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Daily Howler: It was ''most unusual,'' Kristof says. Potentially, that's the problem
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ABOUT THAT SPEECH! It was “most unusual,” Kristof says. Potentially, that’s the problem: // link // print // previous // next //

TOMORROW: Who is Michelle Bernard?

NEVER ADMIT, NEVER EXPLAIN: Why has John McCain gotten off easy for recent factual misadventures? On last evening’s Countdown, Keith Olbermann pretended he wanted to know. And Jonathan Alter pretended to tell him:

OLBERMANN (3/19/08): He insisted to Kelly O’Donnell in Jerusalem tonight, this was a slip… So how do you slip three times, get corrected by your friend, Joe Lieberman, and then come back the next day and slip again?

ALTER: Well, first of all, this is something John McCain and those of us who covered him for many years are familiar with, this kind of, it’s almost like out of the old SNL skit where Chris Farley said, “I’m so stupid” and he bangs himself on the forehead and gets kind of charm points for admitting having slipped up.

Here’s that fatigue and it is tiring during all these travel and all that kind of thing or just sort of human error. So, he’s gotten a lot of breaks over the years for being imprecise from the press, in part because there’s a lot of fatigue with playing gotcha games with all these politicians and at some certain point, it does get a little bit silly.

First, an obvious question: What have they done with the real Alter? For years, Alter was the major pundit least likely to repeat his cohort’s scripts. But in this campaign, he has become one of Olbermann’s zombies.

At THE HOWLER, we now call this program “Groundhog Night” due to its grimly repetitive nature. Each evening, Olbermann introduces the exact same Stepfords; they proceed to recite the exact same points. Alter cast himself as a Stepford again with this non-explanation explanation.

For the record, several of Alter’s statements were accurate. During Campaign 2000, for example, McCain made an endless string of factual blunders on basic policy matters; few major pols seem to know so little about a long list of such topics. And McCain got an endless string of “breaks” from the press about his howlers. But did they do this “in part because there’s a lot of fatigue with playing gotcha games with all these politicians?” Please. Pundits insult the viewer’s intelligence quite routinely—but rarely as baldly as this.

In fairness, Alter went on to offer a naughty remark about this sanctified solon: “What John McCain is clearly trying to do here is conflate again all of the bad guys over there in a way to confuse Americans who are not paying close attention.” Yikes! Alter was basically willing to call McCain a liar. But he wasn’t willing to explain why the straight-shooting authentic straight-talker has gotten away with so many groaners in the past dozen years.

Why has McCain “gotten a lot of breaks over the years?” Duh. Because he’s been the press corps’ client! Everyone knows this, including Olbermann. But Keith played Stepford last evening too. He let Alter’s large groaner pass.

NOTES FROM THE SANDBOX: Yesterday, Hillary Clinton released 11,000 pages of White House schedules. The “journalistic” result was predictable. On the front page of the Washington Post (the day’s top story), Monica Lewinsky made paragraph 4—along with Vince Foster, of course. On page one of the Post’s Style section, Lewinsky made the fifth paragraph. Next to Libby Copeland’s piece, Style presented a giant graphic about philandering pols.

Why did reporters want to review those records? Of course! So they could flip to the dates involving Lewinsky and laugh about what Hillary Clinton was doing! They stroked their thighs and pleasured themselves, praising “open government” as they did.

The New York Times showed more restraint. Lewinsky doesn’t appear until paragraph 6. On the other hand, the Times’ John Broder still thinks she was an “intern.” The story is more pleasing that way—and pleasure is what it’s about.

(In the Post, Copeland said “intern” too. Out on the paper’s front page, Peter Baker didn’t.)

WHO HAS A MOTIVE: It’s basic rule of very bad journalism—“motive” is restricted to pols you don’t like. In today’s Post, Anne Kornblut, one of the era’s top hacks, discusses the fight about a Michigan do-over. Note which side has motives:

KORNBLUT (3/20/08): The Democratic National Committee said it would accept a proposal for a new round of balloting in Michigan, but the bill has been bottled up in part because Obama’s campaign has raised objections to it.

Among those objections is that the legislation says that if an individual voted in the Jan. 15 Republican primary, he or she would be disqualified from voting in the do-over primary in June. Robert F. Bauer, an attorney for the Illinois senator's campaign, raised other potential problems with the latest Michigan proposal for a revote, saying it would be "unprecedented in conception and proposed structure," as no other state has ever "re-run an election in circumstances like these." While all sides had hoped they could avoid the controversy, the nomination standoff has made the results in Michigan and Florida potentially scale-tipping.

