Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Ned Barnett © 2008

After his stellar performance this morning, as he tried to explain away his pastor, the Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Wright, it is clear to me, as a former campaign speechwriter myself, that Barack Obama is perhaps the most effective speech-reader in American politics today. His speech was a masterwork of misdirection – a tour de force of the triumph of emotion over logic. It was nothing short of a remarkable “bait-and-switch” – an advertising gambit that “promises one thing and delivers something very much different, without the customer noticing” – that may have saved Obama’s campaign. If so, it succeeded by avoiding the real issue – the candidate’s judgment – that had mushroomed in the past week.

Senator Obama’s campaign is built on two elements – his “post-racial” refusal to let race be an issue, and the Senator’s sound judgment, which more than compensates for his lack of real experience in national government.

Senator Obama’s challenge was daunting. Americans have been inundated by video clips featuring the Senator’s pastor spewing race-based hatred of America, demonstrating this willingness to believe every wack-job conspiracy theory this side of black helicopters. To counter this, the Senator had to explain away his own lack of judgment in putting up with such vile blather for twenty years. That’s what this speech promised – the bait. What he delivered was something very different – the switch.

Senator Obama carefully – and effectively – addressed some (but by no means all of) the specific hate-filled and conspiratorial positions that his pastor has consistently advocated from the pulpit, drawing each narrowly to minimize their impact. However, while giving America a fascinating lecture on the history of the “black experience” in America, Senator Obama very effectively changed the subject. He promised answers and delivered fascinating distraction – executing a classic “bait-and-switch,” one which would have made any Madison Avenue Ad-Man green with envy.

Much of the media is focusing on this remarkable and seemingly candid exploration of race – one of the thorniest issues America has faced since the first African chattel slaves were brought to America. However, this same media – and, presumably, at least some of the Senator’s large national audience – missed the larger point. Instead of addressing the issue – his judgment – as promised, Barack Obama gracefully and effectively changed the subject. Bait-and-Switch.

No longer is the media focusing on “why did Obama stay in the congregation of a man who clearly hates America and despises whites?”

No longer are pundits asking “what does this relationship say about Senator Obama’s judgment?”

Instead, Americans – and the American media – are again marveling at the man’s podium dexterity, a real skill that the Senator cultivated at Harvard and Columbia, then refined in the rough-and-tumble politics of inner-city Chicago.

As a former speechwriter and ranked intercollegiate debater, I have nothing but raw admiration for Senator Obama’s dual abilities to write and deliver truly remarkable speeches. He does so with a power and style not seen since President Reagan reminded America of the power of the spoken word. Senator Obama’s skills bring to mind another remarkable orator, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose words and presentation did much to hold together a shaky coalition through both the Great Depression and the world’s greatest war.

Senator Obama has that gift.

However, he’s used this gift to “bait-and-switch” us away from questioning his judgment and core beliefs, away from thinking about what it means that he sat through 20 years of hate-filled Sunday sermons without hearing anything offensive. With this bait-and-switch speech, Senator Obama has moved us away from the real issue and toward the open sore of race that has troubled America for centuries – an issue he’d carefully avoided until this speech.

The irony is clear. Senator Obama has portrayed himself as the man who transcended race, effectively appealing to Americans regardless of their race. This “post-racial” positioning played nicely into the Senator’s “hope and change” pitch, since nearly all Americans hope to change our historic racial intolerance and move toward a color-blind “all men are created equal” standard.

But now, thanks to this speech, race is front-and-center in the campaign. In order to save his campaign from his own remarkably poor judgment – remaining affiliated to a church whose minister damns America and blames our country for 9-11, AIDs and crack cocaine – Senator Obama has injected this “post-racial” campaign with a massive dose of race.

The ultimate irony is clear – though Reverend Wright is black, the reason he’d become a liability to Senator Obama isn’t his race, but his blatant hatred for America. Senator Obama has excused that hate by reason of race and “generation,” and undone in one day a year’s worth of “post-racial” positioning.

That’s a great debating strategy – don’t let your opponents focus on your weaknesses – but when it comes to healing America, or even to running a Presidential campaign, Senator Obama has done himself, and his country, a profound disservice. Instead of addressing his pastor’s hatred for America – and what that means about the Senator’s own judgment – he instead tried to shame white America into letting go of the issues created by Reverend Wright. Instead of understanding Senator Obama’s choice of affiliating with such a notorious hater, we now know where he stands on the issue of race – an issue that, until today, Senator Obama himself had said was off-limits and out-of-bounds.

Politically, this may be the ultimate “bait-and-switch.”