft-soap Cohn in the first place? The National Economic Council makes news from time to time, but not that much. Paletta serves a broad hint a fourth of the way into the piece when he writes that Cohn “is widely considered a future candidate to be chief of staff.” White House chief of staff has traditionally been the hub that feeds the spokes. If Cohn makes that leap—and given current White House disarray, that’s more than possible—he would make a most excellent source. This adulation, rich as sweet cream, will pay off.