Thursday, April 17, 2008
April 17, 2008 11:00 AM
What is it about Philadelphia? The city last month hosted one of the most impressive moments of the presidential campaign to date: Barack Obama's forthright speech on race. But last night, the very same venue - the National Constitution Centre - witnessed one of the worst events: the dismal ABC News debate between the Democratic candidates.
The contrast could hardly have been starker. Obama's March 18 speech was sophisticated, honest and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of his audience. Last night's debate - or, more specifically, the performance of its moderators, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos - was by turns superficial and disingenuous.
The trouble started early. Gibson began with an utterly fatuous inquiry about whether each candidate would pledge to ask the other to be their vice-presidential nominee if they won, and agree to accept the veep slot if they lost. Tired questions about the Jeremiah Wright affair and Obama's remarks regarding voters in Midwestern states who "cling" to religion and social issues followed.
About half the time set aside for the debate had elapsed - and seven flimsy or already-exhausted issues had been raised - before the first serious question of the night, about troop withdrawals from Iraq, was asked.
The relentless triviality was only one problem, however. The more serious failing was the willingness of Gibson and Stephanopoulos to volunteer as water-carriers for a conservative attack machine that, fearful of Obama's crossover appeal, is already working overtime to tarnish his reputation.
Gibson placed ABC's imprimatur on one of the more obviously silly stories - the suggestion that Obama's disinclination to wear a stars and stripes flag pin could render him unelectable.
"As you may know, it is all over the internet," Gibson intoned earnestly, as if hoping this might absolve him from any responsibility for raising such a gaseous point during a critical prime-time debate.
"I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins," Obama - who had, in fact, donned such a pin when it was given to him by a veteran on Tuesday - said in response.
"This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from what should be my job when I'm commander in chief, which is going to be figuring out how we get our troops out of Iraq and how we actually make our economy better for the American people."
That response provoked the audience to break the night's ground rules by bursting into applause. But Stephanopoulos, undaunted, immediately took up the baton to investigate what he absurdly categorised as "the general theme of patriotism" - or supposed lack thereof - in Obama's personal life.
One would have thought Stephanopoulos might have acquired some perceptiveness about the methods of rightwing smear merchants in his previous job as a senior advisor in Bill Clinton's White House. Apparently not.
Having already asked Obama a risible question about his former pastor ("Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?"), Stephanopoulos now pressed him on his "relationship" with Bill Ayers.
Ayers is a professor at the University of Illinois and a fixture on the liberal edges of Chicago's political scene. As such, it is hardly surprising that one local meet'n'greet, when Obama was beginning his run for the Illinois state senate took place at Ayers' house. The two men also served together on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago for a time. Ayers, however, is also a former member of the Weather Underground, and remains unapologetic about that organisation's crimes.
When his name surfaced in February, Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod was asked about the two men's relationship.
"Bill Ayers lives in his neighbourhood," Axelrod told Politico.com's Ben Smith. "Their kids attend the same school. They're certainly friendly, they know each other, as anyone whose kids go to school together [would]."
In fact, Axelrod had his facts slightly askew. Though Ayers' children had once attended the same school as Obama's daughters, they had left before the much younger Obama girls began.
The quote was nevertheless fairly innocuous in context. But it has been pared down in the more Obamaphobic parts of the blogosphere to one word: friendly. From that, all manner of bizarre theories about Obama's alleged sympathies for Ayers have been extrapolated.
The febrile hypothesising had been confined to the farthest fringes of the national conversation until Fox News' Sean Hannity lent his weight to the cause. Hannity has done his best to amplify the issue on radio and TV.
There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that Obama harbours even a smidgen of sympathy for Ayers' radicalism or the Weather Underground's worldview. And, more generally, if the views of every person with whom a presidential candidate has ever interacted are to be judged as possible disqualifiers from office, America's political future would look very impoverished indeed.
Obama struggled to restrain his frustration when Stephanopoulos injected the phoney issue into the debate.
"The notion that ... me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was eight years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense, George," the Illinois senator noted dryly.
When a presidential debate in a nation roiled by two wars, an economic crisis and a seven-year onslaught on civil liberties revolves around questions about flag pins and casual friends, it would be easy to despair.
But there are reasons to believe that Obama's claim last night - "the American people are smarter than that" - may be proven true this year.
His thoughtful response to the Wright controversy last month stopped his poll decline dead in its tracks and restored his dominant position over Clinton. Despite the media hubbub over his "cling" remarks, the most recent polls suggest the furor has had virtually no effect.
And, most encouragingly of all, the public response to last night's awful performance by the debate moderators was immediate and vociferous. As heckling erupted at the debate's end, Gibson smiled wanly and said, "The crowd is turning on me." Within three hours of the debate's end, the ABC News website had received over 7,600 comments about the evening's events. The overwhelming majority were negative.
Stephanopoulos and Gibson deserve every bit of opprobrium being thrown their way. They delivered a noxious blend of smear, innuendo and diversion.
But it looks like the same old political junk food no longer satisfies an electorate hungry for real change.