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

Tag: 2008

The Obama difference

To quote Alex Beam, I write this with my head, not my heart. I don’t have a dog in the 2008 presidential hunt. But I’m mystified by Beam’s assertion in today’s Globe that Barack Obama is this year’s version of Howard Dean, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley and Bruce Babbitt.

Dean, Tsongas, Bradley and Babbitt were all utterly without charisma; Dean and Bradley came across as rather unpleasant fellows to boot. Tsongas, Bradley and Babbitt got a big boost from media types who were suckers for their cerebral, moderate politics. (Yes, Bradley ran as a liberal in 2000, but that wasn’t his reputation as a senator.) Dean was the darling of the netroots, but actual voters never warmed up to him.

By contrast, Obama oozes charisma. His campaign’s biggest asset, by far, is himself. Members of the Beam Quartet were small-timers trying to break into the the big time. Obama is a big-timer who may not quite be ready.

Obama may or may not be chosen as the Democratic presidential nominee. But if he’s not, it certainly won’t be because he’s suffering from Howard Dean syndrome. And unlike the Beam Quartet, if Obama falls short, I suspect he’ll get another chance somewhere down the line.

McCain and abortion rights

Scott Helman’s story in today’s Globe about Republican flip-floppers only provides a hint of Sen. John McCain’s tortured history with respect to abortion rights. Helman, whose intent is to show that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is not the only GOP flip-flopper, writes this about McCain:

McCain has also made conflicting comments about whether he believes Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, should be overturned. He told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999 that he did not support a repeal. But earlier this year, speaking to about 800 people in Spartanburg, S.C., he sought to assure conservatives that he did.

“I do not support Roe versus Wade. It should be overturned,” McCain said, according to the Associated Press.

That’s true, as far as it goes. But McCain did not wait eight years to renounce his 1999 remarks about Roe v. Wade, as you might be led to believe from Helman’s article; in fact, he started backpeddling almost immediately. Yet even though McCain had been a pro-life conservative for his entire political career, he was never quite able to reassure the right during the 2000 presidential campaign. Every time he opened his mouth about abortion, he committed a gaffe, defined by Michael Kinsley as when a politician accidentally tells the truth.

Consider, for example, a Robert Novak column from Aug. 26, 1999, shortly after the Chronicle reported McCain’s seeming change of heart. (I couldn’t find the original Chronicle article.) Novak began thusly:

Perhaps spending the day with rich, liberal northern California Republicans, who cannot win elections but contribute lots of money, had its impact on Sen. John McCain. That is the only plausible explanation for his telling the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board last week that “certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade.”

“It was a mistake, a terrible mistake,” a McCain adviser told me, contradicting his presidential campaign’s official line that the senator’s opposition to abortion had not diminished (using the old saw that his remarks were taken out of context). McCain spent the weekend trying to straighten out his position, and was still sculpting his language Tuesday, five days after his first remarks.

McCain’s mistake was explained privately by supporters as common to Republican politicians who don’t care much or know much about abortion. They try to please both grass roots, pro-life activists and the well-heeled, pro-choice campaign contributors, in abundance last Thursday when McCain addressed San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. But it is a special problem for McCain. Waffling on abortion confirms his developing image as the most liberal Republican candidate, which might give him momentary pleasure as runner-up, but deny him ultimate satisfaction as the nominee.

McCain’s abortion problem was no mere slip in San Francisco. His staff knew he blundered and sought quick correction. Appearing Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition,” he no longer mentioned “the long term,” but still opposed getting rid of Roe v. Wade “immediately.” That didn’t work either. Later that day, he issued a written statement: “I have always believed in the importance of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and as president I would work toward its repeal.”

But in both Sunday’s CNN interview and his written statement he repeated the canard that immediate repeal “would force thousands of young women to undergo dangerous and illegal operations.”

After much polishing by his staff, McCain sent a letter to the Right to Life Committee on Tuesday, affirming his desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, with not one word about “dangerous and illegal operations.”

