John F. Cullinan of National Review points out that Obama is wrong in his characterization of present-day Belfast. Then Cullinan asks a question I think worth pondering, concerning Obama’s propensity towards such errors:
Such carelessness with easily verifiable facts is troubling, given Obama’s 300-person mini-State Department and all the former senior Clinton Administration officials along for the ride. Does no one check facts? Or are staff too awed by the One to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear? Or do they all think the rest of us are too dumb or awestruck to notice?
It’s not just that Obama is subject to slips of the tongue, or strange off-the-cuff remarks such as the one about having to deal with world leaders for 8-10 years, or the difference between a bill and a Senate Committee; after all, it’s impossible to fact-check a candidate’s extemporaneous remarks. This is about his scripted errors, mistakes that occur in speeches that are written and supposedly fact-checked with tremendous care. And they’re not just about facts, although factual errors are part of it; they’re about concepts, and especially the understanding and interpretation of historical events.
A good example of this type of error was Obama’s characterization of Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba as tiny countries that are no threat to us compared to the Soviet Union in the Cold War (I deal with the problems with his statement here). Another has to do with his praise for the 1961 Kennedy/Khrushchev summit (here’s a good takedown of Obama’s simplistic and wrongheaded understanding of that historic showdown). The example Cullinan cites is of this second variety.
This is my hunch for the answers to Cullinan’s questions:
(1) Perhaps they fact-check; one would certainly hope so. But they don’t seem to concept-check; no doubt Obama sets the themes there, and he doesn’t seem to be a person open to being challenged, even if his speechwriters were wont to do so.
In a sobering trend, fact-checking in general, even in magazines, is somewhat of a dying art anyway, especially among the younger set. There’s a clue there: Obama’s speechwriters are young, very young.
There are three: 26-year-old head writer Jon Favreau, 26-year-old Adam Frankel, and the self-described “elder statesman” 30-year-old Ben Rhodes. If you follow the links to each name, you’ll find a trio of intelligent men with impressive-sounding resumes—although Favreau’s is a bit sparse. There’s also a host of other advisors with imposing credentials (see also this), as Cullinan point out.
I’m unfamiliar with the usual procedure for scrutinizing campaign speeches, but my guess is that majority of Obama’s advisers can’t possibly be viewing the scripts beforehand—the process would be too unwieldy. Some may take a look at a speech if it’s in their area of expertise, but the main vetters are probably his speechwriting staff.
I understand that youth does not necessarily mean historical ignorance, but it does mean that a candidate should be extra careful to make sure his/her young speechwriters have a very strong grounding in the subject.
Obama may be unable to do this because he himself has a certain lacuna where in-depth historical knowledge ought to be. That should make him especially aware of hiring people who can fill in the gaps, but in order to do this he would have to acknowledge his own weakness, something for which he’s shown little capacity to date.
What does Obama look for an a speechwriter? Here’s an indication, based on his hiring of head writer Favraeu:
Favreau met with Obama and Gibbs in the Senate cafeteria in the Dirksen office building on Capitol Hill on the senator’s first day in his new job. Obama didn’t want to know about Favreau’s résumé, but he did want to know about his motivation.
“What got you into politics, what got you interested?” he asked.
Favreau told him about the social service project he started in Worcester, defending the legal rights of welfare recipients as the state tried to move people off the rolls and into work.
“What is your theory of speechwriting?” Obama asked.
“I have no theory,” admitted Favreau. “But when I saw you at the convention, you basically told a story about your life from beginning to end, and it was a story that fit with the larger American narrative. People applauded not because you wrote an applause line but because you touched something in the party and the country that people had not touched before. Democrats haven’t had that in a long time.”
The pitch worked. Favreau and Obama rapidly found a relatively direct way to work with each other. “What I do is to sit with him for half an hour,” Favreau explains. “He talks and I type everything he says. I reshape it, I write. He writes, he reshapes it. That’s how we get a finished product.”
(2) Cullinan’s second point, whether Obama’s staff might be too awestruck to challenge him on errors, is certainly a good possibility as well, especially given their youth and the tendency of even senior aides and newspeople to feel the Obamalove.
(3) As for Cullinan’s third question, my feeling is that the correct answer is “yes.” Or, rather, the calculation is not that “all of us” are too dumb or awestruck to notice, but that enough of us are.
And perhaps they’re correct.