By Stanley Kutler
It was inevitable for Barack Obama to beat a retreat from his recent remarks about his difficulty in reaching Pennsylvania’s working-class voters. The railroad, coal and steel jobs that once fueled the Pennsylvania economy have declined dramatically for several decades. Obama noted that the frustrations and anger of working-class families determined and dominated their voting beliefs. “It’s not surprising, then,” he said, “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Our intrepid media, always anxious to find mountains where molehills exist, declared a state of war, signaling Hillary Clinton to do her thing. The cable networks, particularly MSNBC, which barring a weather calamity or a missing child, seems to report politics to the exclusion of everything else, were in battle mode, anxious for what some called a “full-blown political disaster.” And they certainly tried for one. Clinton predictably blasted Obama, saying she was “taken aback” by his “demeaning remarks,” which, she told Indianapolis plant workers, were “elitist and out of touch.” This from Wellesley’s and the Yale Law School’s finest. With a $100 million-plus income.
And so the Obama retreat: “If I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that,” Obama said in an interview later as the story flamed, threatening to ignite our cable lines. “I didn’t say it as well as I should have,” the senator remarked. At first, it had appeared he would not back off. That same morning he told a Muncie, Ind., town hall meeting his remarks could have been better phrased, but he maintained they were what “everybody knows is true.” He amplified his earlier remarks, saying that “what is absolutely true is that people don’t feel like they are being listened to.” Still, he succumbed and we received his sort-of-apology.
Clinton eagerly grasped another straw in the battle for the superdelegates she hoped would rescue her candidacy. No more sniper fire for her as she sent up a fusillade: “People don’t need a president who looks down on them,” she said. “They need a president who stands up for them.” Now, perhaps she had gained some control over her campaign. When Bill Clinton was asked that day at a rally in North Carolina about Obama’s remarks, the former president passively (or passively aggressively?) replied, “I agree with what Hillary said.” We shouldn’t parse that too much.
The sound and fury of course signifies nothing—other than the media’s innate desire to create a story and demean the political discourse they supposedly are to report. Within the confines of a private exchange between the two, Obama’s remarks undoubtedly would have had Clinton head-nodding in agreement. Obama offered a clever—but hardly original—insight into the psychology of folks depressed for decades or forced to live on the margin. The only story in this affair is one the media concocted, their self-fulfilling “full-blown political disaster,” and one neatly made to order for Clinton. Thus another media happening, created and nurtured by a media anxious for bigger coverage, even when it amounts to peanuts.
The media are the self-appointed arbiters of our political discourse. By their rules, candor is wholly unwelcome. They cannot or will not abide complexity. And thus, the sound bite is the story.
No media account provided any discussion whatsoever to weigh the possibility of a more thoughtful consideration of Obama’s remarks. Could he have had a useful insight? None of our talking heads, our “strategists” and “pundits,” probed Obama’s meaning, his motivation—or, heaven forbid, the possibility he might have been right. Instead, the media cavalierly dismissed his remarks as offensive and demeaning—and worst of all, tarred them with the brush of elitism. Obama provided cannon fodder to sustain the media’s reason for their self-defined existence. They believe their mission is to find drama, conflict and controversy—but hey!—what about understanding?
By the new week, MSNBC was talking about “journalistic standards” and Dr. Phil. And then Obama characterized Clinton as “Annie Oakley,” following her revelation (what did we know all these years?) that she learned to shoot a gun as a child. Where will that go? Somewhere, you can be sure. In the meantime, why aren’t we discussing the administration’s torture policy—or its proposed status-of-forces agreement with Iraq? Or are such stories too complex? The media are killing us.
Stanley Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate.”
AP photo / Charlie Neibergall