COUCHING A SAINT: How does one treat a secular saint? In his column in yesterdays Post, Fareed Zakaria showed the world what Hard Pundit Law now requires.
Zakarias worthwhile column carried this headline: McCains Radical Proposal. Early on, he said this:
ZAKARIA (4/28/08): On March 26, McCain gave a speech on foreign policy in Los Angeles that was billed as his most comprehensive statement on the subject. It contained the most radical idea put forward by a major candidate for the presidency in 25 years.
Wow! And no, Zakaria didnt mean that as a compliment. After describing McCains proposal, he went on to say this:
ZAKARIA: We have spent months debating Barack Obama's suggestion that he might, under some circumstances, meet with Iranians and Venezuelans. It is a sign of what is wrong with the U.S. foreign policy debate that this idea is treated as revolutionary while McCain's proposal has barely registered.
Yikes! If you want to know what McCain has proposed, you should read Zakarias column. But: What McCain has proposed is momentous, he writesand he plainly thinks that McCains proposal is a momentously bad idea.
That said, we were struck by the following passagea passage which softened the blow of this column. Zakaria knew he had to say it. Its required by Hard Pundit Law:
ZAKARIA: I write this with sadness because I greatly admire John McCain, a man of intelligence and honor and enormous personal and political courage. I also agree with much of what else he said in that speech in Los Angeles. But in recent years McCain has turned into a foreign policy schizophrenic, alternating between neoconservative posturing and realist common sense. His speech reads as if it were written by two very different people, each allotted a few paragraphs on every topic.
Its the law! Even as you say that McCain is a nut, you have to say how much you admire his intelligencehonorandcourage.
Few other people get treated this way. With this great saint, its the law.
At the start of his column, Zakaria states an accurate fact: [F]ew people are paying much attention to what the Republican nominee is saying, or subjecting it to any serious scrutiny. He blames this on the attention being paid to those dueling Dems.
But when it comes to this greatest of men, nothing is really new about this. Lack of any serious scrutiny has defined the press corps approach to McCain, going back to Campaign 2000going back to the way they laughed and laughed (Richard Cohen) as they rode around on that big white bus (David Von Drehle).
As weve long described, serious scrutiny was missing then too. Whats your favorite tree, one cheerful scribe even asked.
IS WRIGHT RELEVANT: Jeremiah Wrights self-intrusion into this White House campaign has only one recent precedent, we think. Ironically, thats the self-intrusion of Gennifer Flowers in 1992.
Watching the way the press corps reacted to Flowers, we learn a valuable lesson: The press corps tends to treat such players as the mood of the moment demands. Initially, Flowers was greeted with considerable scepticism, for reasons Jonathan Alter described in a Newsweek report. Her claim of a torrid 12-year affair with Clinton had been purchased by The Star, Alter noted, a supermarket tabloid with a reputation for sleaze. (Flowers, who quit her $16,000 state job in Arkansas, was eventually paid more than $500,000 by various publications for her various claims about Clinton.) Beyond that, her article in The Star was riddled with demonstrable inaccuracies, Alter noted. Discussing her credibility problems, Alter cited groaning nonsense like this:
ALTER (2/3/92): Flowers claims to have been Miss Teen Age America, 1967. She wasn'tthat year, or any other.
Oh. And there was more.
Six years later, Flowers still had massive credibility problems, but the press corps was ready to look away, given their pleasing pursuit of Bill Clinton. In 1998, they asserted, en masse, that we now know Flowers was telling the truth (although they plainly didnt). By 1999, they were dragging her onto cable TV, where she waxed, at considerable length, about the Clintons many murders. And about the fact that Hillary Clinton was the worlds biggest lesbo, of course.
The nations numerous, high-minded press critics sat around saying nothing about this.
Now, Jeremiah Wright has inserted himself into a campaign, though his role is vastly different from that of Flowers, of course. Different people will hold different views about his relevance to this campaign. But this morning, just in the Post and the Times, five different columnists focus on Wright, as does sketch artist Dana Milbank.
Is Wright relevant? As a general matter, we would say yes; others will differ. But whatever one might think about that, we think this story does reflect on several aspects of this campaign:
Who played the race card: The mainstream press has delighted in the claim that the Clinton campaign kept playing the race card during the early primaries. In just the past week, a string of pundits have feigned amazement at Bill Clintons outrageous claim that the race card was played against him. Whatever these scribes may think about Clintons claim, they all understand the background to his assertion. But so what? Most major pundits have played it dumb. See Joe Kleins first paragraph, for example.
