February 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

The incomparable Obama, Duke lacrosse scandal blowback, campaign songs and controversy, and other observations

With all due credit to legendary New York City columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WHO IS BARACK OBAMA? It seems that America’s mainstream news organizations have spent much of the first two months of 2008 trying to answer that question about the junior Senator from Illinois, now the Democratic presidential frontrunner. Obama’s intriguing life story has produced countless stories to date, and now reporters and commentators are trying to dig a little deeper and to place his sudden appeal (Obama-mania) in context. This latest journalistic examination has featured explanations of how Obama resembles (or doesn’t resemble) transformative cultural and political figures from the past. (Many of these compare-and-contrast stories have been downright silly.)

Obama has acknowledged that he is a bit of a blank screen, where “people of widely different views project what they want to hear.” The journalistic comparisons have followed that pattern. Many of them have been flattering; the Illinois Senator has been likened to Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Tiger Woods. He has also been compared, less positively, to less popular figures, including Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Mike Dukakis, George W. Bush (a jab from Senator Hillary Clinton) and Jesse Jackson (a jab from former President Bill Clinton), and even to the sinister cult figure Jim Jones.

What is going on here? Some of it is the human need to pigeon-hole people, to place them in a given category, whether positive or negative. Journalists are prone to this sort of categorizing and developing a frame for the candidate (to use an academic term) and establishing a narrative for a given campaign.

Obama, the “blank screen”, has proven somewhat resistant to this framing process. Is he an undistinguished novice with no executive experience who shies away from taking strong political stances and relies on empty rhetoric? Or is he a transformative figure whose oratory has captured the hearts and minds of Americans and who represents a post-partisan, post-racial political future? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

I’d argue that journalists should refrain from making comparisons, and focus instead on more substantive questions. For example, how about challenging Obama (and Senators Clinton and McCain) to answer the questions raised on the op-ed page of the New York Times before the Ohio Democratic presidential debate? I’d rather know how Obama plans to respond to these (especially the national security questions posed by the Boston Globe‘s Charlie Savage) than be subjected to more hype about how he resembles the Kennedy brothers.

THE DUKE LACROSSE SCANDAL REFUSES TO DIE as 38 members of the 2006 team filed suit against Duke University “for injuring the players’ reputations and causing them emotional suffering” during the bungled false rape case against three of the players. .

History professor K.C. Johnson has a detailed Q&A on the lawsuits (on his “Durham in Wonderland” blog site) and he thinks that the University is on shaky legal ground for its handling of “federally protected student information” and its failure to enforce its anti-harassment policies.

That the parents and players involved would sue Duke (and the city of Durham, N.C.) under the circumstances is understandable; it is a shame, however, that every dispute in contemporary American life must end up in the courts. If Duke president Richard H. Brodhead had openly accepted responsibility for the University’s bungling of the situation, had expressed regret, and had apologized publicly to the players, I’d like to think the lawsuit wouldn’t have been filed.

YOU WOULD THINK REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES WOULD HAVE LEARNED not to play rock songs at their campaign rallies, because it inevitably leads to the (registered Democrat) singer/songwriter demanding they stop. Latest cases in point: Boston’s Tom Scholz telling Mike Huckabee to cease and desist playing “More Than a Feeling,” and John Cougar Mellencamp’s camp asking John McCain to stop playing “Our Country.”

It’s not the first time McCain has been dissed by a rocker: Tom Petty made it clear he didn’t want the Arizona Republican using his song “I Won’t Back Down.” (Petty had also asked George W. Bush not to use that same tune on the campaign trail).

AMERICAN WOMEN IN COMBAT? U.S. female aviators in Afghanistan and Iraq are directly involved in counter-insurgency missions, based on these Parade magazine and New York Times Magazine pieces, despite the supposed ban on women in combat roles. According to Parade, some 105 American women have died in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Isn’t it time to make policy match reality?

FROM WALTER WINCHELL, NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST EXTRAORDINAIRE COMES THIS month’s closing sentiment: “Too many people expect wonders from democracy, when the most wonderful thing of all is just having it.”


Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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