Clinton, adopting an increasingly indignant tone, described the voting controversy in both states as part of a question of democracy—albeit one that just happens to address her deficit in pledged delegates. “Senator Obama speaks passionately on the campaign trail about empowering the American people. Today I am asking him to match those words with actions," Clinton said.

In this dispute, each campaign has adopted the position which “just happens to” support its short-term advantage. But in Kornblut’s piece, only one side has has this motive—and only one side has a “tone,” Obama’s position is presented without comment (good). Clinton gets all snarked up.

Kornblut is one of the era’s top hacks. She has mastered the rules of bad journalism.

ABOUT THAT SPEECH: Pundits have responded in various ways to Obama’s speech on race. With his classic blunderbuss style, Chris Matthews said this at the start of Tuesday’s Hardball:

MATTHEWS (3/18/08): We’ll have much more on this momentous day and what I personally view as the best speech ever given on race in this country, one that went beyond the "I have a dream" to "I have lived the dream but have also lived in this country."

Dr. King, report to the underside of the bus! But then, Matthews has about as light a touch when it comes to race as he does when dancing with Ellen Degeneres. Others have praised the speech, but more sensibly.

We think the speech was quite good ourselves. Sadly, that’s part of the problem.

What were the various strengths of the speech? Yesterday, we cited Obama’s passage about a generation’s deep, impressive, deeply spiritual forbearance. We thought of a string of decent, deeply impressive people with whom we taught, starting in 1969:

OBAMA (3/18/08): [Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation] came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.

Hoo boy, do we agree with that! Then too, we agree with Obama’s suggestions about racial progress:

OBAMA: The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country—a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know—what we have seen—is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope—the audacity to hope—for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

In our view, liberals sometimes fail to confront this subject’s full reality when we act as if nothing has changed—as if decent people of various “races” haven’t struggled to do the right thing over the past many years. (We were very impressed by things we saw over Thanksgiving in South Carolina.) We also agree with this:

OBAMA: A similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience—as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

We would have dropped that “immigrant experience” line ourselves. But we think we liberals sometimes fail the test this issue poses when we move too quickly to assume bad motives on the part of “white people” who may not respond to these issues in precisely the same way we do. By the way, since Obama mentioned the topic: In our first year of teaching, we taught a class of “black” fifth-graders who were bussed from one all-black school to another, for reasons of over-crowding. Their parents didn’t want them bussed. Race had nothing to do with it.

We agree with those parts of the speech, and with others. But this was a very dangerous speech, and we’re sorry in many ways that Obama had to give it. Let’s take Nicholas Kristof’s opening paragraph as our text:

KRISTOF (3/20/08): Barack Obama this week gave the best political speech since John Kennedy talked about his Catholicism in Houston in 1960, and it derived power from something most unusual in modern politics: an acknowledgment of complexity, nuance and legitimate grievances on many sides. It was not a sound bite, but a symphony.

Those are dangerous words of praise. It isn’t clear that a White House campaign is the place for “acknowledgments of complexity, nuance” (for “symphonies”) about the most emotional topic on America’s political list.

Your pundit corps is too dumb—and too novelized—to tell you this. But there’s a reason why “acknowledgments of complexity” are “most unusual in modern politics.”

“Acknowledgments of complexity” are dangerous in White House campaigns—especially about such emotional topics. Voters respond in emotional ways, with reactions that will often be hard to change. In our politics, no topic is more emotional than race. The current matter exposes Obama to many dangers—dangers which could defeat his candidacy. Of course, it was always obvious that this particular problem was coming—at the very least, that it would hit Obama at a time of the RNC’s choosing. That’s why we went off-topic some weeks ago to warn about the possibility that Obama could be “Dukakised.” This matter was off-topic for us. But we had grown tired of waiting for our “liberal intellectual leaders” to mention this obvious problem. For at least a month, we had been looking for an excuse to bring this matter up.

During this period, the lovable losers at our “liberal journals” continued to do what they do best—they continued to gaze off into the air, ignoring what was happening around them. When Richard Cohen mentioned Obama’s pastor, we all agreed to yell race race race, buying ourselves a few more months of know-nothing bliss. Instead of trying to assess the complex problem which was going to come, we spent our time accusing Democrats of playing the race card, often on the most ludicrous pretexts. Many liberals got out their tinfoil hats and heard dog whistles, all around.

In this way, we lovable losers keep arranging to bungle elections.