Did the Clinton campaign play the race card? In fairness: If they did, its hard to see why Wright only surfaced through ABC News, in March of this year, after Obama had taken control of the race. It was always obvious that Wrights views would play a role in this campaign. (Although the liberal world seemed disinclined to notice.) In fairness, the Clinton camp never said boo about Wrightalthough the tapes of his sermons had been on sale from the day this campaign began.
Simple fairness suggests that we note this. Shirts-and-skins thinkers will now invent tales about why this is wildly off-point.
The press and Obama: For better or worse, it was always clear that Reverend Wright would be a part of this campaign. But the press corps was very slow to go there, even though it was clear that Wrighta key figure in Obamas lifewas, for better or worse, well outside the political mainstream. What follows is part of the Rolling Stone profile which led Obama, at the last minute, to drop Wright from a public role in his February 2007 kick-off speech. The piece was written by Ben Wallace-Wells:
WALLACE-WELLS (2/22/07): The Trinity United Church of Christ, the church that Barack Obama attends in Chicago, is at once vast and unprepossessing, a big structure a couple of blocks from the projects, in the long open sore of a ghetto on the city's far South Side. The church is a leftover vision from the Sixties of what a black nationalist future might look like. There's the testifying fervor of the black church, the Afrocentric Bible readings, even the odd dashiki. And there is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a sprawling, profane bear of a preacher, a kind of black ministerial institution, with his own radio shows and guest preaching gigs across the country. Wright takes the pulpit here one Sunday and solemnly, sonorously declares that he will recite ten essential facts about the United States. "Fact number one: We've got more black men in prison than there are in college," he intones. "Fact number two: Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!" There is thumping applause; Wright has a cadence and power that make Obama sound like John Kerry. Now the reverend begins to preach. "We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional KILLERS. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. . . . We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. . . . We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means!" The crowd whoops and amens as Wright builds to his climax: "And. And. And! GAWD! Has GOT! To be SICK! OF THIS SHIT!"
This is as openly radical a background as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from, as much Malcolm X as Martin Luther King Jr. Wright is not an incidental figure in Obama's life, or his politics. The senator "affirmed" his Christian faith in this church; he uses Wright as a "sounding board" to "make sure I'm not losing myself in the hype and hoopla." Both the title of Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, and the theme for his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 come from Wright's sermons. "If you want to understand where Barack gets his feeling and rhetoric from," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, a leader of the religious left, "just look at Jeremiah Wright."
According to Obama, Wright was dumped from the kick-off event because of this Rolling Stone profile. For our money, the fact that Obama originally planned to include Wright is one of the most remarkable facts we know about modern politics. Whatever one might think of Wrights views, it was always clear that they made him a political time-bomb. This is as openly radical a background as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from, Rolling Stone judged. But for the next year, the mainstream press corps made little attempt to explore this.
Different people will think different things about Wrights ministry and views. For ourselves, well stand with Obamas speech about race. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away, nor the anger and the bitterness of those years, Obama said that way. (He probably should have said: For some of those men and women.) And well stand with Lincolns long view of the giant tragedy which is still driving this matter:
LINCOLN (3/4/65): Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
All that said, it was always clear that Reverend Wright would play a role in this campaign. The press corps walked away from this for a very long time.
What was good for Dukakis: The long avoidance of this matter is reminiscent of the 1988 campaign. The Democratic front-runner, Michael Dukakis, was dragging around some potential liabilities; one of them was his states prison furlough program. But the matter was almost wholly ignored during the Democratic primaries. It then appeared in viral form in the general election, taking him down to defeat.
This morning, George Will continues a long act of demagoguery, spinning Al Gores role in this matter. (Will has been at this since July 1992.) At one Democratic debate during those 1988 primaries, Gore asked one fleeting question about that furlough program. (No, he didnt mention Horton.) Almost surely, it would have been better for Democratsand better for Dukakisif Gore, or somebody else, had pursued this issue more thoroughly during those primaries. Similarly, it might have been good for Democratsand good for Obamaif the question of Reverend Wright had been explored before now.
Well guess that Obama will still be the Dem nominee. And yes, he may still win in November. Bill Clinton survived that prior intrusion, after all. Though Dukakis did not survive Horton.
But Reverend Wright was always going to be a part of this campaign. While we type our favorite novels about what has transpired in the past several months, we might at least note this fact: The slobbering racists of the Clinton campaign never said one word about this.