When Checkers Ate Obama's Homework

Jonathan Turley, the holder of the prestigious Shapiro Chair for Public Interest Law at George Washington University and an outspoken liberal, has said of our president, “Barack Obama is really the president Richard Nixon always wanted to be.”

How a man who launched his campaign for president comparing himself to Honest Abe Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, now finds himself hunkered down in Washington being compared to Tricky Dick Nixon is a story that needs explaining.

The DNA of it can be found in Obama’s first public controversy, one that shows just how early in his political career Obama adopted lying as strategy. At the time, late 1999, State Senator Obama found himself challenging two black candidates for Congress, each of whom favored gun control as conspicuously as he did.

One was the former Black Panther Bobby Rush, whose seat in the US House of Representatives Obama coveted; the other a fellow state senator, Donne Trotter. His opponents sensed the same vulnerability that Jesse Jackson would exploit years later, namely Obama’s felt lack of authenticity as a black man. “He went to Harvard and became an educated fool,” said Rush during the campaign. “Barack is a person who read about the civil-rights protests and thinks he knows all about it.”

Trotter was rougher still. “Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in blackface in our community,” he said. “You have only to look at his supporters. Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It’s these individuals in Hyde Park, who don’t always have the best interest of the community in mind.”

Shortly after Christmas in 1999, Obama missed a critical vote on the Safe Neighborhoods Act, a gun control measure in the Illinois State Senate. Rush and Trotter promptly let the voting public know that Obama had abandoned Chicago in its hour of need.

The front-page headline of the January 5, 2000, edition of the Hyde Park Herald, a community newspaper, captured the spirit of the brouhaha: “Obama Misses Gun Law Vote, Draws Criticism from Rivals.” What made the missed vote so awkward for Obama was that while Governor George Ryan desperately tried to find him, he was doing some holoholo time in the Aloha State.

His opponents seized the opportunity to show how very un-black such a sojourn was. Trotter, for one, described Obama’s absence as “irresponsible” and a “dereliction.” Rush’s campaign spokeswoman meanwhile pointed out that while some public officials were trying to get guns off the streets of Chicago, “other public officials are on a beach in Hawaii.”

When contacted by the Herald, Obama swore that he intended to be in Springfield for the special session, but his “18-month old daughter had a bad cold,” and he “determined it was too difficult to make a nine-hour flight.” Said the Herald in something of an understatement, “Rush didn’t buy Obama’s explanation.”

Apparently, not many others did either. A week later, Obama felt the need to employ his monthly Herald column in his own defense. Obama titled the column “Family Duties Took Precedence.” As maudlin and misleading as the column was, he might as well have titled it “How Checkers Ate My Homework.” To undo the narrative laid down by his opponents, Obama had to create a counter-narrative that positioned him not as the self-serving outsider Rush and Trotter imagined but as the very incarnation of responsible fatherhood.

To make this plotline work, Obama would ground his alibi in a foundation of half-truths and flat-out lies. As to the first issue, why he went to Hawaii on this “extremely short trip,” Obama claimed, “Our visit is the only means to assure my grandmother does not spend the holidays alone.”

Obama traced the solitude of his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, to the deaths of her daughter and husband. Obama neglected to say, of course, that the daughter -- his mother -- spent little time in Hawaii and had died four years prior, and that the husband died four years before that. To account for his grandmother not coming to Chicago, Obama endowed her with a “variety of ailments.”

As to the second issue, why he stayed once the vote was scheduled, Obama sensed correctly that ten-footers on the North Shore would not impress his South Side constituency. So he cited once again the illness of baby Malia, now elevating her “cold” to a “flu.” This was a necessary adjustment to explain why Michelle could not have stayed with the baby.

“We hear a lot to [sic] talk from politicians about the importance of family values,” Obama pontificated at the saga’s end. “Hopefully, you will try to understand when your state senator tries to live up to those values as best he can.” If no one else did, the individuals in Hyde Park bought the story. Obama got the editorial support of the Hyde Park Herald and the majority of white votes, but even with that support, he secured only 30 percent of the votes district-wide.

In the future, Obama would improve his storytelling. To sell himself to America, black and white, he would have to. He would further refine his pitchman’s talents to sell a center-right nation a variety of unwanted left-of-center nostrums. As Obama sensed, his line of goods would have forever remained on the political shelf had he honored truth-in-labeling laws, but he did not feel the need.

His allies on the left had been finessing labels for years: racial preferences to affirmative action to diversity; abortion rights to prochoice to reproductive rights; global warming to climate change; gay marriage to marriage equality; liberal to progressive.

Obama has been able to advance this ignoble tradition for two reasons. One is obvious: the media let him. The second needs explanation. Like any gifted sleight-of-hand artist, Obama has had his audience focus on the wrong object. The pundits debated his ideology -- Marxist, socialist, progressive, pragmatist -- and even his religion -- Christian, Muslim, atheist -- but they rarely questioned his commitment. Yes, those ten-footers in Hawaii likely did mean more to Obama than gun control laws in Illinois.

He proved so adept at breaking promises because he did not care deeply enough to keep them. What mattered more was that he be seen striking the right pose, finding the right groove, spinning the right narrative. And at the end of the day he still prefers doing holoholo time on America’s golf courses to governing.

Jack Cashill’s new book, You Lie!: The Evasions, Omissions, Fabrications, Frauds, and Outright Falsehoods of Barack Obama,” is now on sale wherever you buy books.

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