Friday, July 24, 2009

 

Skipping The Record

President Obama may have made the biggest mistake of his young presidency in Wednesday's press conference. Indeed, he may already be wishing he hadn't taken "one last question" from his hometown Chicago reporter Lynn Sweet.

It's funny that he would find himself in an awkward -- that could metastasize into a disastrous -- position by responding to Sweet. She's a journalist favorable to Obama and her question could hardly be considered a "gotcha" query. She asked about the well-publicized arrest of black Harvard Prof. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates in his own home. "What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?"

Historically, Obama has managed to smoothly navigate the treacherous intersection of race and politics -- primarily by assiduously not assigning blame to the various characters in America's long-running social drama. The finest example of this was his ability to turn the Jeremiah Wright controversy into a teachable moment and a fantastic speech.

To his detriment, Obama didn't do that Wednesday. Perhaps it was because, as he admitted, he was too close to the situation: "Skip Gates is a friend of mine, so maybe I'm a little biased. I don't know all the facts."

Uh oh. Danger!!! Stay away from this one, Mr. President. You don't want to go there! The correct answer is: "Since I don't know all the facts, I'm going to reserve judgment. I'm glad the charges were dropped and we can move on."

Instead, he plunged right in.

Though he put in the caveat, "I don't know...what role race played," the remainder of his response clearly demonstrated that Obama felt it played a significant role.Why else mention that he worked in the Illinois state legislature "on a racial profiling bill because there was indisputable that blacks and Hispanics were being stopped disproportionately"?

In that context, his charge that the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" wasn't just unusually harsh coming from Mr. Cool. Rather, it seemed like an artful dodge: One gets the sense that Obama really wanted to say that it was racist, but realized that he couldn't in the end.

While he referred to "reports" of the incident, everything he cited put Gates in the best light. But there is indeed enough fog on both sides for there to be validity in the Cambridge police spokeswoman's statement that neither Gates nor the police officer had one of their best moments:

Cambridge police say they responded to the well-maintained two-story home after a woman reported seeing "two black males with backpacks on the porch," with one "wedging his shoulder into the door as if he was trying to force entry."

By the time police arrived, Gates was already inside. Police say he refused to come outside to speak with an officer, who told him he was investigating a report of a break-in.

"Why, because I'm a black man in America?" Gates said, according to a police report written by Sgt. James Crowley. The Cambridge police refused to comment on the arrest Monday.

Gates — the director of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research — initially refused to show the officer his identification, but then gave him a Harvard University ID card, according to police.

"Gates continued to yell at me, accusing me of racial bias and continued to tell me that I had not heard the last of him," the officer wrote.

Gates said he turned over his driver's license and Harvard ID — both with his photos — and repeatedly asked for the name and badge number of the officer, who refused. He said he then followed the officer as he left his house onto his front porch, where he was handcuffed in front of other officers, Gates said in a statement released by his attorney, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, on a Web site Gates oversees, TheRoot.com.

In short, there's way too much he-said/he-said in these two accounts for the President of the United States to make an uncategorical judgment on the behavior of the Cambridge police. As a personal view, I might believe the police officer's behavior was excessive, perhaps even foolish. But, strange as it might seem, politicians -- and especially presidents -- often have less "freedom of speech" than the average citizen. A mayor, for example, often has to take care not to prejudge sensitive cases involving the police -- just so a potential jury pool isn't tainted. The words of a chief executive -- mayor, governor or president -- carry a lot of weight. Because of their unique status in executing the laws, they have to show the broadest respect for the law itself. That means adopting a neutrality on both the prosecution of the law, while upholding the belief in the concept of innocent until proven guilty.

In that context, the chief executive of the United States telling a local police force that it acted "stupidly" -- when he himself admits that he wasn't there -- is, well, stupid.

It's understandable that the president was upset to see his friend -- a respected African-American academic -- was portrayed all across the country, humiliated in handcuffs. But, despite those personal feelings, the president's "public" voice must always take, well, precedence. In siding, instinctively with Gates (and , by extension, against Officer Joseph Crowley), Obama forgot something that Chris Rock pointed out in his Bigger And Blacker concert:

Do you know who the most racist people are for real, the real most racist people?

Old black men.

You find a brother over .... l know you white people know an old black man.

You go, ''Willie at the job, he's so nice.'' Willie hates your guts.

