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Print view: Is the birther lunacy racist? Career players know what to say
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MANDATED SPEECH! Is the birther lunacy racist? Career players know what to say: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 6, 2011

Watching us become like them/Exceptionalism edition: Good lord! The Washington Post’s “Style” section has always been the place you go to watch big scribes make fools of themselves. But yesterday’s spread about The Photo may have set a new standard.

The spread concerns the now-famous photo of Obama’s team during the raid on Bin Laden. No one even knows what was happening when that particular photo was snapped, but the Post called in a team of experts to analyze the shot. And good god! Everyone from the “food critic” on down was forced to lend his expertise.

To peruse the entire piece, just click this. Here’s what the food critic, Tom Sietsema, contributed to the discussion:

SIETSEMA (5/5/11): What do too many of us reach for when we’re tired and stressed? It’s not yogurt and carrot sticks, but something soft and soothing (turkey, synonymous with holidays and comfort) or crisp and salty (enter potato chips). The New York Times reported that for the viewing, “a staffer went to Costco and came back with a mix of provisions—turkey pita wraps, cold shrimp, potato chips, soda.” The choice of a wrap rather than a slice of bread to bundle the turkey strikes me as very Bush-era, wraps being so yesterday. Maybe there wasn’t an option at Costco—which, by the way, is more than one food professional’s not-so-secret source for choice cuts of meat, chicken and cherries in season.

The food is all very easy to eat. Nothing requires a utensil, or much concentration, unless the shrimp included tails. Had the first lady walked into the room, no one would have felt obliged to hide what they were eating; the turkey and shrimp would have met her approval. As for the potato chips and soda . . . hey, everything in moderation.

Couldn’t White House chefs Sam Kass or Cristeta Comerford or even the Navy Mess whip up some MREs for the group? For starters, the Mess is typically dark on Sunday. Also, “if it’s that quiet” a meeting, says Palena chef Frank Ruta, who cooked at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. from 1979 till 1991, “they might not want to involve many other people.” In an attempt to make it appear as if everything was normal, everything was routine, the party in the Situation Room—close to where the always-curious press hangs out—ventured outside for fuel.

“The choice of a wrap rather than a slice of bread…strikes me as very Bush-era!” Yes, that appeared in yesterday’s Post as part of a massive, front-page Style spread, with the chef at Palena even called in for his thoughts. Dance critic Sarah Kauffman also offered her insights—but then, so did Jura Koncius, “home and design writer.” Also reporting: The Post’s TV, art and film critics—and Judith Martin, “Miss Manners columnist and etiquette expert.”

At its upper end, your press corps is almost inexpressibly mindless. By the way: Don’t blame the writers who were forced to contribute to this utter nonsense. Question the sanity of the editor who conceived this ludicrous piece.

Within this sad and embarrassing context, what’s the current meaning of “American exceptionalism?” On Monday evening, Big Ed Schultz promised us that we’d have some fun with the concept. This is what the big guy said at the start of his love song about the way we took out bin Laden’s son as he came down the stairs:

SCHULTZ (5/2/11): Great to have you with us tonight, folks.

This is the story that the globe is paying attention to. There is no question about it. It’s the story that we are all fired up about.

I’m fired up about this guy, right here: The president of the United States.

You know, I wish I had five hours to talk to you tonight and have fun with this, because we’re going to talk about American exceptionalism tonight.

Luckily, Schultz didn’t have those five hours. Better yet: Midway through his 18-minute ballad, he tried to talk about American exceptionalism—but a piece of tape didn’t play, and he was forced to move on. Finally, at the end of his lengthy segment, his staff did have the tape cued up. So Schultz got this much in:

SCHULTZ: Reverend Mike Huckabee—he didn’t give President Obama any credit at all, but he did offer this greeting for Osama bin Laden. "It has taken a long time for this monster to be brought to justice. Welcome to hell, Mr. bin Laden."

National security should be off the table in 2012 because this is about American exceptionalism, is it not? Have we not seen American exceptionalism? I think we have. Let`s go to this sound bite about that.

