March 3, 2008
Obama's Language GamesBy Lee Cary
Barack Obama, the candidate, has used nuanced language to evade and deflect in order to avoid being candid. Here are three examples of Obama language games concerning (1) Louis Farrakhan, (2) driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, and (3) reparations.
1. Cleveland Debate - February 26, 2008 - On Louis Farrakhan
Tim Russert asked Obama, "Do you accept the support of Louis Farrakhan?" His first answer was evasive.
Hearing no answer to his question, Russert pressed Obama, "Do you reject his support?"
Obama used humor to deflect the question.
Russert, now distracted from his original query, followed the line-of-questioning about Judaism toward which Obama had deflected the inquiry. Russert asked Obama to react to Farrakhan labeling Judaism a "gutter religion." Obama denounced Farrakhan's statements. Meanwhile, the original question remained unanswered.
Not willing to let the Judaism line-of-questioning die, Russert teed up an opportunity for Obama to give a pro-Israel speech with this question: "What do you do to assure Jewish-Americans that, whether it's Farrakhan's support or the activities of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, your pastor, you are consistent with issues regarding Israel and not in any way suggesting that Farrakhan epitomizes greatness?" Obama answered with a 350-word monologue about why his candidacy is supported by Chicago's Jewish community.
Hillary Clinton heard the evasion, and refocused Russert back to the original question. The exchange ended with Obama conceding that he both denounced and rejected a non-existing offer of help from Minister Farrakhan.
By the end of his answer, the air was out of a question that Obama had obfuscated into a discussion of word definitions. Obama could have answered "Do you accept the support of Louis Farrakhan?" with a simple "No," if, in fact, that represents his sentiment. Instead, he played a clever language game to evade the original question by giving the appearance of having answered it, all the while making Russert and Clinton look like they were nitpicking him.
2. Las Vegas Debate - November 15, 2007 - On Driver's Licenses
After Clinton fumbled her answer to the New York drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants question in an earlier debate, Wolf Blitzer questioned Obama's position on the issue: "I take it, Senator Obama, you support giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Is that right?"
Obama evaded Blitzer's present tense question ("Do you...?") with a past tense answer.
Then he deflected the subject, using humor, toward another issue - comprehensive immigration reform.
Blitzer heard Obama's attempt to evade (by minimizing the subject to a "wedge issue"), and, with emphasis in his voice, pushed the original question: "Do you support or oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants?"
Obama's answer to the redirected question was, perhaps, his worst performance in all the Democrat debates. The audience laughed when he said,
Blitzer suggested that he hadn't received a straight answer from Obama, and the audience laughed, cheered and applauded when Blitzer transitioned saying, "Either you support it or you oppose it. Let's go down and get a yes or no from everyone starting with Senator Edwards."
Obama would never again be so clumsy with his language games in a Democrat debate, but he didn't stop playing them.
3. South Carolina Debate - April 26, 2007 - On Reparations
After playing a video question submitted by a South Carolina (SC) citizen, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked, "Senator Obama, [what is] your position on reparations?" Obama said,
Did Obama answer the question? Cooper seemed to hear his answer as opposed to reparations. His follow-up was addressed to all the candidates: "Is anyone on the stage for reparations for slavery for African-American?" Dennis Kucinich was; he grabbed the question and ran.
Obama had deflected the topic away from reparations to corridors of shame and, thereby, evaded a candid answer to the original question. His candid answer might have been, "Yes, I favor reparations, but not in the form of checks written to African-Americans." Here's a case to support that suggestion.
Reparations was an issue in Obama's senate race against Alan Keyes. In November 14, 2004, as Obama toured the state after his election win, Chicago Tribune reporters Rudolph Bush and David Mendell reported that,
In February 2007, the CBS news affiliate in Chicago quoted Obama on the issue of reparations.
Now, we return to the SC debate where the audience would immediately associate "corridors of shame" with a legal battle that began in 1993 when almost half of the state's 91 school districts sued the state (Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina) alleging violations of funding statutes that resulted in substandard education for may SC students, particularly those in poorer rural districts. The case is still being litigated. Many in the audience had probably seen the controversial documentary aired by SC's Educational Television Network (ETV) entitled "Corridors of Shame," featuring the crumbling buildings Obama mentioned in his answer.
Obama's Blueprint For Change document includes multiple programs aimed at improving public education. In a National Public Radio interview he said this:
Does this proposal represent reparations?
Institutions and publications that most influence any presidential candidate are worthy of examination. The theo-sociological platform of Obama's Trinity United Church Christ, where Obama has attended for 20 years, is well established. Among the books recommended and sold through the church's website is The Debt: What America Owes To Blacks, by Randall Robinson (Penguin Putman Inc., 2000). Here are several quotes from Robinson's book:
At the end of his book, Robinson endorses reparations through educational programs similar to those found in Obama's Blueprint For Change.
So, when asked by Anderson Cooper for his position on reparations, Obama's answer may have evaded a candid response such as: "Yes, I believe in a form of reparations designed to repair public education, particularly where it has historically failed many black children."
If nominated, and certainly if elected, Obama will want to offer a persuasive case to the American people for wide-spread educational reparations. For now, though, he seems to be playing language games with us.