There's nothing more racist than an old black man. You know why?

'Cause an old black man went through some real racism.

Indeed, that's actually a similar point that Obama made in his Philadelphia/Jeremiah Wright speech: "For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table."

That is the public intellectual Obama who, familiar with the full stage of American racial drama, could honestly imagine seeing a Skip Gates launch into a completely unfair verbal attack on the white police officer -- perhaps re-living a racial slight from his youth. Gates is only nine years younger than Wright. The public Obama could have seen both sides "acting stupidly."

Instead, by allowing his personal voice to seep into a presidential press conference, Barack Obama is playing with fire. As this writer noted a few days ago, Obama won the election (and the votes of millions of white voters) on the same premise as his predecessors -- that he would be the president of the entire country. His apparent willingness not to seem like he's holding a grudge against whites are a major reason for his personal popularity -- which has stayed high even as support for his policies have dropped recently.

This exchange could change that: His ill-considered response may send a signal to some neighborhoods across this nation. Their president didn't merely take the side of a fellow black man over a white one. He also took the side of Cambridge professor over Cambridge cops. He took the side of the intellectual over the blue-collar. The personal bias merges with those of race and class into what could be a very volatile combination.

And as this is rapidly becoming the memorable sound-bite of a press conference focused on health-care, President Obama will regret in the days and weeks ahead, that he was ever asked a question about Henry Louis Gates. Indeed, based on the White House's Thursday afternoon "clarification" of the president's remarks, he already is.

But it may be too late.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

 

Wasted Opportunity

Everyone remembers that old joke: "How can you tell if a lawyer is lying? His lips move."

Here's a variation of it: "How can you tell when a politician gets desperate and disingenuous?" He (or she) declares that an expensive program will actually be less costly because of all the "waste" that will be identified and eliminated. ("Waste, fraud and abuse" are the Washington, DC, version of the Three Fates -- or maybe the Three Stooges.)

Was President Obama a bit desperate and disingenuous Wednesday night? Based on the above rule, oh yeah. Big time. And it suggests that his plans for broad reform are in really big trouble.

Let's consider the setting. A host of polls have been released this week showing public support dropping -- a large reason being, the $1 trillion price tag that' been put on one version of the plan going through the House of Representatives. The Congressional Budget Office director's declaring last week that that bill wouldn't have anywhere near the cost savings that the president has been claiming accelerated the speed of the political opposition to the reform effort.

So, with that in mind, what did the president do Wednesday? He made some reference to to the savings derived from eliminating "waste" no less than seven times!

1) "Already we've estimated that two-thirds of the cost of reform can be paid for by reallocating money that is simply being wasted in federal health care programs."

2) "We also want to create an independent group of doctors and medical experts who are empowered to eliminate waste and inefficiency in Medicare on an annual basis, a proposal that could save even more money and ensure long-term financial health for Medicare."

3) "But what I want do is to see what emerges from these committees, continuing to work to find more savings, because I actually think that it's possible for us to fund even more of this process through identifying waste in the system."

4) "And given the waste that's already in the system right now, if we just redesign certain elements of health care, then we can pay for that. We can pay for it in the short term, but we can also pay for it in the long term."

5) and 6) "It's not enough. But in order for us to do more, we're not only going to have to eliminate waste in the system -- and, by the way, we had a big victory yesterday by eliminating a weapons program, the F- 22, that the Pentagon had repeatedly said we didn't need -- so we're going to have to eliminate waste there."

7) "Well, the reason is, is because there's probably even more waste than $80 billion in terms of how the drug plan in Medicare is administered. We might be able to get $100 billion out or more, but the pharmaceutical industry voluntarily said, 'Here's $80 billion.'"

The president isn't necessarily lying when he makes these statements: He sincerely believes he can wring waste out of the system. But, so has every other politician who's ever uttered similar words. The problem isn't that there's not waste in any budget -- whether local, state or federal. The problem is that one person's "waste" is another person's beloved program that must be saved at all costs. That's why it is so difficult to kill a program once it's been invented: A constituency grows up around it to defend it at all costs.

Obama was right to take some credit for getting the Senate to cut funding for the F-22 jet (both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Sen. John McCain have called for its elimination) -- but don't think that the plane's defenders won't be working to try to get the funding restored when the defense appropriations bill goes into conference in the House. The plane has some powerful allies -- including Teddy Kennedy, who cited the jobs that would be lost in Massachusetts if the F-22 was eliminated.

