McCartney’s White House Concert: The Perils of Going on with the Show

Somehow, Paul McCartney’s concert at the White House on Wednesday is becoming more about tone than the tunes.

There are no shortage of critics to laconic way that President Obama seems to have responded to the environmental disaster in the Gulf, to the point where every aspect of his schedule will face new levels of scrutiny to detect any hint of superfluousness. When it was announced on May 24 that McCartney would receive the Gershwin Prize and perform in the East Room, not much was made about it. But as the week went on, and the latest attempt to stop the spill failed, pressure increased on a Spock-like Obama to spring into greater action, even if it was not apparent what much more he could do to plug the leak. Suddenly the concert looked not to have the greatest timing. As Arianna Huffington wrote, “This is not the time for a White House singalong.”

Do they cancel?

Strangely enough, the White House in the same company as an Oscar producer plotting how to go ahead with the kudos in the midst of a national crisis.

Time and again, Hollywood’s signature award show has found itself in the crosshairs of a national emergency. When President Reagan was shot in 1981, the show was postponed. When the war in Iraq was launched in 2003, the red carpet was rolled up. Disasters forced solemn pronouncements from the stage, and the parade of style to be muted.

Obama has been in this situation before. In the days after the financial collapse in September, 2008, candidate Obama was to appear at a Hollywood fund-raiser headlined by Barbra Streisand. The McCain campaign saw blood and stepped up the pressure, and Obama’s staff considered scrapping the event — which turned out to be its most lucrative fund-raiser of the campaign. Obama’s solution was to very briefly thank Streisand and to say as little as possible that would make the news. It worked.

While Michele Obama has made a priority out of enhancing the profile of the arts, with a series of concerts and a revival of “In Performance at the White House,” those loftier goals will get eclipsed if the McCartney concert somehow becomes a metaphor for the administration’s attitude toward the crisis. But to cancel doesn’t seem in Obama’s cool nature, which is not to react to the punditry, even if it can drive the members of his own party nuts.

A month ago, which is really like a year in Beltway time, there were some questions on whether Obama should attend the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner, given that he’d be taking part in an event was known for its levity while a looming crisis was unfolding in the Gulf. But the pressure on the White House appeared to be alleviated once they announced that Obama would visit the Gulf the day after the dinner.

That evening at the Washington Hilton, I asked a number of politicos, strategists and journalists whether Obama should have canceled, and the answer was the same: Naw, he’ll be going tomorrow. Then I asked a Republican consultant, who shook his head, as you would expect, and said that Obama would get a pass by the media once he made the visit to the Louisiana coast. But that wouldn’t be the end of it.

The leak would continue, and, more than any other situation so far, would plague Obama and drag down his presidency.

With that in mind, my guess is the concert goes forward. They will acknowledge the crisis in some fashion. And they certainly won’t do a singalong.

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