Saturday, March 15, 2008
Why I'm unpersuaded by Obama's disavowal of Rev. Wright's political polemics from the pulpit
BY MR. WISENBERG:
Q Mr. President, I want to, before I go into a new subject area, briefly go over something you were talking about with Mr. Bittman.
The statement of your attorney, Mr. Bennett, at the Paula Jones deposition, "Counsel is fully aware" — it's page 54, line 5 — "Counsel is fully aware that Ms. Lewinsky has filed, has an affidavit which they are in possession of saying there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton."
That statement is made by your attorney in front of Judge Susan Webber Wright, correct?
A That's correct.
Q That statement is a completely false statement. Whether or not Mr. Bennett knew of your relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, the statement that there was "no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton," was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?
A It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is. If the — if he — if "is" means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement....
They teach you how to parse words at Texas Law School, where I went. They teach you how to parse words at Yale Law School, where Bill & Hillary Clinton went. And they teach you how to parse words at Harvard Law School, where Barack & Michelle Obama went.
The law schools at Harvard and Yale certainly cost more than I paid at Texas; maybe they teach you how to parse words better up there, I dunno. But there's one kind of word parsing used to obscure, and another type that's used to reveal, and my goal in this post is to do the latter because I think Barack Obama is engaged in the former.
I regret that this may give offense to the lawyers who questioned Bill Clinton before the grand jury, or in his original deposition in the underlying (heh! bad pun!) deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. But I remember thinking the first time I read that testimony, and as I watched Clinton's videotape from his grand jury testimony, that he was just running rings around them. Oh, what I'd have given for the chance to be among his inquisitors!
Of course the fact that he was running rings around them rather than giving them straight answers was, to many Americans, even more conclusive proof that Bill Clinton had much to hide, that he had lied, and that he was still lying, and that he will lie until the day he dies. But trust me: If there's ever a book published called "Great Moments in the Cross-Examination of Sitting Presidents," this exchange — the "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" exchange — will either be left out altogether, or else listed as a witness victory. Bill Clinton got away with the "meaning of "is" is" answer for lack of effective follow-up: there was none even attempted. And that, friends and neighbors, was not only a damned shame for the United States of America, but a damned shame for everyone who relishes a really good cross-examination and hates to see an important one blown.
Comes now, almost ten years later, would-be President Barack Obama, enveloped in a much smaller scandal, but one that certainly threatens to do him real and lasting political harm. His pastor's words, and his own words about his pastor's words, and the sincerity of his words about his pastor's words, are all at issue.
The question is this: Is Barack Obama playing the American public for chumps, the same way Bill Clinton played these prosecutors? Is he parsing, playing word games, and — like Bill Clinton — telling what he believes to be literal truths, even though they're inconsistent with and being used to hide the whole truths?
Barack Obama's video statement today about his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was crafted to sound unequivocal and direct. Here are all of the sentences of overt disavowal (taken from the published text version; emphasis mine):
Let me say at the outset that I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy. I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies. I also believe that words that degrade individuals have no place in our public dialogue, whether it's on the campaign stump or in the pulpit. In sum, I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue.
The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments....
Let me repeat what I've said earlier. All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country.
Wow, that's stronger than train smoke! He vehemently disagrees, and strongly condemns; he categorically denounces and rejects outright. Then he gets vehement again, not just to disagree, but to condemn!
To which my response is:
Uh, Senator, that's great and all, and I want to be the first to give you an "Amen!" for your passion, but ... Would you tell us, please, exactly which statements you're talking about?
You see, we already have a definitional problem. We have a definitional problem, Senator, because you are already on record as saying: "I don't think my church is actually particularly controversial."
So what the heck do you mean when we ask, "Which statements do you condemn?" and you only reply, "The controversial ones!"
Do we have a controversy about the meaning of "controversial," Senator?
Surely there's a decently trained journalist out there who can pin Obama down on this — if not with the skill of a trained cross-examiner, then with at least the skill of, well, a decently trained journalist. And the way to do it is through what good trial lawyers refer to as the "hammer and tongs" method. You take your tongs, and you squeeze really tight to make sure the target doesn't slip away, and then you pound the hell out of it until it's flat. Then you re-heat it, turn it sideways, grab it tight in your tongs again, and start swinging the hammer again. When you're done, you know the mettle of what you've got.
(Good word that, "mettle," meaning "inherent quality of character and temperament," and frequently mistaken for "metal" in this context, which is close but gets you no cigar. Ah — damn, that makes me think of Bill Clinton again.)
It may well be, for example, that Sen. Obama strongly, categorically, and vehemently condemns and rejects outright the notion that HIV/AIDS is a CIA-spread disease meant particularly to afflict blacks. Okay, then. That's one statement down, and about four dozen left to examine.
