Jay Rosen got an answer out of Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief, David Corn, as to why the magazine is asking the question “Is Barack Obama exaggerating when he compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in U.S. history?”
Corn points to a speech Obama gave earlier this year in which he conjured up visions of the American Revolution, Abolition, the Depression, World War II and other patriotic touchstones in order to drive home his campaign theme of “Yes we can.” MoJo has since added that in the form of a blog post from February unsubtly titled “Barack Obama’s Messiah Complex.”
I’m not going to reproduce the Obama speech excerpts here, because you can just follow the links. But I do want to consider Rosen’s three questions:
Which comes closest to your view?
1.) Sure enough, Obama in this except “compares his campaign to the great progressive moments in U.S. history” and Mother Jones caught him at it, puncturing the Obama hype. Good for them!
2.) No, Obama does not “claim that his campaign is comparable to the great progressive movements in U.S. history.” Not even close. Mother Jones is engaging in the kind of audacious hype it claims to be opposing. Bad move.
3.) It doesn’t matter whether Obama actually said anything like that because his supporters believe his campaign is a movement of transcendent historical importance, and that’s what Mother Jones really meant, it’s just that the editors phrased it badly, attributing to the candidate claims that have been made by others about him.
Jay thinks the correct answer is #2. Strictly on a factual, non-emotional basis, I agree. But it’s more complicated than that. I think the truth is #2 plus a strong dose of #3, along with at least a slight whiff of #1.
All politicians invoke great moments in American history, as Obama did. But Obama has gone farther by explicitly drawing parallels between his candidacy and those moments. It’s understandable — the election of an African-American as president would rank as a stunning achievement for our race-benighted culture. But it’s got nothing to do with Obama personally.
The thing is, I think Obama understands that, and I think David Corn and company understand it, too. So the question becomes why journalists would compress Obama’s argument into a shallow soundbite that makes it sounds like Obama thinks of himself as a combination of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s not so much that MoJo is completely wrong; it’s that the magazine is being reductionist and stupid. Why?
By the way, I know Corn and have a lot of respect for him. We spent part of the afternoon on Election Day 2004 at a Starbucks near Copley Square, picking out John Kerry’s cabinet for him. But to the extent that he agrees with this particular editorial decision, well, I think he’s wrong.