“Define rich,” challenged Rick Warren, Senior Pastor of Saddleback Church and host of the Saddleback “Civil Forum on the Presidency.” “How about five million?” quipped McCain. Americans who watched saw clearly that Barack Obama cannot give straight answers while John McCain can do nothing but. As Obama filled his talk time with “uhs,” McCain filled his with quick wit and an occasional gaffe.
It was the most revealing presidential candidate discourse yet. Warren did ask tough questions that gave little room for a wiggle, and Obama’s attempts at wiggling were stark and obvious when compared to McCain’s unequivocal declarations. What a contrast—and what a delightfully revealing evening that could change the course of the rapidly approaching election.
Perhaps one of the most revealing moments, in retrospect, was the answer to this question:
Warren: Can you give me a good example where you went against party loyalty, and maybe even went against your own best interest for the good of America?
Obama: I’ll give you an example that, in fact, I worked with John McCain on, and that was the issue of campaign ethics reform and finance reform. That wasn’t probably in my interest or his…. But I think that we were able to get a bill passed that hasn’t made Washington perfect, but at least has started moving things forward….
But that one example of his great bi-partisan moment turns out to be as fleeting as it was disingenuous. In February of 2006, when Obama and McCain were serving in the Senate together, neither yet a presidential candidate, there was indeed a bipartisan effort to pass reform legislation. McCain initiated one of his “maverick” efforts to reach across the aisle in an attempt to reform lobbying. Obama pledged to McCain his willingness to rise above bipartisanship and work for the good of America—only to change his mind after one week and withdraw his cooperation. That “selfless-bipartisan” effort of Obama’s ended in a scathing letter by McCain on February 6, 2006:
Dear Senator Obama: I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere. When you approached me and insisted that despite your leadership’s preference to use the issue to gain a political advantage in the 2006 elections, you were personally committed to achieving a result that would reflect credit on the entire Senate and offer the country a better example of political leadership, I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your … decision to withdraw from our bipartisan discussion. I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won’t make the same mistake again…. Sincerely, John McCain.
Obama’s one example of bipartisan, self-sacrifice was a careless lie, told to the wrong audience about the wrong senator … one who was waiting in the wings and just might remember. It was another kind of audacity of hope—hoping that no one would notice.
How could this possibly be his best example of bipartisan sacrifice? How could a candidate boasting regularly of his ability to cross the aisle not have a legitimate story? How could a “brilliant” Harvard attorney make such a claim? How could a man bringing a “new kind of politics” choose a story demonstrating the very oldest kind? How could the candidate of “change” prove so clearly, so nakedly, to be the master of changing nothing but the facts?
Immediately after the forum, Obama repeated claims denying culpability on obstructing the “Born Alive Infant Protection Act.” To Rick Warren, he claimed to oppose same-sex marriage while having earlier denounced a citizen vote on a measure to protect traditional marriage in Warren’s own state of California. These were just some of the obfuscations in the Saddleback Forum.
Honest men look you in the eye and give straight answers. Liars parse words and avoid your gaze. Both types were plain to see at Saddleback. Obama’s convoluted tale of his great, bi-partisan moment provided its own moment, one where all of us could see just which of these two types of men he was.