OBAMA (videotape): On September 11th, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

SCHULTZ: Coming up, top advisers were telling President Obama to drop bombs on the bin Laden compound. Instead, the president called for the Navy SEAL operation that led to al Qaeda leader’s death.

And as we have seen, some Republicans have not kept politics out of this. So, we’ll dig into it with Professor Michael Eric Dyson and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson. Stay with us. We’re right back.

Inexplicably, Colonel Wilkerson was back, presented as a sympathetic witness. He’s the man who assembled Colin Powell’s UN presentation—but now he’s presented as one of our own. Reason? As part of his image rehab, he’s willing to go on the air and say stupid shit about Rumsfeld. (To review Wilkerson’s Wednesday night effort, just click this.)

At any rate, Schultz played that videotape, saying it represented “American exceptionalism.” For ourselves, we have no idea why Il Duce thought that, or what he thinks that concept means—but so it tends to go on this program. At his blog, Schultz offered this post about the concept—but even after reading that, we have no idea what Schultz thinks the concept means.

This morning, Big Ed is asking for patriotic songs. They may even get played on the air!

There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, of course, depending on how you express and enact it. There’s nothing automatically wrong with the concept of American exceptionalism, depending on what you mean by the concept. But this murky concept can be a bit dangerous—and it has been used in demagogic ways in the past few years. But so what? As our side becomes more like their side, our silliest players have been rushing off to embrace the pleasing concept.

In the wake of the bin Laden killing, we were struck by the way some of our players acted a great deal like them. More and more, we ape the dumbest, most dishonest practices of the worst on the other side—the kinds of practices our side once abhored. We love the “details” of the killings; we engage in the dumbest partisan hackwork. And we swear that Barack Obama does so believe in exceptionalism!

Does Barack Obama believe in American exceptionalism? We doubt that this is a major part of his outlook—but like Steve Benen, we don’t really know. But in our view, Benen has really been going over to the other side of late.

To see Steve announce what Obama believes, take a deep breath, then click this.

Special report: Same or different!

PART 3—MANDATED SPEECH (permalink): Kathleen Parker asked a good question: When did this lunacy start?

“Why is our discourse being driven by buffoons?” the headline on Sunday’s column asked. “One can’t help wondering when exactly we lost our minds,” she wrote in the actual piece. Parker cited “these crazed factions that become obsessed with conspiracies, unconvinced by facts.”

Most specifically, Parker referred to the (many) people who swallowed the recent nonsense concerning Obama’s place of birth. But “when exactly” did this crazed culture get started? That question is easy to answer:

This culture started in 1988, when Vice President George H. W. Bush had Lee Atwater run a slime campaign against Governor Michael Dukakis. No one slimed Walter Mondale in 1984, or Jimmy Carter in the previous two campaigns. But from 1988 on, every presidential-level Democrat has been slimed in similar brainless ways, with large numbers of Republican voters believing the guff of the moment.

Bill Clinton was involved in a long list of killings! As late as August 1999, a loathsome fellow named Chris Matthews invited the crackpot Gennifer Flowers onto his program, where she spent a full half-hour discussing this ludicrous notion. Flowers made so little sense that Hannity & Colmes reacted quickly, giving her a full hour to rattle this ugly nonsense—and to inform the world that Hillary Clinton was the world’s biggest lesbo.

This is the way our culture has worked since 1988.

How obvious is that as the starting-date for this crazed political culture? In The Hunting of the President (2000), Lyons and Conason described the way Atwater went to Arkansas in May 1989 to jump-start the sliming Governor Clinton, who was seen as the era’s most talented young Democratic leader—the strongest threat to Bush’s re-election. (Subtitle: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.) In 1992, Candidate Clinton survived a blizzard of ludicrous tales. Eight years later, Candidate Gore did not, by a hair, thereby sending a second George Bush on to a seat in the White House.

For the most part, the liberal world has agreed to pretend that none of this ever happened. For an interesting example of the cross currents involved here, consider Steve Kornacki’s piece in Salon about the birther claptrap.

