The Pastor Parses Obama

Posted: Apr 30, 2008 12:01 AM
The Pastor Parses Obama

Given his 20 years of pastoring to Barack Obama, you would have to assume that if any of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's declarations have a particular claim to credibility it would be his repeated assertion over the past week that Obama does not always say what he means.

"He's a politician," Wright explained to Bill Moyers on PBS. "And he says what he has to say as a politician. He does what politicians do."

"Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever's doing the polls," Wright said of Obama at the National Press Club. "He does what politicians do."

Wright's insight on Obama highlights one of Obama's underappreciated skills: a Bill Clinton-like ability to say one thing and mean another, and to say things listeners must parse and parse again in search of a solid meaning.

One of the best examples of this kind from Bill Clinton is found in the transcript of a White House press conference held on March 7, 1997.

Reporters were pressing Clinton in those days on his campaign fundraising methods. "I don't believe you can find any evidence of the fact that I had changed government policy solely because of a contribution," said Clinton.

What exactly did that mean?

Give Clinton the benefit of the doubt and you must assume he meant to say something neater, cleaner and less ambiguous: I never changed government policy because of a contribution.

But it doesn't take much imagination to conjure up alternative interpretations: I never changed government policy solely because of a contribution, only partly because of a contribution. Or, I did change government policy solely because of a contribution, but I don't believe you will ever find the evidence.

Take a look at some of the things Obama has said in the past year on the campaign trail, and you will see a true talent for Clintonisms.

In the CNN-YouTube debate last July, the aspiring populist and newly minted multimillionaire was asked whether he sent his children to private or public schools. "My kids have gone to the University of Chicago Lab School, a private school, because I taught there, and it was five minutes from our house," he said. "So it was the best option for our kids."

Had Obama taught at a public school five minutes from his house would that have been the best option for his kids? Had the private school been 10 minutes away and a public school only five minutes away, would the difference in distance trump his status as a former teacher?

One wonders at the sort of decisional crisis Obama might have undergone had he taught at a reform school just a minute from his house.

During the Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College on April 13, Obama turned another nice phrase when he defined for the audience the precise point at which -- in his generous view -- freedom of speech and the right to privacy intersect.

"And those who are opposed to abortion, I think, should continue to be able to lawfully object and try to change the laws," he said.

Presumably, reasonable people could take the opposite position that those opposed to abortion should no longer be able to lawfully object and try to change the laws.

Undoubtedly Obama's greatest Clintonism, however, is what he said about the Iraq War in a Jan. 31 debate in Los Angeles.

"So, I have said very clearly I will end this war," said Obama. "And I also think we've got to be very clear about what our mission is, and there may be a difference here between Sen. Clinton and myself in terms of the force structures that we would leave behind. Both of us have said we would make sure that our embassies and our civilians are protected. Both of us have said that we've got to care for Iraqi civilians, including the 4 million who have been displaced already. ... We both have said that we need to have a strike force that can take out potential terrorist bases that get set up in Iraq."

I will end this war, Obama was apparently saying, but after I have ended this war, I will keep troops in Iraq to fight people who attack our embassies, to fight people who attack our civilians, to fight people who attack Iraqi civilians and to fight terrorists who try to set up bases in Iraq.

Is it any wonder that even his former pastor parses what Obama says?

If he can do that, the Democrats could lose a third straight presidential election.