Does Sen. Obama think God should damn America for "killing innocent people"? That probably is going to deserve some follow-up questions, because there's no doubt that America has killed innocent people, and there may be instances in which the Senator would find those killings to be culpable. So, Senator, tell us which ones, and why those are culpable, but others may not be, or may be less so.
Does Sen. Obama think God should damn America for for "treating our citizens as less than human"? No? Well, that, too is going to need some follow-up, because I'm very sure that Sen. Obama would agree that at least at some times, some elements of America, including various levels of its governmental authorities, have treated our own citizens as "less than human" — so let's get specific. And let's distinguish between past and present. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, those are givens. But how about events from his own life: Has he ever been treated as less than human by America? Have his wife or children?
Does Sen. Obama think God should damn America "for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme"? Whether God ought to damn America for it or not, would Sen. Obama care to give us some very specific examples of that?
Are those killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki comparable to those killed on 9/11? Or is American culpability for their deaths comparable? Why, or why not?
Are three-strike laws racist in intent? In effect? How about building bigger prisons — has that been done with racist intentions? On whose part, exactly? The prison administrators? The state legislators? The voters who vote in favor of the bond elections? The jurors who've convicted all those prisoners? Or just the jurors who've convicted those black prisoners? Or just the white jurors who've convicted those black prisoners?
In fact, I'm certain that at some point, we can find political statements from Rev. Wright which you and I might consider "controversial" that Sen. Obama does not find controversial, and doesn't intend to condemn. Heck, a huge amount of what passes for orthodoxy in the Democratic Party — e.g., "Universal health care is a basic human right!" — I consider to be "controversial," and I'd bet the ranch that Sen. Obama doesn't condemn that kind of statement.
He hasn't condemned, and won't condemn, the man. But because Sen. Obama has now been passionate — while remaining oh-so-vague, ever-so-vague, about what he's actually condemning from among all the hodgepodge recent quotes from Rev. Wright — we actually have no clear idea where Sen. Obama draws the line between "controversial" and "non-controversial."
I don't have a problem, frankly, with the Obama family refusing to switch churches. I have a big problem, though, with Obama using clever rhetoric to match Bill Clinton for slipperiness in trying to dodge and defuse a political crisis. In fact, judging just by the events of this campaign season, it's clear to me that the pupil could teach the master a few parsing tricks.
Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Why I'm unpersuaded by Obama's disavowal of Rev. Wright's political polemics from the pulpit and sent a trackback ping are listed here:
You make an deep awesome point. Thanks man!
(2) JMW made the following comment | Mar 16, 2008 12:56:12 AM | Permalink
I think the "definitional problem" here is merely in your reading of the original quote from the news. In the full context:
"In a campaign appearance earlier this month, Sen. Obama said, "I don't think my church is actually particularly controversial." He said Rev. Wright "is like an old uncle who says things I don't always agree with," telling a Jewish group that everyone has someone like that in their family."
Following the above -- in its progression from a discussion of 'his church' to Wright in particular, I think it's pretty blindly obvious what he means by "controversial statements" -- they're the things Wright says that he doesn't agree with!
What's so damned hard about this for you? I think we've all been to church -- faithful or not -- and heard the pastor say some things that we don't agree with. I heard my pastor say things about the role of women that would be, in mainstream politics, "controversial." This is not uncommon in any church in the South. But in general the church, as an institution, was not wholly built around such ideas and would not be considered "controversial."
Put more broadly: a pastor is a professional theologian and he is paid to, primarily, tell you things you very well may not find agreeable -- but which are, in his view, the absolute truth. Kind of like lawyers. But a church serves a broader social purpose than merely spreading ideological viewpoints. As far as I can tell, his church wasn't sponsoring the Black Panthers or some such.
Honestly, if Obama were a white southern Republican and his pastor were a Baptist preacher screaming the usual invective about America's moral decline, this would not be news for more than ten minutes. We're just not used to the "religious left" as a political force.
JMW: You duck the question in the same way, but without the same skill, as Obama did when you wrote: "I think it's pretty blindly obvious what he means by "controversial statements" -- they're the things Wright says that he doesn't agree with!"
Which? That universal health care is not a basic human right? That the U.S.A. may appropriately be characterized as the "U.S. of KKK A."? I can't tell which of these two, among many other, statements that Obama disagrees with. If you say you can, I respectfully submit that you're projecting your own value judgments onto Obama and his vague statements without any solid basis for doing so.
(Which is exactly what his vague statements are crafted to encourage you to do. "I feel very categorically, emphatically, and very, very vehemently like you do on [insert topics that trigger your strongest feelings here]!")
Sorry, but yours is a very lame defense that lacks even the rhetorical flourishes by which the candidate tries to hide the fact that he's been nonspecific.
