What really got Mark Penn fired (sort of) this weekend wasn’t making nice to Columbian officials on behalf of his PR business – which is exactly what Burson-Marsteller pays him to do – it was stepping out of the shadows and making himself a celebrity. Rule #1 for people whose job it is to make other people look good: Don’t get too public.

Penn has been all over the news calling himself “chief strategist” and generally making a spectacle of himself. His line on his B-M work has been that he’s only working for Clinton and Microsoft, so there’s no conflict, but that strikes me as a load of spin.

Firms like B-M hire big names like Penn to pitch, not fulfill contracts. They’re buying the ability to bring him into occasional meeting with clients, usually for pitches and keeping especially large cash cows happy, and dazzle them with his White House cuff links and “My Old Buddy Bill” stories.

So he went in, did his job and did his shtick for a client who wants help getting the government to do something unpopular. Standard stuff… except instead of staying in the background, he made himself into a public figure and thereby fair game for Team Obama opposition researchers. Or maybe the leak came from jealous internal rivals. Either way, it’s his ego’s fault.


According to data from a new Gallup poll Obama and Clinton are both roughly even with McCain, but draw on very different coalitions of voters to get there. Obama does better than Clinton among moderate Republicans and Independents, but hemorrhages white Democrats. Gallup:

“Obama enjoys the traditionally high support from black Democrats that all recent Democratic nominees have received. However, Obama would have the challenge of shoring up support among white Democrats if he were the nominee, while Clinton would be faced with the prospect of expanding her support among independents and “soft” Republicans (while at the same time motivating black voters). Looking ahead to the fall election, it is not clear at this point if one of these profiles of support is better from a strategic campaign perspective than the other.”

Check out the poll for the data breakdown. I was interested to see how relatively small the difference between both candidates’ Hispanic support.

Obama’s speech today was the best he could do under the circumstances and will help staunch the bleeding he’s suffered over the episode. It was a fairly deft attempt to move the conversation back to his main theme (“Vote for me and thy dreams of unity shall be fulfilled”) and should help move the issue out of the press. Still it’s one more episode in the steady drip, drip, drip that we’ll be seeing until November and staunching the bleeding isn’t the same as healing a wound.

The still simmering Rezko scandal will sting a lot more over the long term, and if Obama could have diffused it with cheap, cheap words he would have by now. Why? Because it cuts to the core of his appeal.

An interesting difference between the two scandals is that one is primarily an earned media scandal, and the other has a strong paid media component. A controversy like Wright only has legs as long as it’s in the news and viral circuit, but Rezko is tailor made for hard hitting campaign ads later in the cycle.