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Archive for March, 2008

HNN, March 26, 2008

As the long, arduous, battle for the Democratic nomination inspires comparisons with the trench warfare of World War I, both candidates are struggling to stay positive and “on message.” Despite his well-received speech on race, Barack Obama is still trying to explain how he could sit through so many vituperative Reverend Wright sermons and apparently never object. (Particularly problematic is the post September 11 sermon. Whether or not Obama was in the pews Sunday September 16, he was already a State Senator from Illinois. Obama should have been outraged that his pastor chose to blame America for being attacked just days after America was attacked). And despite enjoying her opponent’s controversy-filled March, Hillary Clinton is now trying to explain how she could remember a warm, First-Lady-like welcome in Bosnia as a difficult landing under a hail of gunfire.

The controversies must make both candidates pine for the good-old days of early 20th-century campaigning, when candidates went around the country saying the same thing again and again. Crowds did not expect new twists, new content, new explanations – but actually wanted to hear a William Jennings Bryan, a Woodrow Wilson, do his well-practiced thing. As the advent of radio in the 1920s started emphasizing the new, the fresh, the unrehearsed, Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate in 1928, missed what he called those “happier speaking times.” Once upon a time, Hoover sighed, candidates “could repeat the same speech with small variations…. Then paragraphs could be polished up, epigrams used again and again, and eloquence invented by repeated tryouts.”

But the candidates are not just stumbling because, as Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed “the millions of words” they are forced to launch into the ether week after week. The two latest controversies strike at the heart of the respective candidate’s identities, zeroing in on particular vulnerabilities. I call this the “O-Ring Factor,” named after the rubber seals whose failures contributed to the first shuttle disaster. As the late scientist Richard Feynman brilliantly demonstrated at the time, the O-Rings failed during the Challenger’s launch only because of the particular combination of the Florida winter frost and the improper seals. In other circumstances, the launch would have been flawless, the O-Rings would have withstood the pressure.

In that spirit, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright controversy is hurting Obama not, as the Senator suggests, because of race, but because Obama is so unknown – and so defined by his words not his actions. Obama’s passivity amid Wright’s invective, and the disconnect between Obama’s words and his preacher’s teachings, emphasize just how little is known about Obama, how he is far more defined by his rhetoric than his record. With Americans trying to figure out just who he is, individuals who have mentored him, leaders who endorse him, take on added significance.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s problem is that she is, perhaps, too well known – or defined. Her unduly heroic description of her Bosnia adventure raises questions about how serious her record was as First Lady. But, even worse, it resurrects all those worries about both Bill Clinton’s and Hillary Clinton’s elusive relationship with the truth. Hillary Clinton’s camp responded that Obama called himself a constitutional law professor when he was merely a lecturer, and took credit for passing legislation that never left committee. But Obama is not the one with the credibility gap, Hillary is. John McCain could stumble on some details during his Middle East trip without appearing to be an ignoramus; he would be much more vulnerable if he slipped up when talking about the economy.

Similarly, the Obama camp’s delight in producing a photograph of Bill Clinton greeting Jeremiah Wright was meaningless. The Clintons are in no way defined by Obama’s pastor – and if the campaign wants Americans to believe that Obama was being reasonable in keeping relations with Wright, trying to make Bill Clinton’s meeting with Wright appear controversial or more meaningful than it was is not helpful to Obama’s case.

All candidates have their strengths and their weaknesses. Inevitably, they will misspeak, controversies will erupt, mistakes, as they like to say, will be made. Ultimately, successful campaigns, in addition to minimizing the errors, will learn to respond quickly, and, with any luck, make sure that the gaffes don’t exacerbate existing problems, that amid the ever-mounting pressure of a campaign, the candidate’s particular O-Rings will hold, at least until the finish.

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HNN, March 19, 2008

 

After a week of disappointing political pussyfooting, on Tuesday, Senator Barack Obama’s speech analyzing America’s racial issues was masterful. Once again, Illinois’ rookie Senator hit a grand slam with two strikes against him. Obama’s speech was thoughtful, thought-provoking, rich, complex, effective, poetic, and inspiring.

Finally, on Tuesday, Obama did what he needed to do (and in my previous blog posting I said I hoped he would do) – he told the truth. Overlooking his previous Clintonesque denials, he admitted he had heard Reverend Wright make outrageous statements. Obama rejected Wright’s “profoundly distorted view of this country.” Obama said “white racism” is not “endemic. He warned of the tendency to elevate “what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” And Obama refused to blame the Middle East conflict on “stalwart allies like Israel,” instead blaming “the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”

At the same time, Obama rooted these statements in African-Americans’ historic anguish and affirmed his loyalty to his pastor and his community. By explaining the anger, Obama did what modern politicians rarely do, he acknowledged complexity. By refusing to disown Reverend Wright while disavowing Wright’s ideology, Obama avoided charges that he lacked steadfastness while showing his independence of mind and the courage of his convictions.

