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By Matt Davies, via Make Them Accountable.

Playing the race ace

The New York Times op-ed page has now crossed the line I was hoping would not be crossed in a piece by Orlando Patterson that makes criticizing Barack Obama or questioning his qualifications — both the essence of campaign debate — tantamount to racism. We have crossed into a land where political discussion is politically incorrect. He says:

I have spent my life studying the pictures and symbols of racism and slavery, and when I saw the Clinton ad’s central image — innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger — it brought to my mind scenes from the past. I couldn’t help but think of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” the racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan, with its portrayal of black men lurking in the bushes around white society. The danger implicit in the phone ad — as I see it — is that the person answering the phone might be a black man, someone who could not be trusted to protect us from this threat.

Oh, for God’s sakes, the images could also remind me of Peter Pan and children being protected from the youthful scamp by the shaggy dog.

Oh, and what would solve this problem in Patterson’s view? Not casting a blonde child. Being blonde is a problem.

He concludes:

It is possible that what I saw in the ad is different from what Mrs. Clinton and her operatives saw and intended. But as I watched it again and again I could not help but think of the sorry pass to which we may have come — that someone could be trading on the darkened memories of a twisted past that Mr. Obama has struggled to transcend.

Yes, and as I read this sorry piece again and again and saw its clear intention of painting Hillary Clinton as a racist, I could not help but think that it is a sad day when a Harvard professor and the New York Times sink to playing the race card in this election, turning political debate into victimization.

In this, the age of offense, let me say, I’m offended.

Questions are not attacks

Hillary Clinton’s ringing phone commercial has been called an attack ad. It’s not. Since when is questioning a candidate’s qualifications and comparing them to your own an attack? If even discussion of experience and ability becomes politically incorrect, our politics are in deep trouble. Qualifications and policies should be the essence of a campaign.

I heard that commercial referred to as an attack ad when I was interviewed the other night for More 4 news in London and I see it again in David Brooks’ column today. No, an attack ad is one the goes after character instead of qualification, one that tries to create scandal as political leverage, one that’s nasty rather than informative. We know attack ads when we see them. This is no attack ad.

Brooks is arguing that Obama’s campaign faces a fundamental choice: to continue to argue that he can bring a politics of reconciliation to Washington or to lose that, the essence of his campaign, and go on the attack. If, indeed, the Obama camp launches attack ads, that’s true.

But let’s not mistake substantive debate for attack. It’s legitimate for Clinton to question Obama’s experience and abilities in foreign affairs. And it’s legitimate for Obama to question various of Clinton’s qualification. And I do wish they’d discuss differences on issues and policies at every opportunity. Out of that debate comes a better election.

I’ll define the Obama campaign’s problem a bit differently from Brooks: They will be drawn to specifics on both qualifications and policies now, specifics they have masterfully avoided so far in their puffy clouds of rhetoric.

Brooks argues that the lesson here may be that you can’t change politics. That may well be true. But I don’t think Obama is teaching us that lesson. I’ve been saying that he has been running the ultimate political campaign, one built on political rhetoric and style over substance. But Brooks comes around to nearly this view at the end:

In short, a candidate should never betray the core theory of his campaign, or head down a road that leads to that betrayal. Barack Obama doesn’t have an impressive record of experience or a unique policy profile. New politics is all he’s got. He loses that, and he loses everything. Every day that he looks conventional is a bad day for him.

Besides, the real softness of the campaign is not that Obama is a wimp. It’s that he has never explained how this new politics would actually produce bread-and-butter benefits to people in places like Youngstown and Altoona.

If he can’t explain that, he’s going to lose at some point anyway.

So if he is forced to explain that and if he does it well, it could actually be good for him. Depends on what he has to say. And now we have five months to hear it. I think that’s a good thing for the campaign.

(Repeated disclosure: I voted for Clinton.)

