By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Putting presumption in context

The Boston Phoenix’s Adam Reilly weighs in with a well-timed piece on the Republican meme that Barack Obama is too “presumptuous” to be president — and on the media’s willingness to play along.

It appears that all of this is being brought to a head right now. At the moment, it’s looking like this year’s version of Al Gore’s lies that weren’t, or of John Kerry’s flip-flopping and failure to respond adequately to the Swift Boat attacks.

You can talk about the liberal media all you want, and there’s no doubt that most mainstream journalists are liberals. But there’s also no doubt that there’s a tendency among nominally liberal journalists, especially opinion-mongers, to make their bones by mocking liberal politicians.

Exhibit A is Dana Milbank’s piece in Wednesday’s Washington Post, which begins, “Barack Obama has long been his party’s presumptive nominee. Now he’s becoming its presumptuous nominee.” That might have been the moment when this particular line of attack finally jumped the shark. Or perhaps not.

Adam rushes in where others have feared to tread, writing that criticism of Obama as being narcissistic and presumptuous is, among other things, “a crafty way of playing the race card — of essentially calling Obama an uppity black man without actually using those words.” Exactly. Show me someone who’s won a major-party presidential nomination and I’ll show you someone who’s presumptuous. But some of Obama’s detractors sound like they’re ready to walk right up to the brink of suggesting that, well, he just doesn’t know his place.

(Disclosures: Adam’s a friend, he cites Media Nation and we talked through some of this while he was doing his reporting.)

Obama’s not perfect. As is the case with many ambitious people (like, for instance, John McCain), he has an unattractive tendency to use people and move on. His longstanding association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright remains troubling, and you can be sure we’ll be hearing more about it.

But by hitting him with the Republican Party’s sneering talking points, the media are not just doing the opposition’s dirty work. They’re flirting with something quite a bit uglier as well.

Photo (cc) by Jack Thielepape and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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  1. awk

    What makes this even more disturbing is the very example you cite. While we have become accustomed to such behavior from any number of “liberal” journalists, I do not recall Dana Milbank ever sinking so low. And my disappointment is compounded by the self-indulgent pleasure he seems to have taken from his not-so-clever substitution of presumptuous for presumptive.

  2. mike_b1

    I wholly expect the press to go out of its way to diminish Obama. Why wouldn’t they? They brought Kerry to slaughter even when they knew the Swift Boat crap was just that. And they went along with the Bush Administration during the runup to the war in Iraq. To me, in that latter instance the media is (almost) as culpable as the politicians they deride, because it’s the media’s job to ferret out the facts and be the conscience of the electorate — and they failed. With a war on (two, really), whomever the GOP nominated should be a slam-dunk. Instead, that Obama, a biracial, one-term Senator could have a 50:50 shot at the highest office in America, represents a clear reminder of the media’s collective failings. In short, had the media done its job, the status quo would be intact.

  3. Pink Granite

    Dan -The brief post I wrote yesterday was on this exact same topic. ( )I had not read Adam Reilly’s well researched and well written piece until I followed your link just now. But the idea of “uppity” had struck me powerfully.I find it both troubling and discouraging.- Lee

  4. Neil

    The arrogant/presumptuous/messiah claims are tiresome lazy rubbish of course. So if the countercharge that those who make such claims are just rephrasing “uppity negro” effectively inoculates against those bullshit claims, then it’s a wash and fair enough. Try harder–come up with a substantive complaint. As Dan points out anybody who runs for President is by definition presumptuous. “How dare he think he’s qualified to be President!”Can we apply this standard retroactively?

  5. Bill Baar

    I think it’s fair to say Jesse Jackson thinks Obama a bit uppity.It’s hardly a GOP thing.

  6. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I don’t think Obama is uppity; I think he’s snooty and condescending.You made me wonder when that thought first crossed my mind, and it clicked for me. It was during the debates, when he drawled at Hillary, “Oh, I thnk you’re likeable ENOUGH…”, as he feigned making a little note, with a simpering half-smile. THAT was when his inner Uriah Heep first stood out for me.

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