Having staunched the bleeding, Obama then offered some healing. He eloquently highlighted his distinctive, patriotic message of self-awareness, self-criticism and reconciliation. Without explaining how he personally transcended this rage, he repudiated it. “That anger is not always productive,” Obama confessed; “indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.” Obama boldly mentioned moments of deep racial division like the O.J. Simpson trial, a risky but accurate comparison because it too showed the clashing perceptions and sensibilities of whites and blacks. Moreover, Obama thoughtfully acknowledged white resentment over issues such as busing and affirmative action. Characteristically, he refused to dwell in the land of wrongs and recriminations, offering a clever formulation to push the country toward healing and hope. “This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected,” he proclaimed, inviting his fellow Americans to help transcend the divisions and perfect their union.

 

True, Obama overstepped occasionally. He unfairly compared the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s years of invective with former Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s one foolish comment attributing Obama’s success to his race. And true, Obama was far too forgiving of his pastor’s hate-mongering, and his own passivity. But it was hard to resist the speech’s – or the speaker’s – appeal. Americans are looking for redemption, and Barack Obama plays the redeemer brilliantly. If the speech works politically as well as it worked rhetorically and substantively, historians will compare it to John F. Kennedy’s speech in Houston to the Baptist ministers on religious tolerance in America.

Here, then, remains the Obama campaign’s great mystery. Many Americans want to believe, to trust that he is what he purports to be, that his gift for words will translate into a genius for governance. But the questions cropping up are not simply about his inexperience but his inaction. He never confronted Jeremiah Wright. He sat silently by as the United Church of Christ to which he belongs passed a resolution singling out Israel, among all countries for opprobrium and possible divestment. Still, in our media-besotted age, words do matter, presidential rhetoric can shape an era. Americans of all parties and races should be proud that this presidential candidate is willing to tackle difficult topics, build rhetorical bridges, and try healing some of the nation’s deepest wounds.

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HNN, March 12, 2008

 

So far, the most talked about political campaign commercial in 2008 seems to be Hillary Clinton’s 30-second spot that begins with the phone ringing as children are sleeping. “It’s 3 A.M. and your children are safely asleep,” the narrator asks in a too-calm voice, with patriotic music purring in the background. “Who do you want answering the phone?” Six rings later, Hillary Clinton, the supposedly tested, experienced, leader answers the phone. Color streams into the picture, as America sleeps safely and soundly, with the right person in charge.

Putting aside the cynics’ question about why the White House phone would have to ring six times before being answered in a crisis, the ad boosts the Clinton campaign’s main contention that Hillary Clinton is ready to govern from day one. You don’t have to be the former Clinton anti-impeachment flack and now Obama supporter Greg Craig to doubt Hillary’s claim. Craig, however, has written an absolutely devastating memo that goes through each of the foreign policy hot spots where Hillary Clinton claims she helped as First Lady – and shows how marginal a player she actually was. The Clinton camp has responded, and Salon posted both memos.

In this battle, Craig is right. Clinton’s people can make the claim that living in the White House for eight years, being in Washington since 1993, has given Hillary Clinton a front-row seat on the use (and occasional abuse) of power that makes her more experienced than Barack Obama. But she has gone further than that, running a campaign pretending that she was able to be the co-president she hoped she could be, rather than the frequently marginalized and frustrated First Lady she usually was.

However an unreasonable criticism of the ad comes from the Harvard Professor Orlando Patterson in yesterday’s New York Times. Patterson is a thoughtful, thought-provoking scholar whose work on race in America is usually on the mark, and frequently refreshingly out-of-the-box. In this op-ed he deploys his scholarly authority to accuse the Clinton camp of race-baiting unfairly, saying: “I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past.” Patterson then claims that it stirs traditional fears of the black man, meaning Obama, as a threat to white women and children.

This interpretation reads far too much into the advertisement. From the start, the central criticism of Barack Obama’s campaign has not been that he is black, but that he is too green. In an age of terrorism, when it is clear that the “enemy” being spoken about in this fear-mongering ad is from outside not from within, it was downright irresponsible for the New York Times to print Patterson’s complaint. It raises the charge of racism in an inaccurate, demagogic, and unhelpful way.

It is particularly ironic that Patterson’s essay appeared the same day that the Obama camp objected to Geraldine Ferraro’s offensive and foolish remarks. Ferraro suggested that Obama’s rise was due to his race –- raising fears that Gloria Steinem’s feminist foot-in-mouth-disease may be contagious. Offended, Senator Obama responded: “I don’t think that Geraldine Ferraro’s comments have any place in our politics or the Democratic Party. I think they were divisive.”