I caught a glimpse of McCain’s attempts to have it both ways in February 2000, when I spent several days following McCain and George W. Bush around South Carolina in the run-up to their pivotal primary. Among other things, McCain was desperately trying to stress his conservative credentials after allowing himself to be portrayed as a moderate in libertarian New Hampshire, where he had handily defeated Bush.

Unfortunately, I didn’t quote McCain on abortion rights, so I can’t report exactly what he said. But I did write this, about an appearance McCain made on MSNBC’s “Hardball” at Clemson University: “McCain stressed his archconservative stand on social issues including gay marriage (‘it’s crazy’), abortion rights (he hopes the Supreme Court will someday overturn Roe v. Wade), and affirmative action (he’s staunchly against quotas).”

As I also wrote at the time, McCain was in trouble with the right for answering a hypothetical question about his 15-year-old daughter’s becoming pregnant by saying it would be her decision whether to have an abortion. He later “corrected” it by saying it would be a family decision.

The point of Helman’s story in today’s Globe is certainly valid: McCain and Rudy Giuliani, no less than Romney, have changed their minds on key issues as they seek the Republican nomination for president. Romney himself went after his two chief rivals earlier this week; Helman cites an Associated Press report in which Romney criticized McCain’s one-time opposition to overturning Roe v. Wade. The former governor said:

Senator McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts. Now he’s for them. He was opposed to ethanol. Now he’s for it. He said he was opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Now he’s for overturning Roe v. Wade…. That suggests that he has learned from experience.

So why does the flip-flopper charge seem to stick to Romney more than it does to his rivals? Republican operative Roger Stone tells Helman:

I think you can certainly move your political positions within a career and even within a campaign, but when you trade in your old philosophy for a new one, and you did it overnight across the board, it smacks of opportunism.

Well, yeah. I don’t think I can recall a politician who has so conveniently and quickly done a 180 on a whole range of social and cultural issues in order to repackage himself for a different audience and a different audience. Yes, they all do it to some degree, but Romney is unique in his thoroughness, moving from socially moderate — even liberal — to ultraconservative virtually overnight.

McCain is another matter. Eight years ago he failed in his attempts simultaneously to appease conservatives and moderates. This time, he’s falling short in his efforts to move to the right and stay there. Of course, as McCain himself has said repeatedly, he probably has no chance unless the war in Iraq — his main issue — starts to look like a winner. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that.

Obama and Selma revisited

Several Media Nation readers (see this, this and this) believe I misread the New York Times account of Barack Obama’s speech in Selma, Ala. In my original item, I somehow got it in my head that the Times had reported Obama was claiming his parents had actually met at the famed Selma civil-rights protest in 1965 — something he quite clearly did not do.

But after rereading the story, I now see that’s not what the Times was reporting, and I’m not sure how to explain my muddleheadedness other than to cite misfiring synapses and the phases of the moon.

In fact, Obama was born in 1961. So when he suggested that Selma inspired his mother, a white woman from Kansas, and his father, a black man from Kenya, to marry, he was asserting an impossibility.

I stand by what I said about the Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton’s speech.

Liar, liar?

Yesterday’s New York Times coverage of Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s joint appearance in Selma, Ala., includes a couple of snarky references suggesting that each of them lied in appealing to African-American voters. Those references are, unfortunately for the Times (and for the candidates), based on not one whiff of evidence. In fact, the evidence cuts the other way.

First Obama. Times reporters Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny write:

Mr. Obama relayed a story of how his Kenyan father and his Kansan mother fell in love because of the tumult of Selma, but he was born in 1961, four years before the confrontation at Selma took place. When asked later, Mr. Obama clarified himself, saying: “I meant the whole civil rights movement.”

Did Obama try to suggest that his parents met during the famed civil-rights protest in Selma? I can’t find the exact text of Obama’s speech, but Healy and Zeleny’s use of “because of” (as opposed to, for example, “at”) indicates that Obama was saying no such thing. And in the Washington Post, Anne E. Kornblut and Peter Whoriskey report Obama’s words thusly:

Referring to his heritage, Obama said that although his ancestors were not slaves, the civil rights movement inspired his African father to move from Kenya to seek an American education and eventually marry his white mother — “whose great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves.” “But she had a different idea,” Obama said.

