Law requires an exceedingly precise use of language. People who are attracted to the profession often already have this tendency, and then they are schooled further in the honing of the ability.
Bill Clinton was reviled for his lawyerly use of language in the service of weaseling, of parsing his words so carefully—especially when in the service of self-defense—that although they seemed to say one thing they really said another. Listeners learned not to take his words at face value, but to scrutinize them the way a lawyer would the language of a contract about to be signed.
Now comes Barack Obama, another lawyer, not an unusual profession for politicians. Not all lawyer-politicians are up there with Bill in the word-parsing competition, but Obama is revealing himself—far more than Hillary—to be Bill’s true heir in that department.
Yesterday’s exhibit A was Obama’s appearance on the television show “The View,” where Obama said of Reverend Wright, “I never heard him say some of the things that have people upset.”
This statement of Obama’s says nothing while appearing to say something, a hallmark of this sort of speech. Note, first, the vagueness of the word “some”—he could have heard 99% of the offensive speeches of Wright and missed 1%, and still this sentence would be correct.
Next we have the word “people”—another general expression that fails to characterize whom these people might be.
Then there’s the word “upset” itself. It’s a relational word rather than a moral one. The locus of the response is in the emotional reaction of the listener, whose upset is never characterized as either justified or unjustified in the objective sense. After all, some people could be upset by statements that are unobjectionable when looked at objectively; maybe the listeners are just overly sensitive. Or maybe not. But in this sentence, Obama is careful not to say.
Now we come to Exhibit B from the same appearance, when Obama said:
I’m not vetting my pastor…I didn’t have a research team during the course of 20 years to go pull every sermon he’s given and see if there’s something offensive that he’s said.
No, of course not. Nor is anyone expecting him to have done so.
But this statement ignores the real accusation, which is that these statements were so commonplace in Wright’s sermons that it boggles the mind how Obama could have been there for twenty years and avoided hearing at least some (see, I can use the word too!) of them. And even if he wasn’t there for any of them (difficult if not impossible to believe), don’t these congregation members ever talk amongst themselves about statements as inflammatory as Wright’s? If so, it’s hard to believe Obama was out of that loop, too. And if not, I guess the statements were considered so ordinary as to not be worthy of discussion.
Furthermore, this particular church was founded on a questionable theology that is arguably racist at its core. This is a fact that Obama never addresses—nor do I think he ever will, unless his arm is twisted rather more forcibly than it has been so far.
Next we have Exhibit C, Obama’s statement:
Had the reverend not retired, and had he not acknowledged that what he had said had deeply offended people and were inappropriate and mischaracterized what I believe is the greatness of this country, for all its flaws, then I wouldn’t have felt comfortable staying at the church.
Here are the problems with this one: to believe it, you first have to believe Exhibit A, that Obama really was clueless about the Reverend Wright prior to his outing as a racist ranter on You Tube. That’s quite a stretch, for reasons a host of pundits and bloggers have already discussed at great length. Second problem: it’s easy to say, because, fortunately for Obama, the reverend has retired. So we’ll never know whether it would have been true that Obama would no longer have felt so comfortable there.
Thirdly, we can conclude that it’s likely that prior to this, Obama felt quite comfortable at the church. Again, believing such comfort was reasonable would require that we believe Obama hadn’t heard—not just “some,” but “all”—of the reverend’s rants.
And fourth, notice Obama still falls short of saying “I would have left the church.” It’s almost as though he is constitutionally incapable of making a statement that strong. He doesn’t even go so far as to say “I would have felt so uncomfortable I would have had to leave.” No, just that he wouldn’t have felt comfortable about staying. Maybe he would have stayed anyway, and just squirmed a bit more in his pew.
And, once again, he speaks in terms of feelings rather than judgments. He would not have felt as comfortable.
What’s more, notice what Obama actually says about Wright: what Wright said “deeply offended” people. The feelings are primary; he mentions them first, and he fails to add a moral judgment such as “because Wright’s statements were offensive.” Instead, he says they were “inappropriate,” and that they “mischaracterized” the greatness of this country.
Extremely mild words to describe what Wright actually said about the US. And even in this context, Obama can’t resist adding the qualifier “for all its flaws” to describe the country.
In Obama’s major speech about race, he did make judgment statements about Wright. But it seems more and more clear that he was able to do this only because he saw no other way to save his political hide. Strong statements of this sort doesn’t come naturally to Obama; it goes against the grain. When speaking extemporaneously, he almost never makes these sorts of declarations.
This is no accident. Such reluctance seems not only to be a personal characteristic of Obama’s, but it’s one he embraces. I believe he connects it with another trait he sees as one of his great strengths as a politician:
Part of what my role in my politics is to get people who don’t normally listen to each other, to talk to each other, who [say] crazy things, who are offended by each other, for me to understand them and to maybe help them understand each other.
Politician as therapist, as conversation-enabler. It’s an interesting idea, and fits in well with Obama’s belief in “dialogue” as the solution for the world’s ills. But it’s got a few flaws.
Presidents have to make tough decisions, including moral choices. They have to have the sort of moral courage Obama appears to lack. They have to recognize that dialogue is not a panacea.
Yet another flaw is that while Obama may see himself as this sort of politician, his political history gives no indication that it is true. Did he do this sort of thing during his tenure in the Illinois legislature, or the US Senate? If so, I haven’t seen the evidence.
Did he do it in his own church? No, no, a thousand times no. Instead, he either bought into the “crazy things” that went on there, or winked at them, or failed to notice them when they were staring him in the face.
I see no clues in Obama’s political life that he is who he says he is: a person who can bring warring sides together in some sort of agreement. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is sincere in his own belief that he is this person. If so, his belief might be based on episodes from his emotional or family life, or perhaps friendships or school experiences. But extrapolating from these relationships to politics, and to world affairs, is a dangerous game.
Perhaps Obama’s true calling is as mediator, or therapist, or even minister. But not as President.