So take that example and multiply it by hundreds and thousands of different line-items in the federal budget. Can some things be trimmed here and there on the margins? Sure.

But one trillion dollars worth? Forget it. How about even half that much? Not bloody likely.

The saddest thing about Obama trying to make this case was how incredibly stale the argument sounded. Anyone who has been around Washington, DC, for even a few years has heard the "waste, fraud and abuse" mantra.

How ironic -- and sad -- that the "candidate of change" ends up resorting to one of the oldest DC rhetorical devices in the book. Sorry, Mr. President, that's not change we can believe in.

In fact, it's not change at all. That he tried to package it as such demonstrates how much trouble health-care -- and possibly a whole lot more of his agenda -- may be in. The seasoned reporters in that room have heard all this before. The press conference was a "wasted" opportunity in all senses of the phrase.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

 

The Way It Was

The word most associated with Walter Cronkite is one that hardly ever gets used to describe individuals in media in contemporary times: "trust."

"The most trusted man in America" was his reputation. And it wasn't just a rep: Polls in the 1970s supported that notion. That's raather interesting because it became rather clear in Cronkite's retirement years that he was what could be considered conventionally liberal. Indeed, that wasn't much of a surprise: After all, it's been reported that George McGovern had toyed with the idea of selecting Cronkite as his running mate in 1972 against Richard Nixon. Obviously, a nominee wouldn't have even entertained that idea if he didn't think that, to some extent, Cronkite reflected it views.

It goes without saying, that the GOP never entertained the thought of bringing Cronkite on board. But, at the same time, he never engendered the raw animosity from Republicans that Dan Rather did. It was hardly a surprise that Rather's end on the CBS Evening News came in the rather ignominious fashion of being caught in a blogger storm that he sparked with a poorly reported story about George W. Bush's military service. A direct line of Rather-GOP dust-ups could be drawn from Richard Nixonasking a reporting Rather if he was "running for something" (to which Rather responded, "No, sir, are you.") to George H.W. Bush getting into a verbal on-air fight to the latter controversy. And how oddly fitting that the new media reflecting the new political non-consensus brought down Cronkite's seemingly arrogant successor.

One reason why Cronkite was universally adored: He had his views (as when a rare on-air editorial against the Vietnam War helped seal Lyndon Johnson's doom), but he declined to make -- or let -- himself become the story. Rather reveled in becoming bigger than what he was supposed to be reporting or anchoring on. Cronkite believed that the anchor chair was more important than he himself was -- exactly the opposite of Cronkite (who would never have walked off the set in a huff the way Rather did in 1987, leaving a black screen for nearly seven minutes).

But, considering Cronkite was personally liberal, how did he manage to be seen as "trusted" in a way neither Katie Couric nor Brian Williams nor even ABC's Charlie Gibson are today? It's quite simple. Cronkite may have been liberal -- but, generally speaking, so was the country to which he was broadcasting. He was an anchor for the twilight of the liberal social-political consensus that formed post Depression and World War II. As has been noted, Cronkite became a fixture because he seemed to be the rock in the hurricane that was the 1960s and '70s -- pushing aside the "can-do" American sensibility of the '40s and '50s.

Cronkite brought into American households news of an unpopular war, assassinations, riots, a presidential resignation, etc. Through it all, his view was laconic -- with the notable exception of the JFK assassination, where his emotion came through. His Vietnam editorial, was a rare time when his opinion on the news of the day was made most clear. But he was reporting to an America that was only beginning to assess broad changes that had taken over the country since the days of FDR, Truman and Eisenhower.

Rather than preaching on the changes -- or telling Americans how they should feel about them -- Cronkite acted as a guide with a just a tad more understanding on what was going on than everyone at home. He may have had his own views on the role of government, and perhaps on taxes and social programs too, but his respect for the chair was such that he held back in favor of reporting the facts of a world in going hyper.

Today, the liberal political consensus is long dead. It took the liberal media consensus much longer to fade. It took the rise of talk radio in the '70s and '80s, cable in the '90s and the Internet in the '00s to create multiple streams of information -- the totality of which forced the American people to start trusting on a case-by-case basis on who and what they want to trust.

There can never be another Walter Cronkite because the world he reported on no longer exists.

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