Finally covering Obamedia

Well, at last, attention is being paid to the hand job that news media have been giving Barack Obama. Howie Kurtz was pretty much alone in questioning Obamedia (here he was on their slathering over the Ted Kennedy endorsement that did Obama little good in Massachusetts, and here I am complaining about their fawning). Now Saturday Night Live has taken up the story, followed at long last — and way too late, I’d say — by On the Media.

On Kurtz’ show this week, former Mitt Romney spokesman Kevin Madden called media coverage of Obama an “infomercial.” (With emphasis on the mercial, of course.) And former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers shamed media critics and editors for missing their own story: “I think it’s interesting that it took pop culture to make the country focus on the question of whether Hillary Clinton is being treated unfairly, and that was Saturday Night Live.”

Here’s where SNL started, a week ago, with a debate skit. A wonderfully exaggerated Jorge Ramos of Univsion questions Obama: “Oh, my God, I’m so nervous. I can’t believe I’m actually talking to you…. I’m sorry to go on so long, I just really, really, really, really want you to be the next President. And not just because you’re a fantastic human being and the only person who can turn this nation around…. So my question is, are you mad at me?… I was afraid you might be mad at me because, you know, all the shilling for you in my campaign coverage has been so obvious.”

Obama replies: “As I travel around this country, I’ve been hearing the same sentiments from every journalist I meet…. For too long in this country, the press has been hearing the same old refrain: Just give us the news and not your personal opinions. And they’re tired. They’re tired of being told, you journalists have to say neutral, you can’t take sides in a political campaign. And they’re saying, yes, we can. Yes, we can take sides. Yes, we can.”This week, the well-deserved skewering of puppy-love press continued with another debate skit, this one making fun of the MSNBC Barackfest debate. Clinton: “Maybe its just me but once again it seems as if (a) I’m getting the tougher questions and (b) with me, the overall tone is more hostile.” Cue Russert and Williams playing violins.I’ve said it before: I think this is a failure of media. It is also a failure of media criticism. Media won’t cover their own failings. Indeed, it’s frightening to hear the logic of political correspondents — this week’s Kurtz show is only the latest example — when they blame the campaign for getting bad coverage because they’re not being nice to the press.

So I’m glad to finally hear On the Media take on the story. Though fat lot of good that will do since we’re only days away from what the horse-race correspondents say is make-or-break Tuesday. Said Brooke Gladstone: “The media heart Obama.”

On OTM, media critic Bill Powers says that Obama has “an amazing ability to deflect bad press and move on.” I think that’s criticizing the event from the wrong direction: The press has an amazing ability not to press. Even in OTM’s criticism, we hear more wet kisses for Obama. Says Powers: “The way he keeps is cool is remarkable for someone under fire, particularly someone relatively young running for president…. It is something we haven’t seen the like of since Kennedy.” Just once, I want to hear reporters talk about what Obama does not say. Just once, I want to see reporters to go into a crowd of Obamaniacs and ask 10 of them — or a pollster 1,000 of them: “What does change mean?” Let’s hear whether, indeed, they are one or whether Obama is an empty vessel for his supporters as he is for media.

On both On the Media and Kurtz, guests predict that once Obama wins and Hillary is out of the way — which they all eagerly predict — the press will start attacking him. I don’t believe that. They’ll continue to slather over him until he gets into the White House. And then we’ll just see whether they finally start doing their job.

(Disclosure: I voted for Clinton.)

: LATER: I post this and then pick up the New York Times this morning, which twice mentions the media’s slathering over Obama. Here they are mocking US magazine, of all journalistic paragons, under a journalism heading, of all places, for treating Obama’s wardrobe better than Clinton’s (though the Clinton feature was one in which she quite gamely made fun of her own outfits and got points for being so game). And here’s a feature on the SNL writer of the debate skits. Not a mention, though, of the Times’ newsroom’s own incurable crush. Reporters, report thyselves.

: But at least on the op-ed page, there has been acknowledgment of the media’s issue. Here was David Brooks’ mockery of it a few weeks ago. And Paul Krugman today:

What we do know is that Mr. Obama has never faced a serious Republican opponent — and that he has not yet faced the hostile media treatment doled out to every Democratic presidential candidate since 1988.