We think Obama’s speech was superb—and that it’s very dangerous. Ideally, such work should be done by liberal intellectuals, by liberal pundits, by liberal think tanks, in liberal journals. It’s dangerous when we put our White House candidate out in front on such issues, making him lead a risky parade. (Just as it would have been dangerous to have Candidate Gore deliver those “courageous” speeches about global warming.) But let’s state the obvious: Our “liberal intellectual leaders” don’t lead in any way on race, and Obama failed to neutralize the political problem posed by pastor Wright before he began to campaign.

Similarly, Dukakis sleep-walked about that furlough program—and got destroyed in the end.

This isn’t about what you think about race. It isn’t about what we might see as the merits in what was largely a superb speech. This is about several hundred million potential voters and the reactions they will have. Many of them won’t react the way you do, and they won’t necessarily see this speech as “courageous.” For better or worse, “courageous” doesn’t typically win elections. “Courageous” is good for liberal thinkers, of whom we have very few.

This morning, Kristof is letting us know how symphonic he thought the speech was. But we were struck by the end of Courtland Milloy’s piece in yesterday’s Post. Milloy is a smart and acerbic black columnist. We found ourselves slightly kerflubbled by the way his piece ended:

MILLOY (3/19/08): Of course, some still could not handle the truth. Brit Hume of Fox News, for instance, thought Obama was "blaming whites"—even though Obama specifically called on African Americans to take responsibility for their lives.

That was enough to make me want to wallow in the muck again. But Obama had made a point that was bigger than Hume or Buchanan or even himself. To get where you need to go, you've got to know where you came from. And even if Obama doesn't make it all the way to the White House, I sure like where he's taken me so far.

As usual, Hume couldn’t handle the truth—but we were struck by Milloy’s ending. “Even if Obama doesn't make it all the way to the White House?” For ourselves, we won’t sure like where Obama has taken us if it puts McCain in charge.

By the way, the Post has already filed a correction. Uh-oh! “The Courtland Milloy column in the March 19 Metro section incorrectly said that Fox News anchor Brit Hume referred to Barack Obama’s speech on race as ‘blaming whites.’ Hume did not say or imply that.”

THE PART WE DIDN’T AGREE WITH: We thought one part of the speech was wrong. Here it is:

OBAMA: This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either "too black" or "not black enough." We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.

And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.

Shorter Obama: Race only becomes divisive when it starts to hurt me! All that race-baiting aimed at the Clintons? That was OK, this text implies. At least, that’s how it struck us.

Your view may totally differ. Again, this shows us that various people will react in various (unpredictable) ways when this, our most emotional issue, comes center stage. It’s dangerous to campaign this way. Safe bet: The RNC has other tapes. They’ll release them at their convenience.

LETTER IN A BALTIMORE BAGEL JOINT: The Post leads today with a high-minded letter about the Wright matter. We’ll post it, then we’ll show you how we think it may sound to some people:

LETTER, WASHINGTON POST (3/20/08): Before I relocated to the Washington area, I happened to be visiting here one very hot summer Sunday. Listening to WHUR-FM, I was riveted by the preacher's sermon the station was broadcasting. Although I had arrived at my destination, I sat in the hot car with the windows rolled down to hear the end of the sermon.

"This is the kind of sermon I want to hear on a Sunday morning," I thought. It wasn't a sermon that could be delivered everywhere, because it might upset some people. But the sermon spoke the truth to me, truth that is sometimes hard to hear. It was grounded in biblical text and spoke about being true to God's word, serving God and not getting distracted by other masters.

I waited patiently to hear the name of this inspiring preacher—the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. I am white, and I find great truth, support and challenge in the Rev. Wright's sermons and analysis. The controversy surrounding his remarks and his association with Sen. Barack Obama reminds me that we have a long way to go to heal the racial divide.

Silver Spring

We didn’t hear that sermon ourselves, and we aren’t inclined to demonize Wright based on ninety seconds of tape. But when we read that letter, we just couldn’t help but think it! We imagined how some people would read that final paragraph:

LAST PARAGRAPH REIMAGINED: I waited patiently to hear the name of this inspiring preacher—the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. I am white, and I find great truth, support and challenge in the Rev. Wright's sermons and analysis. The controversy surrounding his remarks and his association with Sen. Barack Obama reminds me that we have a long way to go until everyone sees the world the same way I do.

Twenty minutes later, a guy we often see at the bagel joint (a late-30s registered independent) made a point of telling us how annoyed he was by that letter. He had told us several months ago that he could never vote for Clinton. Yesterday, he said that—after viewing the tapes of Wright—he never could vote for Obama.

The person in question is a very nice guy. But he doesn’t share our instincts on various topics, and race is our most dangerous and emotional topic.