Obama's Language Games

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.

"...I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments...I did not solicit his support...it is not support I sought.  And we're not doing anything, I assure you, formally or informally with Minister Farrakhan."

Hearing no answer to his question, Russert pressed Obama, "Do you reject his support?"

Obama used humor to deflect the question.

"Well, Tim, you know, I can't say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy. (Laughter)  You know, I - you know I - I have been very clear in my denunciations of him and his past statements, and I think that indicates to the American people what my stance is on those comments."

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. 

"When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that Illegal aliens get trained, get a license..."

Then he deflected the subject, using humor, toward another issue - comprehensive immigration reform.

"...I have to make sure that people understand the problem we have here is not driver's licenses.  Undocumented workers don't come here to drive. (Laughter) they don't go - they're not coming here to go to the In-N-Out Burger. That's not the reason they're here.  They're here to work. And so instead of being distracted by what has now become a wedge issue, let's focus on actually solving the problem that...(Blitzer cut him off here, but Obama continued)...this administration, the Bush administration, has done nothing about."

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,

"I am not proposing that that's what we do. What I'm saying is that we can't - (interrupted by laughter). No, no, no, no, look, I have already said I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that driver's licenses at the state level can make that happen. But what I also...(an impatient Blitzer interrupted him)

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,

"I think the reparation we need right here in South Carolina is investment, for example in our schools.  I did a town hall meeting in Florence, South Carolina, in an area called the corridor of shame.  They've got buildings that students are trying to learn in that were built right after the Civil War. And we've got teachers who are not trained to teach the subjects they're teaching and high dropout rates.  We've got to understand that there are corridors of shame all across the country.  And if we make the investments and understand that those are our children, that's the kind of reparation that are really going to make a difference in America right now.

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,

"Asked in Moline about a controversial demand by some blacks for reparations for slavery, Obama spoke about how slavery had left a stain on the country that has yet to be eradicated.  Still, he said, he opposed ‘just signing checks over to African-Americans'."

In February 2007, the CBS news affiliate in Chicago quoted Obama on the issue of reparations.

"The legacy of slavery is immeasurable, but the best strategies for moving forward would be vigorously enforcing our anti-discrimination laws in education and job training."

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:

"And that [his K-12 education plan] would all cost about $18 billion a year -- a significant increase in federal funding, focused on schools all across the country, but with a great emphasis on poor urban and rural school districts that really need resources."

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:

"This book is about the great still-unfolding massive crime of official and unofficial America against Africa, African slaves, and their descents in America." p. 8

"Whether the monetary obligation is legally enforceable or not, a large debt is owed by America to the descents of America's slaves."  p. 231

"It is obvious that in any effort to balance America's racial scales, education, defined in the broadest sense, must be assigned the very highest priority.  Sadly, the very idea of public education, perhaps the most important load-bearing pillar of our society's future, has been under assault for decades.  Even the segregated schools of my Richmond, Virginia childhood were safer and had healthier academic environments than many public schools operating today -- particularly those in deteriorating urban centers where public school populations were made up increasingly of children who are both black and poor." p. 79

"To do what is necessary, of course, will require a virtual Marshall Plan of federal resources, far in excess of anything contemplated between the nearly touching poles of conventional palliatives." p. 107

At the end of his book, Robinson endorses reparations through educational programs similar to those found in Obama's Blueprint For Change

"I believe that such a trust would have to be funded for at least two successive K-through-college educational generations, perhaps longer.  Among other programs funded from the trust would be special K-12 schools through the United States with residential facilities for those black children who are found to be at risk in unhealthy family and neighborhood environments.  The curricula for these schools would be rigorous...the schools would emphasize the diverse histories and cultures of the black world.  For blacks who remained in the public schools, much the same would be provided by special-purpose schools funded to supplement public-school offerings in a fashion not dissimilar to the role performed by weekend Hebrew schools for the Jewish community. All fees for these schools would be fully funded from the trust.   Further, all blacks who qualified academically and were found to be in financial need would be entitled to attend college free of charge."  p. 245 

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.   
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