And you're badly mistaken when you say "We're just not used to the 'religious left' as a political force." Religious abolitionists were a political force even before the United States had a constitution, and they were one of the elements that formed the genesis of the Republican Party which elected one Abraham Lincoln, the president whose election prompted the Civil War. It's not that we're unused to politics being preached from the pulpit. But most Americans including, I would make a substantial wager, most black Americans see Rev. Wright's sort of extreme and radical race-baiting, conspiracy-theorizing, and yes, racism as shocking. Which is exactly why Barack Obama is back-pedaling and disassociating himself (vaguely if forcefully) from it. The question posed by my post is: Why won't he be specific as to exactly how much of it he's disassociating himself from?
Quick question for you, JMW, and everyone else who comments here to defend Obama or Wright: Do you ask God to damn America? It's a "yes/no" question, folks. But Obama hasn't even answered that question with any specificity yet, and a "yes" answer would, in Clintonesque fashion, still be entirely consistent with what he has said so far.
(By the way, I've read that Rev. Wright accompanied the "Rev. Farrakhan," whom it's also feted with a special award, to visit Col. Kadhafi in Libya in the 1980s, before the Colonel "got religion," stopped bombing airliners, and dropped his nuke program. One may fairly presume, I think, until contrary proof is offered, that the Obama family's contributions to his church went in part to sponsor such trips. Some might view that as being rather more radical than sponsoring a redeemed, repented Black Panther, or maybe even an active one.)
(4) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Mar 16, 2008 4:06:41 AM | Permalink
Dear Mr. Dyer: I think you are off the beam on this one. Any attempt at "cross examination" would likely fail, just as the cross examination of Billyboy failed, though for a much different reason. The trained cross examiners who went after Billyboy were out of their league. But they had an important advantage: Billyboy was under oath, and facing a determined opponent who would not be bluffed. Any "cross examination" of Obama will have neither of those elements.
But there's a more important reason. You describe the process of cross examination, so:
"Surely there's a decently trained journalist out there who can pin Obama down on this — if not with the skill of a trained cross-examiner, then with at least the skill of, well, a decently trained journalist. And the way to do it is through what good trial lawyers refer to as the "hammer and tongs" method. You take your tongs, and you squeeze really tight to make sure the target doesn't slip away, and then you pound the hell out of it until it's flat. Then you re-heat it, turn it sideways, grab it tight in your tongs again, and start swinging the hammer again."
I think it is fair to say that there's a great deal of relish for the process in this paragraph. To the disinterested outsider, this relish looks a lot like bullying, and can instantly transform the subject into a martyr. Don't believe me? Consider the case of Stella Liebeck, the lady who won the $2.86 million judgment against McDonald's restaurants for burns she suffered by spilling hot coffee on herself. This verdict has been widely mocked, with the jury being seen as gullible fools. What is not so widely known is that McDonald's counsel cross examined her in the manner you described. I think it likely that the jury was irked by this sort of behavior and punched back in the only way it could. Improper? Many lawyers would say so, but then they aren't on the receiving end of what they dish out. Don't believe that? A search of Martindale's online lawyer locator service for the United States shows 13,666 specialists in medical malpractice---and 1797 legal malpractice lawyers. Proof enough of how much lawyers like to be on the receiving end.
I've gone into this at some length, risking offense, because the public perceives Obama as a sympathetic character. I think this perception is grossly wrong--a Chicago politician as an idealist? Please. But the perception is there, and a hammer and tongs approach has great risk of backfiring. I think a better strategy would be to continue to dig for tapes of the Rev. Wright in action. Obama's church has a membership exceeding 7000. A church that size is going to have a homebound service, complete with tapes of the Rev.'s brimstone eruptions. There's bound to be a good many copies floating around. All we need is the same effort that the press applied to digging up Mike Huckabee's old sermons. SLATE was the only publication to publish any of Mike's roarings, but that's largely because his candidacy was a long shot. Should McCain be rash enough to pick him as Veep, look for scores of these tapes "suddenly" surfacing in the fall campaign.
I think it likely the Chicago press has copies of many of Wright's flamethrowings. Why not publish? It's a gamble: doing so now gives Obama time to come up with a defense. But it also gives time for the GOP to play up the issue. Nor is Obama deft in a crisis. No, the best way for the press to help him---and the press loves Obama, as watching SATURDAY NIGHT's skits will show you---is to sit on them until after the election. We are back at the subject of your "Bush recession lies" post of Friday. If, for example, SLATE gets hold of any of these tapes, count them as being burned. It's up to the blogosphere to get these tapes. Should they be released, and Obama's public image take a hit, a cross examination would be in order. Not before.
Better yet, question Mrs. Obama about Wright. She's an ornery cuss, who doubtless considers herself ready to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because the six chips she wears on each of her shoulders look so much like stars. She talks far too much for Obama's good, and has all the resentments the GOP can use. No need for a cross examination: just asking her in a polite, even apologetic, tone would make her explode.
