Media Matters vs. the Gateway Pundit on Obama as MLK

Accepting Media Matters' premise in its criticism of Jim Hoft of the Gateway Pundit requires what a politician once called a "willing suspension of disbelief."

A word battle last week between two websites played out this way:  Jim Hoft wrote that President Obama had compared himself to Dr. Martin Luther in a recent speech.  Oliver Willis of Media Matters, calling Hoft the "dumbest man on the internet," claimed that Obama was only "paying tribute to King's fight for civil rights, using that as an example to the audience of why all Americans should fight in the face of adversity towards a larger goal."

Here are the Obama words at issue:

I'm going, on the 28th, I'm going to be at the dedication of the new King memorial, which I've flown over and it looks spectacular. And now that King has his own memorial on the Mall I think that we forget when he was alive there was nobody who was more vilified, nobody who was more controversial, nobody who was more despairing at times. There was a decade that followed the great successes of Birmingham and Selma in which he was just struggling, fighting the good fight, and scorned, and many folks angry. But what he understood, what kept him going was that the arc of moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. But it doesn't bend on its own. It bends because all of us are putting our hand on the arc and we are bending it in that direction. And it takes time. And it's hard work. And there are frustrations.

And if everybody here is reminded of that fact, then I'm absolutely confident that America's arc is going to be bending in the direction of justice and prosperity and opportunity.

So I hope you will join me. Thank you.

It requires a willing suspension of disbelief  -- plus some tone deafness -- to not hear, within Obama's words, the meta-message likely to continue throughout the '12 campaign: that like MLK, Obama is being vilified by the regressive, terrorist right; that, like MLK, he occasionally feels despair and frustration; that, like MLK did, he has for years -- okay, maybe just a few -- been struggling against scorn-faced "angry folks" like Tea Partiers; that, he too, struggles to follow the "arc of moral universe" [sic ?] bending toward (social) justice.  And, also, like MLK, he knows it takes time, since he never promised to fundamentally transform America in a day.  

The closing words peel away the veneer of honoring MLK to reveal that Obama was comparing himself to MLK all along: "America's arc is going to be bending in the direction of justice and prosperity and opportunity."  That is, as long as folks "join me."

Oliver Willis can bend the arc as hard as he wants, to the breaking point, but Hoft got it right. And, here's why the self-comparison the President made to MLK doesn't work. In fact, it defames the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, and all that for which he stood.

In 1985, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America by Richard Schickel wrote this about King:

"To be sure, Dr. King used the  media to amplify his voice and the Gandhian techniques he used to call attention to his cause were used, a little later, by others whose causes were more dubious and whose motives, in calling attention to them, were suspect precisely because there as an element of personal aggrandizement in them that seemed to be missing in Dr. King, just as the elements of private willfulness and the need for power for its own sake were missing in him....He was, quite literally, selfless not only in his service to his cause, but in his refusal to offer himself to the media's demands for intimate exposure. We do not know what he liked for lunch, what his office routines were, whether or not he slept in the nude.  We cannot imagine a People photo of him and Coretta sharing a bubble bath. If on his long and lonely road he slept with women who were not his wife, none has published her memoirs of the encounter. Indeed, as a personality he has virtually slipped out of history. It is his work that has not, for it has changed our lives as individuals, as a nation." (p. 179)

King united to overcome. Obama divides to conquer. One is the antithesis of the other.

During the '08 campaign, Candidate Obama occasionally channeled the oratorical style of Dr. King's speeches.  It was a clever play of the race card. On other occasions, he simply referred to "The King." He may try those tactics again, but they're not likely to work as well the second time around.

In the run-up to the '12 election, we shouldn't be surprised if Obama embellishes on his implied comparison between his trials and tribulations to those of "The King." And, in that comparison, we shouldn't be surprised if he indirectly compares the obstructionist Republicans to the segregationist sheriffs and governors of the Old South (most of them were Democrats, by the way). 

In the upcoming campaign, his summons to the inner city African-Americans, who are suffering a depression in the midst of his recession, will be to keep the faith a little longer; to not weary on the long road to the Promised Land of an America where social justice reigns; to march with him to overcome economic opposition.  And so on.