Obama is correct. But his analysis applies to Professor Patterson’s remarks too.

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HNN, March 6, 2008

 

Clinton knew it was do or die. All the campaign staffers and the media agreed that without a big win Tuesday, the campaign was over. The ultimately winning strategy entailed putting the media and the opposition on the defensive, and tempering this negativity with the right pop-culture flourish.

While the above describes Hillary Clinton’s impressive comeback this past Tuesday, with decisive wins in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, it also describes Bill Clinton’s incredible comeback in 1992. Bill Clinton became the “Comeback Kid” by scoring impressively – not even winning – in the New Hampshire primary after being devastated by Gennifer Flowers’ reports of her lengthy affair with him, and by the scandal surrounding his creative feints to avoid being drafted in 1969. Perhaps the defining moment in Clinton’s turnaround occurred on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” show. Smoldering just enough, he delivered a line a consultant fed him: “All I’ve been asked about by the press are a woman I didn’t sleep with and a draft I didn’t dodge.” Later in the spring, when Governor Clinton’s poll numbers sagged yet again, he donned cool sunglasses and whipped out his saxophone to play some tunes on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” Once again, his approval ratings soared.

Hillary Clinton became the Comeback Queen this week by making these familiar moves from the Clinton playbook. She jumped on a Saturday Night Live skit accusing the press of coddling Barack Obama, by sarcastically suggesting that reporters should offer her rival a pillow to make him comfy during their debate. She was so pleased with Saturday Night Live’s assistance, she guest-hosted days later. And while pummeling the press for handling Senator Obama with kid gloves, Senator Clinton and her staffers roughed him up over his friendship with a shady Chicago operator, over his NAFTA two-step, wherein one of his advisers supposedly reassured the Canadian embassy not to worry about his anti-Free Trade demagoguery, and over his general inexperience, especially on national security matters.

Exit polls showed that most of the voters who decided in the last two weeks chose Hillary Clinton. In Ohio, exit polls showed that Midwestern voters thought she would make a better Commander in Chief than Barack Obama by 57 percent to 40 percent. Those kinds of numbers suggest that Americans do not have a problem with a woman at the helm and that much of the opposition she has encountered is more aimed at her specifically, than at women in general.

Ironically, while following her husband’s lead, Hillary Clinton shrewdly kept him under wraps. Unlike in South Carolina, where Bill Clinton overestimated how loyal African-Americans would be to him when faced with the first African-American candidate in history with a real shot at the White House, the former President was relatively subdued in Ohio and Texas.

Senator Clinton re-learned what she had realized throughout her senatorial career: that Bill Clinton simply commands too much attention, and undermines her claim to be an independent national leader – even when he is not overplaying his hand. Senator Clinton also re-learned the lessons of 1992 – and much of the White House years – Americans do not want a husband-wife co-presidency. Voters recoiled when the Clintons pitched “two for the price of one” on the campaign trail in 1992. Hillary Clinton saw that her poll ratings sagged when Americans feared she was overstepping, and that her popularity as First Lady increased when she kept to more traditional First Lady-like roles.

John McCain and his fellow Republicans are delighting in their opponents’ predicament. The Democrats now have two strong candidates with legitimate claims to be considered the most viable nominee. And both candidates have masses of supporters who risk being deeply disappointed – and alienated – if their candidate loses. Barack Obama still retains a slight yet possibly insurmountable lead in the number of delegates won in the Democratic parties’ particularly complicated nominating process. But having won New York, California, Texas, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and with a strong lead in Pennsylvania, Hillary Clinton now can claim that she holds the key to winning the states with the biggest electoral vote totals, and some of the most critical swing states for the November general election.

Once again, the curse of the Clintons worked its black magic – negative campaigning swayed the electorate. Predicting electoral outcomes has proved to be a tricky business this campaign season. But it is a reasonably safe prediction to make that, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s wins and Barack Obama’s losses on Tuesday, both are going to be tempted to keep going negative. Hillary Clinton has already drawn blood, and has no choice but to continue trying to drain excitement and credibility from the Obama phenomenama.

Obama has to figure out how to be aggressive enough to show he is tough – on the campaign trail as well as in the Oval Office if he wins – without being so nasty that he loses the aura of hope he has built up with his Yes We Can message of healing. And even though the Clintons scored some points against the media, sending reporters scrambling to prove that they had not been too soft on Obama, political reporters must be thrilled. They were the big winners Tuesday, as this already most compelling election season just received a new surge and a guarantee of continued excitement – and front-page coverage.
(first published in the Montreal Gazette, March 6, 2008)

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