Yes, I know that both the Obama campaign and many reporters deny that he has received more favorable treatment than Hillary Clinton. But they’re kidding, right? Dana Milbank, the Washington Post national political reporter, told the truth back in December: “The press will savage her no matter what … they really have the knives out for her, there’s no question about it … Obama gets significantly better coverage.”

: LATER: I missed Jacques Steinberg’s story in the Times on Saturday that did, indeed, start to cover this, though I’d say it’s a much bigger story than this. See also Rachel Sklar’s complaint with his piece.

Join the chorus

(This is crossposted from Comment is Free, where the comments are always interesting. It repeats a bit of what I said here yesterday and replaces and expands on an earlier post.)

The contrast in Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns — and their voters — is starkly illustrated in their Super Tuesday speeches.

Obama is the orator, Clinton the manager. Obama’s crowd behaves like a devoted cult Clinton’s like a well-behaved class. Obama has succeeded — with considerable help from media — at portraying his campaign as a movement, while Clinton’s is, well, a campaign.

Obama’s 21 minutes:

My problem with his campaign is also illustrated in this speech. Though he catalogues his issues — Iraq, health care, the standard list — his message is made up of little more than stock marketing taglines. He’s not so much running for office as branding himself.

Listen to last night’s medley of his greatest hits: “Our time has come… Our movement is real… Change is coming to America… We are more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and always will be the United States of America… This time can be different…. Not this time. Not this year…. This time we have to seize the moment…. This fall, we owe the American people a real choice…. We have to choose between change and more of the same, we have to choose between looking backwards and looking forward. We have to choose between our future and our past…. We can do this… We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek…. Yes we can…. Yes we can….” Cue crowd chanting: “Yes we can…”

His supporters, including many New York friends of mine, buy his image and believe he is less political and that he is indeed different. I think he’s more political and his campaign is the greatest example of the selling of the president I’ve yet seen. To state it harshly, I say that relying on these stock phrases — believing that we are going to swallow empty oratory about “change” punctuated with chants of “yes we can” — is a cynical political act.

But then again, I can’t argue with the fact that it’s working. It’s working with voters and it’s certainly working with the media, which have given Obama more attention through much of the campaign. Here’s a chart from Daylife showing Obama getting more coverage even as they racked up equivalent delegate counts.as Clinton amasses more delegates.picture-30.png

Media like Obama’s story. It’s a better story, they say. That is, if the real story is about personality and oratory over issues and competence. See this discussion about some Kennedys’ endorsement of Obama (note not about other Kennedys’ endorsement of Clinton) between the Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, and political correspondent, Chris Cillizza, on CNN:

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy. It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline….

If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

You can hear him aching to cover to the Second Coming of the Kennedy. That is obviously a better story than the Second Coming of the Clintons.

Now watch the brief clip of Clinton’s Super Tuesday speech posted on YouTube by her campaign. She delivers the same essential message and about the exact same issues but without the chanting and cheering behind her – without the excitement:

When I complained on my blog that I want to hire a manager not a spiritual adviser for the White House — especially after eight years of grossly incompetent management from someone who thought he had a cause — my commenters responded with their dreamy wishes for an uplifting Obama administration instead. Said one: “I don’t want an executive, I want someone to stoke the fires of political engagement so that the people will be involved in thier government again.” Said another: “We don’t want an executive to lead us – we want someone who will amplify our voices and give us the ability to reach into government.” Nevermind the job title is chief executive.

Indeed, commenter Andrew Tyndall argued that management is a turnoff: “The virtue that many Democrats in the party’s base hail as ‘competent management’ is an attribute that many non-Democrats may see as the vice of being ‘wedded to bureaucracy.’ It may be that a liberal Democrat who talks in generalities, rather than specifics, has an easier time persuading those voters who are reflexively against big government that he does not have the heart and soul of a bureaucrat — or ‘manager’ to use BuzzMachine’s less pejorative term.”

