Obama Seems to Set His Own Standards for Straight Talk

Posted April 14, 2008 at 6:30pm

Last Tuesday, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) appeared on the “Today” show, looked straight into the camera and told Meredith Vieira and millions of viewers a real whopper. All that was missing was the wagging finger.

[IMGCAP(1)]The morning show anchor raised the issue of New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s scolding of Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for their cynical assertions that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants to fight the Iraq War for another 100 years. Vieira asked Obama, “Are you willing to admit that you’ve distorted his statements?”

Obama, in the finest “I dare ya” tradition of Gary Hart, responded, “No. That’s not accurate. We can pull up the quotes on YouTube.”

Let’s do that, Senator. In truth, the video of McCain’s comments on the potential for a long commitment of U.S. troops in Iraq is clear. Contrary to Obama’s claims, McCain never advocated for a “100-year war.”

Zachary Roth wrote of Obama’s “stepped up attacks on McCain’s ‘100 years’ notion” in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Obama is seriously misleading voters — if not outright lying to them — about exactly what McCain said.” Similar sentiments have been expressed across the ideological media spectrum from Fox News to the Washington Post to Slate magazine.

The videos on YouTube that ought to really matter to voters are those of Obama that show his willing mischaracterization of McCain’s remarks along with his apologists who, when called upon to explain the boss’s dishonest statements about McCain, simply denied they were ever uttered.

When you know a candidate’s every word is on the Web usually in minutes, that kind of denial takes real chutzpah, and David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager, apparently has plenty of it. Two days before Obama’s “Today” appearance, Axelrod told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, “He [Obama] isn’t saying that Sen. McCain has said we would be at war for 100 years.” Really?

Let’s pull up some of Obama’s actual quotes on the matter. “We’re now bogged down in a war that John McCain now suggests might go on for another 100 years,” Obama said during the presidential debate in Cleveland on April 5. “[Sen. McCain] says that he is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq,” he said at a rally in Houston on Feb. 19.

“And when it comes to foreign policy, John McCain says he wants to fight a 100-year war, a 100 years he says, as long as it takes,” Obama said at a rally in Bangor, Maine, on Feb. 9. Those are just three examples.

A similar denial strategy was attempted on the issue of Obama’s pledge last year to accept public financing in the general election. When Obama first publicly supported the notion, he was still an underfunded and underestimated candidate back in the presidential pack. His support of public financing was not only pragmatic, it also played into the image he was trying to create for himself as a “new” kind of politician, a post-partisan candidate unwilling to sell out to moneyed interests.

Last November, in response to a questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network asking whether he would agree to “forgo private funding in the general election campaign,” Obama responded with an unambiguous “yes.” He also pledged, “If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.”

Well, McCain agreed; but in February, when asked by The Associated Press about Obama’s stated intention to take public financing, his spokesman Bill Burton said, “There is no pledge.” I suppose it depends on what the meaning of “pledge” is. What really changed over those three months was the size of Obama’s bank account.

Both of these controversies — Obama’s distortion of McCain’s “100 years” statement and his decision to renege on his public financing promise — create a nagging suspicion that the man behind the curtain isn’t quite the wonderful wizard we’ve been led to believe.

Instead, Obama and his campaign are looking all too familiar these days –– typical politicians suffering from a sense of righteous entitlement that they believe gives them permission to depart, on occasion, from the usual political rules. Fudging the facts about what McCain says or doesn’t say is all right because this candidacy operates on a different moral plane.

Breaking a campaign promise is acceptable when the end — Obama’s ascension to the presidency — justifies the means. Until recently, it all seemed to be working for them.

But, as Obama’s stumbles and gaffes have finally begun to get media scrutiny, he and his spokesmen have been forced to take another approach, a kind of “thesaurus” strategy.

Instead of denial, they revise, explain, clarify and refine his statements while maintaining their inherent rightness. His remarks are misunderstood, distorted, misconstrued, mischaracterized, misrepresented or taken out of context by his political opponents or unfriendly media.

Obama certainly didn’t mean his white grandmother was a racist. He really didn’t like Ronald Reagan and those who said he did were just playing a “Washington trick.” Of course, Obama would have left his church had not his pastor retired and acknowledged that his statements “deeply offended people and were inappropriate.” Just for clarification, Jeremiah Wright has made no such public acknowledgement.

His remarks about bitter working-class voters in small towns turning to guns and religion were just a matter of poorly chosen words. He’s very sorry if anyone was offended, but the “underlying truth” of what he said remains.

All candidates say things in error. They misspeak. They get tired. A staffer makes a mistake. It happens, and explanations are sometimes necessary.

But when one sets himself apart as a new kind of leader, above the crass partisan politics of the past, he raises expectations. But instead of meeting them, Obama seems to believe he deserves a standard all his own.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.