Kornacki understands his country’s recent history. He didn’t have the time or the space to tell the total story. But in this passage, he described “what birtherism grew out of,” giving “a perfect example:”

KORNACKI (4/28/11): This is what birtherism really grew out of: a refusal by the right to accept the legitimacy of any Democrat who comes within spitting distance of the White House.

The story of Bill Clinton's presidency is a perfect example. The attacks from the right—which began even before he took office—weren't about his birthplace or citizenship status, but they were designed to fill the GOP base with rage and resentment that a usurper was somehow in the White House. In the early days of Clinton's presidency, the Internet as we now know it didn't exist and cable news consisted only of CNN (which hadn't yet been spooked by the rise of Fox). But through talk radio, newsletters, and widely circulated videotapes, the right devised and promoted one preposterous, inflammatory claim after another: that the Clintons had arranged for Vince Foster to be killed, for instance, or that they'd been involved in drug-running in Arkansas. Clinton's presidency was barely a year old when Pat Robertson told his "700 Club" audience that the president might be forced from office within 90 days. Polling wasn't nearly as frequent or extensive then as it is now; if it had been, we'd probably be able to point to surveys from 1993 or 1994 showing alarming numbers of Republican voters expressing doubt about, say, the circumstances of Foster's death.

The lunacy continued well after Clinton left office, with claims that Clinton staffers had trashed the White House on their way out in 2001 and that Clinton himself had been responsible for 9/11. Why? Because the Clintons were still the face of the national Democratic Party for most of the Bush era…

Kornacki skips the lunacy about Candidate Gore—lunacy which also “continued well after Clinton [and Gore] left office.” Presumably for reasons of space, he also skips the sliming of Candidates Dukakis and Kerry. But Kornacki’s account is right on the money: The recent nonsense about President Obama did “grow out of” a pre-existing culture, in which Republican leaders encourage “a refusal by the right to accept the legitimacy of any Democrat who comes within spitting distance of the White House.”

Anyone with an ounce of sense can understand what Kornacki said: The moronic sliming of Obama is similar to the earlier sliming of Clinton; it isn’t gigantically “different.” The right devised a string of preposterous tales about Clinton; through the recent birther nonsense, they did the same regarding Obama. But an utterly brainless political culture currently rules the pseudo-left, establishing mandates all creatures must bow to. For that reason, even Kornacki knew that he had to start his piece with a strange, sweeping statement.

Here are Kornacki’s headlines and his opening paragraph. By the hard tenets of pseudo-lib law, the thrust of that headline had to be instantly contradicted:

KORNACKI: The roots of birtherism go beyond race/
What this is really about: The right's instinctive, aggressive rejection of Democratic presidents

Let's be clear: Birtherism itself has everything to do with race. It encourages—and feeds off—emotional, culturally driven resentment of President Obama, a sense that he's not “one of us.” But as Obama seeks to put all of the zany conspiracy theories to rest for good, it's worth remembering that there's a broader phenomenon that birtherism grew out of: the right's instinctive, aggressive rejection of Democratic presidents.

Before Kornacki could give you your history, he had to make a sweeping statement: “Birtherism itself has everything to do with race.” He said he was doing this to be “clear.” In fact, this sweeping statement is quite hard to parse.

Question: If birtherism is just the latest example of a long string of crackpot attacks—if Republican voters also believed all those prior preposterous attacks—then what does it mean when Kornacki says that birtherism “has everything to do with race?” This is a very murky claim, offered in the name of clarity. Does this mean that everyone who believed this crap had to believe it for racial reasons? Why would such a claim make sense, given the long string of non-racial ludicrous claims these same voters swallowed?

Why does this most recent preposterous claim have to be all about race?

Has race been part of the birther belief system? Presumably, yes it has; presumably, some people who were drawn to this claim were drawn in for reasons of race. Indeed, race and ethnicity figured in some—not most—of the earlier ugly and idiot claims about Clinton, Gore, Dukakis and Kerry. Bill Clinton had a black love child! While we’re at it, let’s recall the year 2000: John McCain and his druggie wife adopted a black baby!