So I appear to be the odd man out. Maybe I should just join the chorus. Ch-ch-ch-changes:

(Disclosures: I am a partner at Daylife. And I voted for Clinton yesterday.)

What does the Times have against Hillary?

I was amazed that on today’s New York Times front page, I couldn’t find a mention of Hillary Clinton’s victory in Florida — not even a reefer (jargon for a promo box), not a by-the-way paragraph inserted into the Republican story, not a news peg added into a story about 527 groups advertising on behalf of Obama (a positive story for him, nonetheless, since they say he’s working hard to repudiate them while they say Clinton is not). It’s the same story online: other than a line in the chart of results, there’s a mention of Clinton’s win only below the fold (that is, the first screen), in smaller type, under the label “more politics.”

I went to the Times Square newstand to look at the Washington Post. Clinton’s victory is right at the top of the page aside McCain’s. I would call that proper news judgment.

Yes, it’s true that Clinton officially won no delegates because the Democratic Party is punishing Florida. But that, itself, is a story: There’s a huge turnout in Florida for votes that supposedly don’t count. Where’s the outrage about disenfranchising these voters; it’s an undemocratic, unDemocratic, unconstitutional, and — considering Florida’s importance in November — just plain politically dumb move by the party. But the Times relegated the story to the bottom of page A16.

If I were a communications student, I’d be doing an analysis of the Times’ coverage of Clinton. There is a pattern here.

(Disclosure: I’ve said before and will repeat that I’m planning to vote for Clinton on SuperTuesday.)

Obama playing the race card

Times of London columnist Alice Miles minces no words in calling Barack Obama for playing the race card without merit against Hillary Clinton:

What a shame that a contest that has the world gripped, that is transforming international opinion of the United States, that has shown America in its best and most brilliant light, threatens to descend into a pathetic slanging match over race. What a shame for the centre Left, which had everything to cheer about in the stunning choice between, potentially, the first female and the first black president, that they are allowing the contest to slip into an idiotic series of unproven claims about racial bias.

On Monday Hillary Clinton called for a truce reminding everyone that “Senator Obama and I are on the same side”. Hear hear. But how did it come to this?

The thin catalogue of complaints against the Clinton campaign from the Obama campaign were unfounded, manipulative and self-indulgent. At best they called into question the oversensitivity of Mr Obama, at worst they showed him willing to play a divisive race card that is damaging the entire Democratic Party and tarnishing a great and historic electoral contest for the centre Left. The whole episode has convinced me he isn’t tough enough for the White House.

For since when has referring to somebody’s past admitted drug use – if indeed the Clinton campaign ever intended to do that, which is far from clear – been a racial slur? More racist, I would say, to equate drugs with blacks, and that’s what the Obama campaign is doing, not the Clinton one.

As for Mrs Clinton’s statement that Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality was realised only when President Johnson managed to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress? No more than fact, surely; an attack on Mr Obama’s lack of experience, certainly, but hardly a slur upon King. Mr Obama’s campaign is twisting things so that a comment about any black man is a comment about him, just as any attack on him is an attack on all black people. I ask again: who is playing the race card here?

She’s unafraid to say what we’re afraid to say in the U.S. And I think she’s right.

Unofficial secrets

The other day, I poked at the Telegraph’s Toby Harnden for whining about Clinton’s campaign being not as nice to the press as Obama’s. He emailed me wondering why I gave him a slap when I argue for transparency in the press — and besides, it came in a blog — which is a fair point. But I responded: “But in there was an attitude I saw in many reporters’ notebooks and columns and analyses — other nonstories: that the campaigns should be nice to us. Where does that presumption come from? Indeed, isn’t that a little close for comfort? I’m not saying we need to be hostile. . . . But our readers really shouldn’t care about the campaigns’ skills at flacking us and about our inconvenience.” So where’s the line between whining and reporting? I’m not sure. Now I see this video from my colleague at the Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, coming up against an Obama wall when she tries to interview campaign supporters at headquarters and at a rally and the campaign flunkies try to stop her. She calls that paranoia. Is that complaining or reporting? You decide.