“Something stirred across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks were willing to march across a bridge,” Obama said, explaining that, as a result, his parents “got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born.” Earlier in the day at a prayer breakfast, the Illinois Democrat said: “If it hadn’t been for Selma, I wouldn’t be here.”

That doesn’t even remotely sound as though Obama was trying to claim that his parents met in Selma. So why did the Times report that Obama “clarified himself,” as though he were backing down from an extraordinary inference? Sorry, but that kind of interpretative snark just isn’t fair.

As for Clinton, the Times’ Healy and Zeleny offer us this:

Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, recalled going with her church youth minister as a teenager in 1963 to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in Chicago. Yet, in her autobiography and elsewhere, Mrs. Clinton has described growing up Republican and being a “Goldwater Girl” in 1964 — in other words, a supporter of the presidential candidacy of Senator Barry M. Goldwater, who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Got that? The young Hillary Rodham was a Goldwater supporter. Therefore she must have opposed civil rights for African-Americans. Therefore, she must be lying when she claims that she saw King speak.

Did Clinton hear King speak in Chicago in 1963? As Bob Somerby would say (today being a day for extra-careful attribution), we have no idea. But the fact that she was a Goldwater supporter in 1964 sheds no light whatsoever on the question. And there’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that she’s telling the truth. Take, for instance, this, from an online review of Clinton’s autobiography, “Living History”:

In the interlude, she tells of hearing Martin Luther King speak in Chicago, of being in the middle (as an observer) of the Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention in 1968, and her beginnings of questioning the system of limited women’s opportunities in America. Rodham was determined to achieve, and she made her move while in high school, serving in student government and becoming a political activist.

And here’s something from a 2003 BusinessWeek review of “Living History” and Sidney Blumenthal’s “The Clinton Wars”: “Dozens of stories provide bits of insights into Hillary Clinton’s complex psyche…. You see how a lecture by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. opened her eyes to civil rights …”

In other words, Clinton’s claim that she heard Martin Luther King speak in Chicago isn’t something she made up to feed the poor saps in Selma on Sunday — rather, it’s something she’s been saying for years. But you wouldn’t know that if you read only the Times.

Update: I was wrong about the Times and Obama. Read this.

Apparently not a parody

Good news for John McCain and Rudy Giuliani: Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is being run by morons.

Two questions: Where can I get one of those “First, Not France” bumper stickers? And will the Globe please post the entire 77-slide PowerPoint presentation?

I saw the lite

I was at that Los Angeles breakfast meeting in 2000, sitting next to Seth Gitell, when John Edwards was making the non-impression on Massachusetts Democrats that Seth so accurately describes. Based on that encounter, I never would have thought Edwards had much of a future. Actually, I still don’t.

A few days ago, Rick Klein, writing in the Boston Globe, reported that veterans of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign dispute Edwards’ recent claims that he wanted to get tough on George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, but that the Kerry people wouldn’t let him. It’s a classic he said/he said, but I believe the Kerry folks. Edwards was a terrible running mate. Even an unexciting choice like Dick Gephardt might have enabled Kerry to win Missouri and, thus, the presidency.

Mind you, I’m not getting into what Edwards said or didn’t say about Israel. I’m just unimpressed with the guy, that’s all.

She’s in

Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for president. Since I think I was the last person in America who thought she might not run, I just wanted to acknowledge that.

So now it’s Hillary versus Barack Obama versus John Edwards, with Bill Richardson, Tom Vilsack, Chris Dodd (!) and who knows who else in the mix. Not that this is a prediction, but this would be a fine moment for John Kerry to pull out, don’t you think?

Although Jon Keller, hardly a Kerry fan, won’t rule him out. Nor should I, given how far off I was here.

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