It’s no secret that the memo has gone out among Republican pundits to start chipping away at Obama. He’s the likely nominee, he’s probably stronger against McCain than Clinton would be, and he’s a dangerously quick study. The time to cut him down to size is now, and they know it.
One of Obama’s strengths has been that people trust him (he’s been pretty careful not to lie). His credibility has held up astonishingly well, given how far into an unusually protracted primary campaign we are. To damage it would be a major accomplishment for the Republicans, and a week ago William Kristol tried to do it in a column in the New York Times. But now Kristol has had to retract the core of his argument — in fact, the only part of the previous week’s column that had any real firepower. Not that you’d guess that from reading his correction:
In last week’s column, I cited a report that Senator Obama had attended services at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago on July 22, 2007. The Obama campaign has provided information showing that Senator Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error.
Sounds pretty innocent, doesn’t it? A slight schedule mix-up, nothing more. You’d almost think Kristol’s column the previous week had been about the candidate’s punishing travel schedule or something.
Not at all. Look at what he was actually saying in that column:
It certainly could be the case that Obama personally didn’t hear Wright’s 2003 sermon when he proclaimed: “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. … God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”
But Ronald Kessler, a journalist who has written about Wright’s ministry, claims that Obama was in fact in the pews at Trinity last July 22. That’s when Wright blamed the “arrogance” of the “United States of White America” for much of the world’s suffering, especially the oppression of blacks. In any case, given the apparent frequency of such statements in Wright’s preaching and their centrality to his worldview, the pretense that over all these years Obama had no idea that Wright was saying such things is hard to sustain.
The more you learn about him, the more Obama seems to be a conventionally opportunistic politician, impressively smart and disciplined, who has put together a good political career and a terrific presidential campaign. But there’s not much audacity of hope there. There’s the calculation of ambition, and the construction of artifice, mixed in with a dash of deceit — all covered over with the great conceit that this campaign, and this candidate, are different.
It’s perfectly clear that the real purpose of this column was to show up Barack Obama as a liar: he said he wasn’t in the church when Wright said that, but really he was, and therefore he’s not as honest as he makes himself out to be.
Except Obama was telling the truth: he really wasn’t there. And by the way, as far as I know Obama has never claimed that he was unaware in general that Wright was making these comments. In fact, he talked on several occasions about how he feels about Wright, and about the questionable things Wright said. When Kristol writes “the pretense that over all these years Obama had no idea that Wright was saying such things is hard to sustain”, that’s because there has been no such pretense. The “dash of deceit” Kristol is referring to can only be about Obama’s (true) claim that he never heard Wright say these things from the pulpit. The report that Obama was in the pews that day was intended to be the bombshell in this column; all the rest was window dressing.
Since Obama really was not in the pews, the key point Kristol was trying to make — that Obama is deceitful — collapses. Kristol should acknowledge that frankly in his correction, and apologize rather than just “regret the error”. Something like this:
In last week’s column, I used a report that Senator Obama had attended services at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago on July 22, 2007 (when he said he hadn’t attended) to impugn his credibility and claim he has a “dash of deceit” in his political character. The Obama campaign has provided information showing that Senator Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error and apologize for the conclusion I mistakenly drew.
That kind of correction would mean that people who read just the correction, but not the original column, would still be able to tell what happened, and would recognize the canard the next time they run across it on, say, Fox News or CNN (as I did, while watching viewer’s comments scroll by on one of those channels while on a treadmill at the Harlem YMCA the other day).
As Kristol knows full well, the main damage has already been done anyway: the lie will spread quickly (as it spread to that viewer whose comment I saw) because there are a lot of people who are eager to spread it. The correction will spread slowly and fitfully, because corrections always sound lame even when they fundamentally change the story. Humans are intrinsically biased toward what they hear first, unfortunately.
Kristol wasn’t irresponsible in printing the original assertion; he got it from the journalist Ronald Kessler, and made that clear in his column. But having contributed to the spread of a lie, both intellectual honesty and good manners demand that Kristol should at least do everything in his power to fix the situation. Instead, he did the bare minimum.
I’m not impressed.