The Swift Boating of Obama


Back in 2004, a group of people who were very interested for partisan and ideological reasons in derailing the viability of John Kerry’s candidacy created a major distraction that was designed to do one thing, and history shows that by and large the purpose was accomplished. The design was to transform one of Kerry’s greatest strengths — his status as a decorated war hero — into a liability. The chosen means was the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” who produced public information consisting of half-truths, distortions and untruths to cast an indelible shadow on the public perception of the candidate’s character. The tactic was successful in part because Kerry’s campaign was slow in refuting the half-truths and untruths, considering them beneath the dignity of a detailed response. By the time detailed responses became necessary, the damage was done, and the candidate never recovered. A tactic known as “swift-boating” entered the political lexicon.

I’d like to frame recent events along similar lines in the following fashion. This year, as political enemies of Barack Obama searched for a way to transform one of his greatest strengths into a liability, they found just the way to do it. Not being able to find a way to do him damage with respect to his message or his positions on issues, echoing the approach of the political enemies of a faithful public servant mentioned in Daniel 6:5, they began to turn to his associations, his identity as a practicing Christian in an active church, and must have spent many hours combing through the vast bulk of recorded sermons of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to find short clips that, when edited to greatest effect and made public, would do for Obama what the allegations of the Swift Boat group did for Kerry.

Unlike Kerry, Obama did not wait for the issue to go away, but took the opportunity to address the underlying fears and prejudices to which the new “information” appealed. In a masterful speech given in Philadelphia, written by himself, he brought the discourse to a level beyond personalities and guilt-by-association, and challenged the nation to a new, needed national conversation on an issue that many people are still uncomfortable with. He denied having seen the particular remarks that were now getting so much airtime, and distanced himself from those remarks, but not from the man who made them. His political opponents, aided by the major media, continued to press the issue of whether his refusal to throw Pastor Wright “under the bus” revealed some nefarious character flaw in himself. The major narrative was now set, and while Obama continued to decry this manufactured controversy as a “distraction,” the distraction began to get some traction.

Then Pastor Wright emerged again at center stage, giving major speeches in two venues before a national television audience. The first of these , a speech to the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, was carried live and in full on CNN, and it was interesting to watch the stunned reaction of the reporters who covered it. To its credit, CNN changed its programming lineup to provide an extra two hours of coverage of what they called this “very newsworthy” event, and replayed, in segments, the entire speech during that coverage. They scrambled to find commentators on short notice. The bulk of the unscripted reaction that those of us then watching observed was a certain amount of surprise and contrition about the former practice of limiting coverage to an endless replay of select, short “snippets” of controversial video; this brief display of contrition on behalf of the media seeming to be based on what was obviously, and surprisingly, a very positive impression of what had now been heard. After about an hour and a half, which included the replay of the speech, CNN managed to locate two so-called Democratic “super-delegates” for on-air comment. Unfortunately, neither one of them was prepared to respond to the events of the evening, but only to rehash previously rehearsed talking points about Obama’s need to “distance himself” from Rev. Wright — because neither had actually listened to Wright’s speech. One had heard some short snips and seen a summary of the transcript, no doubt hastily assembled by staff. That’s when I turned off the TV.

By morning, the good folk at CNN were back on message, and over at MSNBC, the talking points were not on the substance of Wright’s comments either at the NAACP event or this morning at the National Press Club, but were all about whether or not Wright’s reappearance in the spotlight would damage Obama a little, or a lot. As evidence that the damage might be great, the good folk at MSNBC flashed on the screen the results of a poll — taken days before either of these appearances — indicating that forty-odd percent of the public were less likely to vote for Obama because of Rev. Wright, than they were before. Let me point out once again…. forty-odd percent who were exposed only to endless replays of short snippets of video. This was presented on our television screens, today, as though they were indications of the public’s reactions to two full-lengh speeches which displayed, at least, a much more well-rounded picture of the man and his message — speeches that had not been given or aired at the time the poll was taken, and the first of which, at the very least, that was covered in an extremely positive way by CNN at least until they began to interview for reaction and comment people who admitted on-air that they HAD NOT HEARD IT.

So, we’re back to a new round of short snippets and sound bites. These will be carefully selected and edited and the most egregious-sounding of them endlessly replayed, again, to reinforce the storyline. I predict that very little airtime will be given to the substance of Wright’s message from Sunday and the prepared remarks of Monday, some parts of which I’d like to highlight as follows.

  1. “Different” does not mean “Deficient. ” We should not perpetuate ideas of superiority/inferiority based on such things as race, ethnicity, or the continent one’s forebears came from.
  2. It is not unpatriotic to challenge unjust policies of any government.
  3. Positive change is possible, desirable, and is coming.
  4. All people are of equal value, and Reconciliation is the goal.

I would like to say that it would serve Rev. Wright well if he were to assert (as I wish he would) that if all he ever had heard about himself were those few well-chosen snippets, he’d have a negative impression also. Instead, what he did at the NPC event was challenge his questioner very simply: “Did you hear the whole message?” “Did you listen to the entire sermon?” It is a legitimate question.

So, to all those who have made a political judgment based on this swift-boat tactic of endless replays of a few short video clips culled and edited from many many hours of available material, I have just one word, not from Rev. Wright, not from this preacher either, but a relevant “sound byte” from the text of Holy Scripture; Proverbs 18:13 — “He who answers before listening — that is his folly and shame.”

[Edit: as of Tuesday afternoon, it seems the prediction made above was accurate. . The new snippets, mostly from the Q&A at the National Press Club, present an unflattering view of a somewhat supercilious Rev. Wright. All news-cycle airtime focuses on these snippets from the Q&A, and none on any of the substantive points of the Sunday speech. The major points have mostly still been missed, including, it seems now, by the “outraged” and “disappointed” former parishioner Barack Obama, who I think, in a saner political moment, would not want to claim that it is untrue that, for example, reconciliation is a major focus of the African-American church. His most honest course now would be to take some time to explain what he does agree with as well as what he disagrees with, and make reasoned distinctions. In the sound-bite-snippet world of modern politics, such thoughtful honesty is most likely a luxury that is just not available to him right now. The swift-boating will continue.]

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