During the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama’s campaign perfected a brilliant technique for gaining the upper hand in the short-term news cycle -- feigned outrage. In the Democratic primaries, Obama’s team would alight on an ill-phrased but ultimately innocent choice of words by his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton or one of her surrogates -- like her claim that President Lyndon Johnson did as much as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to pass the Civil Rights Act -- and use it to whip up outrage and score political points. Often, the indignation would be joined by a call for the aide who uttered the supposedly offensive remark to be, in the reigning cliche of 2008, thrown under the bus.
The Clinton campaign soon taught its spokespeople to huff just as indignantly over stray remarks made by Obama or his surrogates, giving words like “cling” and “bitter” and places like Pennsylvania an undeservedly long sojourn in the headlines. And in late summer 2008, John McCain’s campaign got into the act, suggesting that Obama’s benign “lipstick on a pig” remark about Sarah Palin amounted to rank sexism -- leading Obama to try to scuttle the whole business.
“They seize on an innocent remark,” Obama fulminated, as he offered a nice analysis of the technique, “try to take it out of context, throw out an outrageous ad because they know it’s catnip for the news media.”
It’s appropriate that a book about the 2008 campaign -- Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s newly published “Game Change” -- has given us yet another example in which phony outrage over an out-of-context sound bite captivates the media all out of proportion to the offensiveness of the remark. The statement was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2008 comment that he expected Obama to fare better electorally than previous black presidential aspirants partly because of his lighter skin tone and lack of “Negro dialect” -- a term, incidentally, that the “Google Books” search engine finds in 3,780 publications, all before this year, none apparently racist. Republicans are shocked, shocked, and applying as much heat as they can, despite the explicability of the remark. And unfortunately, the technique of ginning up outrage and demanding heads over decontextualized or poorly phrased comments is here to stay.
The most obvious reason is that it’s a political game perfectly suited for our new news cycle. Episodes like the Reid comment provide “catnip for the news media,” as Obama said, because of the new rhythms of cable TV and blogging, which intensify the old talk-radio pattern: polarized and combative, with guest experts and pundits chosen to parrot each side’s arguments with requisite rage. Verbal missteps work well for cable because they require little explanation (so the fight can begin quickly); they lend themselves to simple partisan battles; and viewers can readily align their own emotions with one side or the other.
The media, of course, reflect our politics, and a second reason these flaps are so common lately is that they fit well with our divided and mutually suspicious condition. As the Republican Party has become over the years more uniformly and aggressively conservative, and the Democrats (to a lesser degree) more uniformly liberal, the parties see little reason to work together. With enmity and constant partisan combat now the norm, both sides seize any chance to give their opponent a black eye. The stakes are rising as we enter 2010, an election year.
Then there’s a third, less obvious reason that the outrage game is thriving: its connection to the politics of race. Although race has been at or near the center of American politics in every age, Obama’s candidacy and election elevated it in a new and complicated way. On the one hand, the election of an African American president makes it natural for race to emerge often in our presidency-centered political discourse. On the other, Obama has always been careful and understated in his efforts to address the subject. He talks about it infrequently and often obliquely, and he almost always assumes a moderate stance that tries to dignify all positions. As president, he has focused on race mainly when it has been thrust upon him, as when reporters asked him last summer to comment on the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates on Gates’ own property.
This delicate touch -- and this is related to Reid’s “controversial” comments -- helped Obama appeal to white voters in 2008. But Obama’s gingerly treatment of race also reveals a certain continuing skittishness. Because the president recognizes that a provocative comment could derail his policy priorities -- the way Jimmy Carter’s threatened to do last summer when he accused healthcare reform critics of racism -- Obama is, not surprisingly, loath to open any wounds in some dreamy hope of starting a “national conversation about race.” And so resentments and anxieties on all sides have simmered. Episodes like Reid’s comments or Gates’ arrest then serve as lightning rods, drawing out these resentments and anxieties in a quick flash.
The persistence of feigned outrage admits to no easy solution. Moralizing to the cable channels about their choices of what to cover -- or to the higher-toned newspapers and other media that now feel pressed to take their cues from the Fox News or MSNBC fray -- will not likely change anything. Nor will politicians likely forgo the chance to bruise their rivals when presented with such chances by the media. In this climate, any attempt to begin an authentic “national conversation on race” would surely degenerate quickly into keening and calls for somebody’s resignation. Ultimately, explaining all the subtleties of a linguistic concept like “Negro dialect” -- or any other touchy subjects that could trigger such an episode -- demands more time, patience and intellectual precision than the leading producers and avid consumers of our breakneck political discussions wish to indulge.
David Greenberg is a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image” and other books.