What not to read in the Financial Times

Avoid the FT’s coverage of American politics. In so many other respects, the FT is the best newspaper in the English language. It has a comprehensive world view, it assumes sophistication among its readers, it regularly covers issues no one else touches. But something is badly wrong with its Washington staff.

I’ve written before about the failings of Washington bureau chief Edward Luce (here and here). Today may mark a new low. Luce writes the FT’s feature proclaiming Barack Obama as the person of the year. And the entire, page-filling piece revolves around the idea that Obama has no capacity to take tough decisions. Amazingly, Luce doesn’t talk to historian Sean Wilentz, Obama-haters’ favorite quotemeister. But he roots out a Clinton White House official, Bill Galston, and “academic and novelist” Diana Sheets. Galston is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and was a deputy assistant to the president for a couple of years. Fair enough. Sheets is a blogger — not that there’s anything wrong with that — who doesn’t hold an academic position and has three unpublished novels. Both authorities confirm the thesis: Obama shies away from conflict, he avoids choices. Oh, and of course it raises the issue of Obama’s votes of “present” in the Illinois state senate.

There are plenty of bizarre twists and turns in Luce’s article. How about this:

In contrast to George W. Bush, whose instinctive response to crises was a badge of honour as well as notoriety, Mr Obama is likely to prove a very different kind of “decider”. During the election conservatives attacked him for being weak and tardy after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Mr McCain came out guns blazing, proclaiming: “We are all Georgians now.”

In what way was Bush’s instinctive response a “badge of honour”? Luce has the good grace to note, after this paragraph, “Mr Obama’s modulated statements now look much more impressive as new facts have surfaced pointing to actions by Georgia that helped precipitate Russia’s invasion.” So how was he being “weak and tardy”?

The next sentence, however, rendered me mute. “Mr Obama was also attacked for refusing to follow Mr McCain’s lead in getting involved in the enactment of the $700bn troubled asset relief programme – a cat’s cradle of measures that has since been harshly criticised.” That’s not my recollection of what happened with TARP. McCain had his ridiculous grandstanding about “suspending” his campaign, even though he didn’t. He stayed in New York, despite his claim that he needed to rush to Washington. He then sat silently throughout a lengthy meeting in the White House. Obama, in stark contrast, solicited expert views and then worked responsibly both with congressional leaders and the White House to craft a deal. Now perhaps that deal wasn’t ideal, but Obama certainly was involved.

I’m confident Luce knows he’s writing rubbish, but he can’t help himself. I’ll continue to read the FT every day, but I think for my blood pressure I’ll have to avoid anything on US politics.

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