JMW's statements are silly. He claims his pastor makes statements about women's roles that would be "controversial." Ergo, this flamethrowing is common to allchurches and is unworthy of attention. How about naming his pastor's statements, so we can judge for ourselves? I would be satisfied if Obama's religious beliefs and church affiliation get the same level of media attention as Romney/Huckabee's did in the primaries? Will it happen? Calculating those odds are enough to send me to bed in a cheerfully sour mood.
(5) stan made the following comment | Mar 16, 2008 8:00:53 AM | Permalink
There are some lawyers who might argue that the response by Clinton was so perfect that no further cross would be helpful. I haven't read any of the transcript, but it seems to me that proving he'd had sex with Lewinsky was a fact that they did not need his testimony to prove. His response -- "It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is." -- has to be the gift that keeps on giving.
If the attorney's purpose was to prove that Clinton is a liar, the ultimate BS artist, someone trying to scam the system, what better way to hang the man than with his own words?
Clinton had provided the opposition with a priceless gold nugget. Sometimes the wise move is simply to smile and move on.
(6) Scott made the following comment | Mar 16, 2008 6:46:45 PM | Permalink
I think it's more telling that Obama only disagrees with the statements currently at issue. What about all the other stuff the Rev. has said that haven't come to light yet?
Sen. Obama is being VERY specific in his disavowing...
Lawdy, have mercy! Thanks for the memories... ;)
(8) JMW made the following comment | Mar 17, 2008 3:46:51 AM | Permalink
Well, again, the premise of your question is absurd. You want Obama to give fully qualified answers about which statements from this church he agrees and disagrees with, and how. This is, of course, a standard that practically no other politician is held to; but since the media dragged out some "controversial" statements, we must now demand it of Senator Obama for all chuch positions he may or may not be aware of.
I suppose in 2000 you were writing some form of screed demanding that President Bush give fully qualified answers as to which of Bob Jones's prejudicial beliefs, exactly, he thought were OK and which ones were not? As it was he only singled out the "controversial" ones, namely anti-Catholicism and racial prejudice.
Furthermore, you're just plain guilty of selectively taking Obama out of context. He was VERY CLEAR in his statement in saying that, in his experience with the church,
"the sermons I heard him preach always related to our obligation to love God and one another, to work on behalf of the poor, and to seek justice at every turn."
Whether you believe that or not is one issue -- but putting it aside, assuming (if you will) that Obama is not lying through his teeth about what he heard -- then what controversial statements would he have heard other than the ones we saw on the news? Why can he not categorically condemn those and leave the issue at rest? Should he also condemn statements he didn't hear or doesn't know about?
Frankly, you're just arguing semantics over what it means to condemn; I don't personally see any ambiguity in condemning "any statement that disparages our great country" (including God damning us, obviously). Maybe you think that's some kind of ideological blindness but, you know, out here we have this thing called "plain English" that does tend to trump politics.
And on a final note -- your counter-point about the religious left is anachronistic. Congratulations for knowing about religious abolitionists; but if you happen to know any voters from the 19th century alive today, do inform them that the religious right wing has been the dominant force in "spiritualizing" politics for the last 30 years at least.
Also, I would love to hear the poster above justify why Obama's religious views should receive as much scrutiny as Huckabee's considering that the latter is a professional minister. As to Romney -- how many taped sermons did he have to respond to from the Church of Latter-Day Saints, exactly?
Consider the case of Stella Liebeck, the lady who won the $2.86 million judgment against McDonald's restaurants for burns she suffered by spilling hot coffee on herself. This verdict has been widely mocked, with the jury being seen as gullible fools. What is not so widely known is that McDonald's counsel cross examined her in the manner you described. I think it likely that the jury was irked by this sort of behavior and punched back in the only way it could.
Having looked at the trial as a case study, I think that it is more likely that the jury made its decision based on the facts that her injuries really were severe (second and third degree burns), and that McDonalds kept its coffee significantly hotter than the rest of the industry despite knowledge that other people had been burned.
Juries are rarely out to "get" the attorneys. They tend to take their oath very seriously, and really do look at the facts, not how an attorney questioned a witness.
I suppose in 2000 you were writing some form of screed demanding that President Bush give fully qualified answers as to which of Bob Jones's prejudicial beliefs, exactly, he thought were OK and which ones were not?
Point of Order: GWB doesn't attend Bob Jones' services, today or in the last 20 years. (He's a member of Highland Park United Methodist, BTW.) There is a difference between "what do you reject from the theology of this church that you may have been peripherally involved with" and "what do you reject from the church you have attended for the last 20 years?"
And attorneys don't know from plain English. Trust me. And Obama is an attorney.
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