Monday, March 17, 2008

Obama plays by the Friday Rule

Barack Obama says he's a new kind of politician, but, when necessary, he knows how to play by the old unwritten rules. One such rule decrees: Always release bad news on a Friday, when the news audience is arguably the smallest.

And so, last Friday, there were two developments. Obama told the Chicago Tribune that, hey, you know what, as a matter of fact, it must have slipped his mind, but his former buddy, the indicted real estate hustler Tony Rezko, actually had raised a lot more money for his political campaigns than he had previously stated. Obama had said that Rezko, prior to being collared by the feds on corruption charges, had raised $150,000 for his first three political races; but late Friday, Obama said it was actually $250,000.

With respect to a particularly nagging question - why would Obama agree to let Rezko help him swing a deal for his new home in 2005, at a time when Rezko was under federal investigation? - Obama told the Tribune that, as a matter of fact, he had asked Rezko about his questionable dealings while the house deal was being worked out...and Rezko had basically shrugged off Obama's concerns. Which apparently was good enough for Obama; as he told the Tribune late Friday, "my instinct was to believe him."

So Obama gave Rezko the benefit of the doubt. And it was also clear, in another Friday development, that he had given his pastor, the Rev. Jerimiah Wright, the benefit of the doubt.

In a statement posted online Friday, Obama essentially said that he knew nothing about Wright's most provocative sermons, such as the time Wright essentially blamed America for 9/11 and the time Wright suggested that the phrase "God damn America" was preferable to "God bless America." Obama's key line: "(Those) were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation." But there was a lot of wiggle room in that sentence. Had he not heard about the controversial preachings from others, at the time? He now says that those preachings were "inflammatory and appalling," but did he believe that at the time?

In other words, with respect to both Rezko and Wright, what matters more: his contemporaneous behavior, or his after-the-fact statements issued in accordance with the Friday Rule? Most importantly, I'm just asking: Do these episodes provide insights into Obama's character? Do they tell us anything important about Obama's judgment?

If what happened in Iowa this weekened is any guide, however, the Rezko and Wright affairs probably won't damage Obama among Democratic activists. Twenty four hours after his Friday disclosures, Obama actually picked up more delegates, thereby widening his national lead over Hillary Clinton. Such were the results Saturday at the Iowa county conventions.

I know, you thought Iowa was all over. But the January caucuses were actually only the first step toward delegate selection; phase two occurred at the county level. And apparently, Obama gained as many as nine new adherents - primarily refugees from the defunct John Edwards campaign. As one Iowa participant reportedly remarked, "If (Wright's words) didn't come out of (Obama's) mouth, I don't care about it."

But, as I mentioned Friday, the Wright factor may matter more down the road. As a nominee, Obama would need the working-class white Democrats who are currently voting for Hillary Clinton. If many of these voters come to believe (or are encouraged to believe) that Obama had chosen to be willfully oblivious about, among other things, "God damn America," the '08 autumn showdown with John McCain could be extremely close.


Catching up on old stories the other day, I ran across this paragraph, buried deep within a March 10 article about the Clinton campaign's internal turmoil:

"Mrs. Clinton showed a tendency toward an insular management style, relying on a coterie of aides who have worked for her for years, her aides and associates said. Her choice of lieutenants, and her insistence on staying with them even when friends urged her to shake things up, was blamed by some associates for the campaign’s woes. Again and again, the senator was portrayed as a manager who valued loyalty and familiarity over experience and expertise."

Insular...sticking with inept aides...valuing loyalty over expertise...

Gee. Does that sound like anybody we know?

By the way, one of the most underreported stories lately is how Clinton's lead over Obama, among superdelegates, has steadily eroded since early February. According to trackings by CBS News and The New York Times, 303 superdelegates had declared for a candidate back on Feb. 2; of those declarants, Clinton was ahead by a margin of 105 (204 to 99). Contrast that to March 14, when 322.5 had declared a preference (superdelegates affiliated with Democrats living abroad get half a vote each); on that date, according to the trackers, Clinton's margin was down to only 20.5 (221 to 201.5).


Here's the quote of the weekend, seeking to explain why the Republican prospects for winning back the House and Senate seem so dim: "It's no mystery. You have a very unhappy electorate, which is no surprise, with oil at $108 a barrel, stocks down a few thousand points, a war in Iraq with no end in sight and a president who is still very, very unpopular. He's just killed the Republican brand."

He's just killed the Republican brand...Those are the words of Tom Davis, a prominent House Republican. And the reason that Davis felt free to speak so boldly is because he's bailing out of the House. It's amazing how the happy prospect of voluntary retirement will sometimes inspire a lame-duck politician to commit candor.


Speaking of Iraq, this week the war is five years old. McCain, who continues to get a free ride from Democrats, thanks to their obsession with their own troubles, is touring Iraq as we speak (in his role as senator, thereby allowing him to make a de facto campaign stop on the taxpayer's dime). Meanwhile, I offered some thoughts on that ignominious milestone in a Sunday print column, sort of a mordant tone poem.


In recent years, The New York Times has been embarrassed by staffers who made stuff up (Jayson Blair), and wrote phony WMD stories on page one (Judith Miller). So I found it puzzling, several months ago, that the paper would hire, as an op-ed columnist, neoconservative Bill Kristol, whose hawkish whoppers on behalf of the Iraq war have long been documented. (Among many examples, here he is in 2003: "There’s been a certain amount of pop psychology in America...that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni, and that the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all.")

There are many quality conservative columnists; I am a George Will fan, for instance. The problem with hiring an ideologue, however, is that you give up a certain amount of journalistic quality control. In his very first column, he misattributed a quote to the wrong conservative ally. And yesterday, more importantly, Kristol, in his eagerness to tie Obama to Wright, stated in his Sunday column that Obama had been seated in the congregation last July 22 during one provocative Wright sermon. Kristol attributed this information to a report from journalist Ron Kessler; however, he did not tell readers that Kessler's story had appeared on Newsmax, which is one of those fevered right-wing websites that is - how shall I put this delicately - known primarily serving up red meat.

Anyway, it turns out that Obama was actually in Florida last July 22, addressing an Hispanic organization, and not in the Trinity Church; there is even a YouTube clip from his speech that day. Kessler, meanwhile, had based his own report on a single source who has now backed away from his original claim. And this statement now tops his column, as it appears online: "The Obama campaign has provided information showing that Senator Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error."

Perhaps a certain institution, by lowering its journalistic standards, should also be expressing regret.