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« McCain Unfamiliar with Iraq's Warring Factions? | Main | Flag Rank Officers & "Out of Iraq" Caucus Endorse Hillary »

March 19, 2008




1) He never claimed he was in the pews for the speeches in question. Because he wasn't. He said he as been there for OTHER "controversial statements". You're implying a contradiction that is NOT there. You're implying a reversal that has not and will not happen. He wasn't there for the youtube speeches and has never claimed he was. Bill Kristol did claim this, and has since had to retract the comments. You should as well.

2) There's no need to "question the timing and motives behind today's speech". OF COURSE it is because of the Wright speeches, which the media (still think they are favoring Obama?) is playing on continuous loop. He mentions the pastor by name, what, 14 times? He's not hiding from it. He has attempted to make the campaign about the economy, the war in Iraq, et cetera, and get beyond identity politics. But it has become an issue of late, so he has been compelled to adress it. He met the issue head-on and forthrightly, and with nuance.

3) It's a bit unfair to say that this was an attempt to excuse Wright's comments. Must he reject the person in order to reject the comments? Must we really be that simplistic? The speech took 5000 words precisely because Obama refused to simplify the matter, but in stead put the statements in the context of the state of the racial divide in America. And having done that, he thoroughly and repeatedly rejected Wright's comments, while just as clearly saying the man has done good things and is part of his life. It was this willingness to take such an honest and nuanced stance, to avoid the soundbite response and tackle the issue of race thoroughly, that made the speech exceptional.

4) Obama's speechwriters did not write this speech. He wrote it exclusively by himself over several days, and only showed it to a handful of advisors before he gave it. For the record, that's essentially unprecedented in modern politics. I've heard that it's the first major speech written by a president or presidential candidate by him/herself since 1969, although I don't know if that is really true.

As for the "slavery as original sin" thing, that metaphor was hardly coined by "The West Wing". Crediting TWW would not only be unnecessary, it would be inappropriate. Google '"original sin" slavery' and you get hundreds of thousands of hits, including multitudes that mention neither TWW nor Obama.

D. Cupples

HI Adam,

I hope that you're over that flu. I didn't say that Obama was actually front and center for Wright's "God damn America" sermon. Whether he was at that one or the 9/11 one or the Bill-Clinton-screwed-blacks-like-he- screwed-Lewinski sermon is immaterial.

There is still inconsistency between his initial responses to the Wright uproar and his response today.

Initially, (at HuffPo and with Olbermann), Obama gave the distinct IMPRESSION that he wasn't in the pew for any such (outrageous) statements. Remember, the public doesn't study the transcripts and parse the language like you and I do. Political strategists know this and aim for the larger segment of the public.

What the public heard initially: Obama didn't know how inflammatory Wright had been -- despite his 20 years at Trinity church.

Even an Obama supporter at HuffPo essentially told Obama that his initial response was not believable. No doubt, Obama's strategists saw that people weren't believing it.

In today's speech, unlike the initial responses, Obama admitted that he HAD personally seen Wright make some statements that "could be considered controversial" (a euphamism for inflammatory, in this context).

The flavor of those different responses IS very different: hence, my use of the word "inconsistency."

I don't think Obama has been trying to focus on issues instead of candidates. Ever since he started the "change" versus "experience" mantra in January (i.e., young me against old, ineffective Hillary) and the I'm-against-the-dirty-old-politics-that-others-play argument (read that, "Hillary") he has been focusing on imagery instead of issues.

It's not working for him now, because people are questioning whether his words and image match the reality of him.

I think he was trying to get the public to excuse Wright's comments (which, personally, I'm NOT riled up over).

He started by softening the audience up: talking about Wright's having been a marine, having done good works in the community, having suffered injustices along with other black people.

Obama was EXPLAINING where Wright's words had come from and suggesting that the audience show some understanding. That kind of seems like excusing.

Frankly, again, I DO understand, so I'm not riled up over Wright.

The only reason the Wright story interests me is because the Obama campaign has repeatedly screeched at Hillary's "surrogates" and even supporters who aren't official parts of her campaign.

Now, his campaign wants the same understanding (don't hold me guilty by association) that his campaign wasn't willing to give Hillary over Ferraro or that supporter in SC who mentioned Obama's post-adolescent drug use (which, as a child of the '70s/'80s, I don't care about, either).