Presumably, some have been drawn to the birther nonsense for reasons involving race. But why must these ludicrous birther belief have everything to do with race? What does such a sweeping claim even mean? Does it mean that everyone who believes this crap must be racist?

Kornacki’s history was right on the mark—but his “clear” statement was very murky. On the other hand, he does understand the current rules of mandated faux-liberal speech.

To his credit, Kornacki told the truth about modern history—but only after bowing to the gods of faux-liberal racial assertion. The hopeless and gruesome Tavis Smiley had done quite a bit less just two nights before. Smiley had paraded into New York for a special week of broadcasts—broadcasts he would waste on subjects like Katie Couric and the billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to whom he bowed and scraped. But even as Smiley wasted his time with Gotham’s most famous players, he went on The Last Word and recited for Lawrence O’Donnell.

As would become quite clear, Smiley is the ultimate hack, but he does know the words to the songs. Go ahead—enjoy the comical bad faith involved in this requisite bafflegab:

SMILEY (4/26/11): Let me say a word about Donald Trump since you raised it so beautifully. I said over a year ago that this was going to be—this presidential race, Lawrence—was going to be the ugliest, the nastiest, the most divisive and the most racist, the most racist in the history of this republic. I did not know that that race to the bottom would begin so quickly.

One can disagree with the Tea Party—

O’DONNELL: Why did you see this coming?

SMILEY: I saw it coming because it’s pretty clear, given how the Tea Party has acted, given that Donald Trump is now playing to the worst in the Tea Party, that this would be possible.

I don’t want to demonize or cast aspersion on the Tea Party broadly. I believe that there’s a certain angst the people in that entity feel. And I share that angst about government. I don’t believe that it’s the solution to reduce government. Government does have a role to play. We got to figure out—we can figure out and debate what that role is.

But there have been some antics that they’ve engaged in that made it clear to me— showing up at rallies with guns and the Secret Service, you know, working overtime to protect this president; more threats against his life than any president in the history of the nation—indeed, presidents combined. So the evidence is pretty clear that they would do anything and say anything in order to make sure that he does not get reelected.

This is not a campaign commercial for Barack Obama. It is to say that we live in a nation where we’ve got to get back to some sense of civility.

I thought after Arizona that there may be a moment here, Lawrence, where we could talk really about having civil discourse in this country. But Donald Trump is playing to the worst fears, the worst anxieties, the worst race-baiting that I’ve ever seen in a campaign. When he suggests that Obama is the worst, would go down as the worst president in history—you know how many bad presidents we’ve had? And this guys is two years in, he’s regarded as the worst president? It`s a bunch of nonsense.

To watch the full segment, click this.

For the record, the director of the Secret Service testified under oath that President Obama was not receiving more death threats than Presidents Bush and Clinton (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/4/09). We don’t know if that statement is accurate, but that’s what the gentleman said.

At any rate:

Before lobbing pointless questions at Couric that night, Smiley wanted to get on the record with a fiery statement. According to Smiley, we are already engaged in the ugliest and nastiest campaign in our nation’s history. That is a ludicrous statement, of course, even if one accepts the idea that birther bilge is essentially racist. But the comedy came when Smiley followed this major R-bomb by saying that he didn’t want to “cast aspersion on the Tea Party broadly,” grandly saying that we need “to get back to some sense of civility.”

Too funny! We’ll grant you, Smiley built a tiny escape hatch into his statement. Technically, he seemed at one point to restrict his remarks to “the worst in the Tea Party.” That would seem to imply that most Tea Party types aren’t snarling racists—but how large a percentage was thus exempted? As usual, a sweeping statement had been unloosed with no real attempt to clarify its meaning or define its scope. And just take a look at what Smiley said next!

How did Smiley know that “the people in that entity” were involved in the ugliest campaign ever? Easy:

“There have been some antics that they’ve engaged in that made it clear to me,” Smiley said. He then cited the antic of “showing up to rallies with guns;” this is conduct in which only a tiny handful of Tea Party folk have engaged. And he cited the “antic” of all those death threats—the unprecedented number of threats, the threats the Secret Service denied.

