For me, the most striking part of Barack Obama’s uberspeech about race Tuesday was the extent to which he seemed to be talking directly to the individuals in the media, and not just in a facile “okay, this is a chance to change the weekly narrative” way.
Here’s the undertow of most of this week’s coverage: for all his noble striving, Obama didn’t get his message out to the working-class white men that he’ll need if he’s going to do well in Pennsylvania.
He didn’t speak in made-for-TV rhyming couplets (“mend it, don’t end it“), designed to clatter through the media pipe and emerge, undamaged, in America’s living room; or in poetic diction destined to bypass the media altogether (“the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together“). He didn’t do that.
Crowley says only elites will get it. Kaus says Obama alienated workaday whites by talking about slavery and by maligning his prejudiced-in-a-perfectly-normal-way grandmother. Meanwhile, Compton (via Yglesias) concedes Obama’s soundbyte deficit but argues that the Internet, with its full-length videos and instant transcripts, make soundbytes unnecessary.
I’d love to think, as the New York Observer did, that Obama was just treating us all “like adults,” letting us sit at the grownups table while he carved into this stringy issue. More likely, I think, is that Obama had a very unusual, interesting goal for this address: an appeal to the personal patriotism of the journalists who cover him.
This passage is from his big finish, as he’s getting to the operative “therefore” clauses of the address:
We have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
Who’s he talking to here? It’s CNN producers, Time Magazine reporters, USA Today headline writers. He wants them to make individual, patriotically motivated choices not to cover his candidacy in a shallow, theatrical way. The analogy is to the founding fathers with whom he opened the whole address: the ones who decided to postpone a resolution of the slavery issue as they wrote the constitution.
He might have used this as a chance to theatrically renounce affirmative action or welfare or some other black Democratic sacred cow, in order to demonstrate his moderation. Instead, he chose a very cerebral way to address his problem. A libertarian sort of way. A community-organizer sort of way.
Maybe Obama decided there was no way to reach poor white men anyway without the press’s help. Maybe he is simply right that the media actually wields the power here. I don’t know. But if the press raves are any indication, this tack seems to be working fairly well so far. Both the New York Times and LA Times articles on Obama’s talk quoted from this passage at some length.
Here’s the goofy pop-culture thing this reminds me of: Ratatouille and I’m Not There, two movies by auteur directors (Bird and Haynes) that became some of of the best-reviewed of last year not by being flawless but by being movies about criticism — and by making direct requests, it sometimes seemed, for critics to deliver positive reviews of those movies. Critics obliged.
Effective? Dunno. (Ratatouille: $200 million. I’m Not There: $4 million.) Interesting? Hell yes.
-posted by Mike