I haven't paid attention to the media's coverage of Obama's speech today. Are they criticizing the speech or letting it change the dialog in a way that shields Obama from his association with Wright?

Why do you mention that Obama purportedly wrote the speech himself? Even if he did, he no-doubt edited it. He IS a skilled lawyer, and editing messages is a fundamental part of our job (be it to a jury, judge, or opposing counsel).

I honestly hadn't heard about "original sin" in that context until the WW episode. Of course, Aaron Sorkin might have borrowed the phrase himself.

You're right: I don't know if Obama (or one of his advisers who'd helped edit the speech) had come up with the original-sin concept on his own or had heard it from WW or another source.

but my message is accurate.


My point on the "original sin" statement is that it's appeared many places without attribution - it's a meme in the public discourse. When there was something worth attributing to a specific source, like Faulkner, Obama attributed it.

Obama did not mislead anyone about being in the pews. His statement at HuffPo is specifically referring to a particular comment. It's not ambiguous in the slightest. Again, to construe his statement today as a retraction or a reversal, or to imply that his previous statements on the subject were dishonest, is a falsehood.

And Obama did not start by "softening the audience up: talking about Wright's having been a marine, having done good works in the community, having suffered injustices along with other black people." His very first mention of Wright or anyone like him or from his generation was to label his comments "incendiary". It takes him all the way until the next sentence to explicitly condemn them. It is later in the speech that he talks about reasons that he was a member of the church.

To say that any EXPLAINING equates with EXCUSING is the sort of simplistic, divisive, "you're with us or you're against us" argument that Obama's speech was attempting to get beyond. It's a profoundly unfair way to frame such a nuanced speech.

I mention that he wrote it himself for two reasons. First, you specifically referred to the "speech writers" in a way which implied they were distinct from Obama, and I was correcting you. Second, it is truly exceptional to have a candidate who writes a significant amount of his own material, and all the moreso when the speech is a historically significant one, as I believe this one to be. I mean, holy crap, we've just spent the last seven years living under a guy who can barely deliver a speech. To know that we have a candidate who not only understands policy, but can put it to words in a way that can elevate the national discourse, is an exceptional thing. No, it wouldn't make me vote for someone whose positions didn't match my own, but it is a point in Obama's favor.

I'm not a "speech guy"; I haven't been supporting Obama due to his eloquence. But this one matters. You want the proof of new politics and a break with the past? Take 37 minutes of your life and watch the speech in full. It might be the most important speech on race in the last 40 years. I'm no "Obamabot", but this one blew me away. It is a frank analysis of where we go from here on the issue of race in America. It's an achievement. This isn't something that should be scoured for "gotcha" moments - rather, it should be watched carefully.


You edited to soften the statement somewhat, but you're still overemphasizing the "inconsistency" between Obama's 3/14 and 3/18 "in the pews" comments, simply by blurring what he actually said. You add a "like" to his 3/14 comments, which changes the meaning. Let's just look at the two sets comments exactly as they are written.

March 14:

"The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity"

March 18:

"Did I ever hear [Rev. Wright] make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes."

It's abundantly clear: the first comment refers to the specific, while the second refers to the general. There is no inconsistency at all.

D. Cupples

Hi Adam,

I just now finished preparing for tomorrow's work day.

You’re right about the speech's being highly nuanced. I focused on nuances and impressions when I read it (and Obama's statements last week).

On Olbermann, Obama’s answer addressed one statement (GD America). At Huffpost, he vaguely referred to multiple comments by Wright:

“The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments.”

compare that to what he said during Tuesday’s speech:

“Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes.”

That’s a far more concise statement than his Huffpo statement -- and straight forward, except the euphemistic use of “could be considered controversial.”

Consider the nuances (as Webster puts it, the “delicate variations of tone or meaning" ). Seriously.

Given what we see on TV these days – given how desensitized Americans are to sex, violence, drugs, crime, perversion, corruption, extra-marital affairs -- what sort of things could Obama have heard Wright say that would rise to the level of “controversial”?

I submit that the only things that would rise to that level were things SIMILAR to (though perhaps not the same) what was recently broadcast: i.e., stuff along the lines of disking whites, Jewish people, or America.