How many Tea Party people have ever telephoned a death threat?

Don’t even ask! On the basis of those two antics, Smiley unloaded a massive R-bomb, seeming to suggest suggesting that millions of people are now engaged in the ugliest, most racist campaign in the nation’s history. And by the way: When Trump says Obama is the worst president ever, does that really represent “the worst race-baiting” Smiley has “ever seen in a campaign?” Does Smiley know that Trump has now said that three recent presidents were “the worst ever?”

Plainly, Trump is a world-class buffoon. But what makes this buffoonish claim racist? Trump says inane shit all the time!

Needless to say, Smiley had more nonsense to dispense before he got to his evening’s real task—the task of wasting time with Couric for his PBS viewers. As he continued, he did what these grandees always do—he seemed to suggest that Trump himself really can’t be a big racist. (“But one last thing beyond Donald Trump—I’m disappointed in Mr. Trump. I think, frankly and respectfully, this is beneath him.” People like Smiley always defer to the billionaires, even as they sweepingly slime millions of average people.)

After that, having kissed the Trump rump, Smiley made his least attractive statements. Note the way he plans to fight this racism, the worst he’s ever seen:

SMILEY: But it’s not just Donald Trump. I love the way that you’ve addressed this issue. I respect Anderson Cooper for the way he went after it last night, trying to get to the truth. But the media is being pimped by Donald Trump. We’re being pimped. To your point about NBC, respectfully, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.


SMILEY: And I don’t just have regard for people trying to play my intellect that way.

O’DONNELL: Well, you know, I struggle with this issue of, do we talk about him or do we try to put—I mean, there are people who don’t want us to talk about him on this show. I understand that.

On the other hand, he keeps spewing these race-based lies about Barack Obama. And I feel the reason I keep coming back to it is I feel those things have to be answered and put down. It’s a dilemma.

Look, I think May 16, when NBC announces the guy’s going to continue to make his living on their network and they’re going to continue to employ him, which I think is outrageous for them to do, when they do that, this will be over. But up to that time, he is going to continue to spew this hatred.

SMILEY: I think you’re right about. And I think, I wouldn’t even suggest there’s not worth and value in checking it. I believe in the admonition of my Jewish friends, “Never again.”


SMILEY: So you can’t let these things go unchecked. It ain’t for me—it doesn’t interest me every night. I think that when you talk about it, the more attention you give it. But I respect people like you who want to take the issue on.

What a perfect expression! According to Smiley, we’re in the middle of the most racist campaign in the nation’s history. But he doesn’t plan to discuss it on his own program—though it’s fine if O’Donnell does.

Then, having said that he himself won’t be discussing it, he related the current campaign to the Holocaust, mentioning his “Jewish friends” and saying, “Never again.”

Shorter Smiley: This racist campaign is like the Holocaust! But I don’t plan to discuss it! He then proved it all week long, conducting a series of New York-based programs in which he fawned to Bloomberg and Couric and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. The racism didn’t come up, except briefly on Monday with Bloomberg, who had commented on Trump the day before.

Is the recent treatment of Obama the same? Or is it different? Does it resemble the way others Dems have been slimed, dating back to Dukakis? Or is the current lunacy different because of a racial component?

We would say it’s more the same. But to ginormous hacks like Smiley, nothing even remotely like this has ever happened before.

Kornacki at least described the recent history in which every other presidential Democrat has been slimed in ludicrous ways. But for the most part, we liberals now like to pretend that none of this ever happened. We pretend that what is happening now is like nothing else in our nation’s history. What’s happening to Obama is shockingly new—and by law, it has to be racist.

When we play dumb in this ludicrous way, we fail to tell the truth to the public—and we disappear twenty-five years of the other side’s disgraceful conduct. In several ways, this is amazingly dumb politics.

Why on earth—why in the world—do we liberals keep acting this way?

Monday—part 4: Why do we liberals do this?