Swift Boating the Speech

Illustration by GluekitPhoto: Matt Rourke/AP

Few events in this relentlessly eventful campaign season have felt as momentous, as freighted with portent, as the speech that Barack Obama delivered last week on race. As a piece of rhetoric, Obama’s address was pretty much everything one could ever hope for from a presidential candidate on the vexed topic of black and white: nuanced, candid, gutsy, and replete with context. But Obama’s oration was more than a speech—it was a political maneuver. And, as such, at least in the short term, it was as nearly as effective as it was eloquent and erudite. It helped Obama move past the raging controversy stirred up by the rantings of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. It put him back on the elevated plane where he thrives. And, in the words of one Democratic strategist, “It strummed the mystic chords of the press corps, which has been south on him since Ohio and Texas.”

In the longer term, however, Obama’s speech did nothing to defuse an issue that Republicans clearly intend to beat him senseless with this fall—assuming that, as seems increasingly likely, he secures the Democratic nomination. Quite the contrary.

In GOP circles, the incendiary video clips of Obama’s former pastor are seen, not surprisingly, as a gift that will keep on giving. And indeed, the furor around them has caused Republican strategists to rethink their preconceptions about whether Obama or Hillary Clinton would be a more formidable general-election opponent against John McCain. “Once, there was a clear impression that he would be tougher,” a senior McCain adviser tells me. “But, after these past few weeks, I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”

On a microcosmic level, Obama’s handling of the Wright imbroglio will give rise to accusations of dissembling. The Friday before the speech, Obama told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I’ll be honest with you. I wasn’t in church when any of those sermons were issued … I had not heard him make such, what I consider to be objectionable, remarks from the pulpit.” But in the speech itself, Obama declared, “Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes.”

Now, it’s true that you can parse these statements so that they are not strictly in conflict. Yet the fact that Obama and his campaign have thus far refused to specify what inflammatory sermons he did witness raises a red flag. And to Republican ears, the apparent inconsistencies and revisions ring familiar bells. As Pete Wehner, who ran the Office of Strategic Initiatives in George W. Bush’s White House, observed last week, “This story, which seemingly changes in every retelling, is beginning to resemble nothing so much as Bill Clinton’s evolving explanation about his draft notice.”

Of course, Obama’s refusal to disown Wright presents an even larger target—and one that dovetails perfectly with the campaign that the GOP was already planning to wage against him. “There will be two fundamental issues,” a top Republican operative told me over lunch a few weeks ago. “First, that Obama is way too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief, which is an argument that not only polls incredibly well but has the virtue of being true. And second, that he’s too liberal.” When I asked if that meant an attempt to turn Obama into the new Mike Dukakis, this strategist replied, “That’s right.”

When most of us recall the Dukakis campaign, what we remember (beyond that picture of the governor in a tank, looking like Rocky the Squirrel) is Willie Horton. But equally devastating was the insidious way that Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes managed to turn a pair of related trivialities—Dukakis’s membership in the ACLU and his veto of a bill that would have required all Massachusetts schoolchildren to recite the pledge of allegiance—into damning indictments of the governor’s patriotism.

Which brings us back to Obama. The hard guys of the Republican Party have no intention of trying to paint the hope- monger as a closet black nationalist. They intend to portray him as insufficiently allegiant to his nation. They will weave together Wright’s “God damn America” with Michelle Obama’s statement that this is the “first time” she has been “proud of my country,” Obama’s eschewal of the American-flag lapel pin, and a piece of video that captures him standing at a campaign event without his hand over his heart during the national anthem. And, in fact, a trio of right-wing activists have already thrown together a video doing just that: For a picture of what the fall campaign will look like, just go to YouTube and type in “Is Obama Wright?”

Obama knows that this is coming. He has his answer ready: that a lot has changed in twenty years; that voters want to move past the kind of politics that “uses patriotism as a cudgel”; that they are burning, yearning, to declare, as he put it in his speech last week, “Not this time.” One hears him say these sorts of things and hopes, audaciously, that he is right. Then one sees the Republicans licking their chops and fears that he is not.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.

Swift Boating the Speech