In the context of Obama's being a presidential candidate, I suspect that "controversial" means embarrassing to his campaign. I don't know for sure, because Sen. Obama relied on a vague euphemism, htough his comments last week and Tuesday were edited, not off-the-cuff.

The Huffpo statement sort of gave the IMPRESSION that Obama hadn’t personally heard terribly controversial statements from Wright. The line in his speech yesterday indicates that he HAD personally heard “controversial” stuff from Wright.

However highly nuanced the actual text of those statements are, to me they sent conflicting impressions.

Remember, the voters he speaks to aren't analyzing text the way that you and I are. They largely hear key words. As a lawyer and long-time politician, Obama knows this (and so do his political strategists).

That Obama dis-invited Rev. Wright from a campaign-related affair in early 2007 only makes more credible the notion that Obama had known for some time about SOME of the inflammatory stuff that Wright had said (i.e., stuff that would likely be embarrassing to the campaign).

And yet (new topic), Obama allowed Wright to serve on a campaign committee. I'm not saying that Wright is a bad person. But what was Obama thinking?

Incidentally, one thing positively impressed me about Obama’s speech: he did NOT disown Wright. It shows loyalty and decency, which I respect.


You say "The Huffpo statement sort of gave the IMPRESSION that Obama hadn’t personally heard terribly controversial statements from Wright." That's only slightly less of a stretch than the statement "Hillary's comments to 60 Minutes sort of gave the IMPRESSION that she might believe Obama is a closet muslim." In both cases you have a technically defensible statement, but from a practical perspective even bothering to parse a politician's words on this level is sort of ridiculous.

I'm being much more critical of this site than I usually am here, but I just feel this is an absurd tack to take on what was a historically significant speech. This speech used the current incident as a springboard for a much broader and deeper message. Do we really need to parse the meaning and submeaning of a single line in the quest to grind out a possible "gotcha" moment? Can't this speech simply be appreciated for its (considerable) merits?

It's not just Matthews who is tripping over himself to compliment this piece. The Hillary-endorsing NYT was glowing in its review, comparing it (quite reasonably) with Kennedy's 1960 speech on Catholicism/religion. Look across newspaper and television editorials all over the country, to say nothing of the blogosphere, and you see lavish praise, and deservedly so. Even a lot of conservative groups are begrudgingly admitting its strong points. Schools, universities, and religious groups are moving to incorporate discussions of the speech into their schedules. This is a great example of how a politician can use the bully pulpit of public office to raise the level of discourse.

You want to know how Obama is going to respond to getting "swiftboated" in the fall? Here's your answer. Obama took a cheap guilt-by-association attack on his candidacy, and through his honesty, directness, and insight, transformed it into something positive. He didn't back down, he didn't sell out old allies, and he didn't go negative himself. But the fact is that those clips of Wright, which were so effective in whittling down Obama's lead in the polls, will never again have the same power. Obama made them part of a larger discussion; one that actually makes people think and discuss and one that doesn't serve a cheap political purpose. I really can't imagine a better reponse to this crisis in his candidacy.

D. Cupples


You’re right: listeners don’t parse words of political speeches like you and I have done. They merely hear key words/phrases and gather IMPRESSIONS.

That’s why word smiths who’ve mastered nuance are so important to political campaigns.

In my prior comment, I juxtaposed two statements: 1) the one at Huffpo, and 2) the one from Tuesday’s speech.

Those two statements gave very different IMPRESSIONS.

On March 14 (or so), giving the IMPRESSION that Obama wasn’t really all-that aware of Wright’s inflammatory statements was worth a try.

When people didn’t believe that IMPRESSION and questioned Obama's veracity (see Posner’s piece at Huffpo), the only adequate response was a more definite-sounding statement (the one in Tuesday’s speech).

I don’t think Obama should be painted with Wright’s brush. It's a big distraction from substantive issues.

As I’ve said before, the only reason this issue interests me is that Obama has tried to sell himself as ABOVE cheap or dirty, old politics. That and his campaign has screeched loudly trying to impute to Hillary things that some of her supporters have said.

How many standards should there be?

The reality is that Obama DID try to package himself as above normal politics -- and in doing so, he created a higher standard by which other people would judge HIM.

