Reporters Get Personal With Obama

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Barack Obama unwittingly caused a kerfuffle the other day when a reporter spotted him working out with a Microsoft Zune — rather than his trusty iPod.

When word got out, Apple geeks went crazy, and the media — from Wired to the Wall Street Journal — flooded the zone. Suddenly, the phone lines at the Obama transition office were ringing with questions from reporters who passed up other pressing curiosities — who will be the education secretary? — to unpack Obama’s choice of MP3 players.

Welcome to the world of the celebrity president.

Reporters have been bombarding the president-elect’s transition office and those close to Obama with the most detail-obsessed questions about his every move.

Among the inquiries received in recent weeks:

Does Obama prefer Macs or PCs? Who designed that tie he's wearing? Where does he buy his suits? What's his morning exercise routine like? How about his basketball techniques? What movie has he seen recently? Who cuts his hair? Will he sell his house in Chicago?

What did he have for Thanksgiving dinner? What’s his favorite food?

And by the way, why hasn’t he been going to church on Sundays? And if he does start going regularly, where does he plan to attend church once he moves to Washington?

Earlier in the year, Us Weekly echoed that 1992 MTV moment when Bill Clinton was asked if he wore boxers or briefs. Obama's reply: "I don't answer those humiliating questions. But whichever one it is, I look good in 'em."

At Obama’s first news conference as president-elect last month, Lynn Sweet, the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times, embraced the public's interest in the minor details of Obama's life, asking the soon-to-be commander-in-chief-to-be what books he was reading and what kind of dog he planned to buy for Malia and Sasha.

Sweet told Politico that she felt compelled to ask because “there are many moving parts to the story about Obama becoming president."

"And the personal side is also important to chronicle," she said.

A transition spokesman declined to comment on the inquiries. But others in the Obama orbit say there’s no escaping the public's hunger for the smallest of details. 

Michael Strautmanis, a longtime friend of the soon-to-be first couple who will serve as the chief of staff to Assistant to the President Valerie Jarrett, said he is constantly fielding questions from acquaintances on a wide range of Obama topics.

"I get lots of questions about whether he's still smoking," Strautmanis said. "They ask me where he gets his ties, what kind of basketball player he's like and even if they can play basketball with him sometime."

(The answers: Don’t think so; unknown; skinny but fast, good with a right-to-left fake; probably not.)

Strautmanis said he thinks that most of the attention is because "Obama is new to the public stage" – that the public's fascination will likely fade with time.

"One of the things people are going to learn is that, frankly, he's a little boring," Strautmanis said. "He likes to go home and be with his family. Michelle likes to stay home and watch 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.' They're a really traditional family."

Still, Strautmanis understands, "people are looking for some commonality."

"Barack seems extraordinary to them but accessible," Strautmanis said. "They're looking for that real personal point to connect to him."

Not all presidents have come with such star power or attracted so much attention, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

"He comes in the Kennedy of line of someone who generates intense interest," Zelizer said, noting that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton also sparked the public imagination. "We don't just want to know about him, we want to know about the entire family."

Zelizer said the Internet era has also contributed to the need-to-know phenomenon.

"We voted for Obama based on character, not just policy," he said. "What he's doing personally is as important as the policies he's doing for the country."

When Zune-gate blew up around Obama, hundreds of bloggers and internet readers couldn't get enough. "NOOOOOOOOOOOO," one iPod-loving user wailed on the blog Engadget. "I want my vote back!"

"Excellent news," a pro-Zune user wrote. "Nice to see he doesn't conform to the crowd and taking style over substance."

Even Philadelphia City Paper reporter Neal Santos, who broke the news that Obama was using a Zune, felt the need to say more. "I don't know for sure that it was his," Santos said in an update to his Zune post. "It could belong to one of the many Secret Service dudes that were at the gym."

Noticing all the chaos the news was causing, the typically coy Obama press shop felt the need to respond. "The president-elect uses an iPod," an Obama spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.

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