Hundreds of journalists collect a paycheck for covering presidential politics, but I’d be hard pressed to think of even one who does so with the relish of the hobbyist pundit Jann Wenner. This is the man who founded the once-influential Rolling Stone in 1967 and now, at 64, secure in his self-proclaimed role as the prototypical Baby Boomer, on occasion spices up his usual schedule of schmoozing with nearly forgotten rock stars by interviewing Democratic politicians. I still chuckle when recalling a 1993 RS back-and-forth between Wenner and first-term president Bill Clinton, in which the latter attempted to spit out the talking points of his administration, only to be interrupted several times by the wealthy magazine owner who kept asking, “Are you having fun?” It’s not only, as the saying goes, senators who look in the mirror and see a U.S. president, but Wenner as well; that very, very cool Citizen Kane fantasy dashed, Wenner at least gets a vicarious thrill by sitting in the Oval Office and asking inane questions of the country’s commander-in-chief.
In the Oct. 15 issue of Rolling Stone, a reverential photo of Barack Obama consumes most of the cover, with the headline “Obama Fights Back” promoting Wenner’s latest interview: other stories, such as “Hot List 2010,” “The Truth about the Tea Party,” “Eminem’s Monster Comeback” and “Neil Young’s Ragged New Classic” are given relative short shrift. The online version of the Q&A has a different headline, “Obama in Command,” but that’s mere quibbling since the currently embattled Obama, who met with Wenner on Sept. 17, hardly seems either “in command” or “fighting back,” even with a volley of softball questions. Wenner allows Obama to rattle on at length, especially about the criticism lobbed increasingly chucked at him by the progressive lobby in the U.S. This clearly ticks him off, and he says, “I’ve been here two years, guys. And one of the things that I just try to remember is that if we have accomplished 70 percent of what we committed to in the campaign, historic legislation, and we’ve got 30 percent of it undone—well, that what the next two years is for, or maybe the next six.”
I’m not a reliable barometer on such a grand proclamation since I think Obama wasted precious time on the muddy healthcare bill rather than devoting the majority of his energy to the flailing economy, so I’ll pass the baton to his supporters as to whether he’s delivered on “70 percent” of his campaign promises. And the Bush-bashing Obama indulges in—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the crash of ‘08—doesn’t show much dignity: “In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit and worst recession since the Great Depression. But you work with what’s before you.” No one forced Obama to run for president, though, so that’s tough to swallow. And, anticipating huge Democratic losses in Congress, Obama gets a little touchy, and lectures those of his “Yes We Can” acolytes who are now disengaging themselves from politics. “The idea that we’ve got a lack of enthusiasm in the Democratic base, that people are sitting on their hands complaining, is just irresponsible.”
The prototypical Wenner question was held for the end of the interview, as the interlocutor segued from Guantanamo and overseas military operations to what’s on the President’s iPod. The usual mixture for a guy his age—Stevie Wonder, Dylan, Stones, Coltrane, and an “improved rap palate—but the best was when he cooed about Paul McCartney’s appearance at the White House. McCartney sang his forever gooey “Michelle” to Obama’s wife, an obvious gesture for the former Beatle with the most acute public relations skills.
And Wenner asks, “Did you cry?”
Maybe it wasn’t quite a boxers vs. briefs question, but nonetheless supremely smarmy and satisfying at the same time.
Easily my favorite part of the interview is Wenner's line: "The president began by complimenting my multi-colored striped socks." They don't come any hipper than Jann S.