[His strategists should have seen that one coming, but that’s a different story.]

I AGREE that the part of Tuesday's speech that highlights the African American plight was important. Originally, I said so toward the end of my post; in the edited version, I said it toward the beginning.

I don’t see it as “historical.” First, these concepts aren’t at all new. We’ve been reading about them for years (e.g., Jonathan Kozol and anyone who writes about civil rights or breaking the cycle of poverty).

Second, to view it as historical, one must consider the context (including the timing).

Obama’s timing truly bothers me. If racial injustice were a high political priority for him, why did he choose to not focus on it until AFTER Rev Wright embarrassed Obama?

That seems like damage control -- which is pretty cliche for politicians throughout history.

If the speech was motivated by damage control, it sort of dulls the “historical” shine -- and makes Obama seem like just another politician trying to move the spotlight off of a “flaw” that he’d rather the public forget.

The race topic DOES deserve more discussion, but that DOESN'T mean that Obama should get a pass on facing questions about his veracity, sincerity or how real his image is.

Even Posner questioned whether Obama had been straight with the public, and he supports Obama.

About Hillary’s 60 minutes statements: watch the video again. The first words out of her mouth were “of course not.”

Bizarrely, the interviewer asked her again (despite her clear answer). That’s when she started looking incredulous and stammered – but she managed to say 3 "No's" in that second answer.

MSNBC (et. al.) ignored her first response and screamed about the second when trying to make Hillary look like a jerk.

Video here:

That’s a very different thing from Obama’s carefully giving the public different IMPRESSIONS about his familiarity with Wright’s inflammatory words (while technically not lying).


I'm quite aware of the absurdity of the attacks on Hillary on this subject. My point is that those who want to find inconsistencies in shades of meaning will find it.

Your most recent explanation of how you see Obama's 3/14 comments is perfectly reasonable to me. I just don't see how we can get from there, to saying the 3/18 speech is inconsistent with it.

You're right that the TIMING of this speech does smack of damage control, and of course it did serve that purpose among others. The same can certainly be said of Kennedy's 1960 speech, which as I said before is probably the best analogue. But to say that the speech is merely damage control is pretty unfair in my opinion. Pure damage control would have been to expand the 3/14 statements. If it had just been about damage control he would have rejected, condemned, feigned ignorance of Wright's views, and distanced himself more fully. In stead he chose to broaden and deepen the discussion.

You're right that there is nothing earth-shatteringly new in the concepts of this speech. It was an outstanding speech in content, but not unique. What was unique was the way it was put together, and hearing it laid out so comprehensively from a major presidential candidate. And, in truth, the Wright controversy itself served to bring attention to the speech and magnify its significance. Like many historically notable speeches, it was a speech for its time.

D. Cupples

As usual, we've reached some points of agreement!

My main problem with Obama is not just that his talk hasn't been matching his walk. I've supported politicians who've been seasoned and crafty. In fact, I think Hillary is pretty well seasoned.

But those people haven't spent a bunch of energy trying to convince me that they're like the Jewel of the Nile (the character in the movie).

My problem is that Obama (or his strategists) have tried to package him as though the walk and talk match -- as though he really is politically purer than, say, Hillary (or even Edwards).

Obama is not new to politics, and he IS a player (if you believe some of the articles out of the Chicago papers about his phenomenal rise up the political ladder).

And Obama HAS allowed (at least since South Carolina, though I think earlier) his strategists to use some brass-knuckle tactics that are totally inconsistent with Obama the speaker/campaigner.

I've been a candidate (local): one or two mistakes might happen without the candidate's input, but the overall tone and tactics are subject to the candidate's approval.

If Obama had wanted run as a scrappy, brass-knuckles fighter, he should have just done it and made no bones about it. But to let his staff use such tactics repeatedly, then pretend that holy light emanates from him sends up my warning flags.

I didn't start seeing it until January, which is why before January I had no problem with Obama at all.

Admittedly, that's just who I am and how I react to blatant dis-ingenuousness (whether from politicians, car salesmen, or acquaintances). If a person works hard to disguise who he really is, I can't help but question what's under the surface.

I seriously doubt that most voters have the visceral reactions I do.

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