Spin cycle in high gear
In the hall, that is, when Barack Obama sampled a few good lines from his friend Deval Patrick. And on the call when Team Clinton tried to turn Obama’s use of those lines into a five-alarm scandal.
They made a perfectly convincing case—once you accepted a perfectly flawed premise.
This was spinning at its best. Which is to say, at its worst.
But first, a quick review.
It was Saturday evening at the Founders Day Gala of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and Obama and Hillary Clinton were on the bill as headliners. Clinton spoke first and was very good. Obama spoke second and was Obama—which is to say, he had the room in the palm of his hand and, occasionally, in a frenzy.
Much of his speech, I’d heard before. But there were a few new sections, including his strongest pushback yet against the Clinton claim that their candidate is all about substance and “solutions,” while her opponent’s pretty speeches are only…pretty speeches. That “words are cheap.”
“Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Obama shot back. “‘I have a dream’ … just words? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ … just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ … just words? Just speeches?”
The place went, give or take a few dozen Clinton holdouts, crazy.
That was Saturday night. By Monday morning, most of the political world had learned that Obama wasn’t the first candidate to use those words to make that point. Deval Patrick had used almost identical phrasing back in 2006, when he was running for governor of Massachusetts and his opponent was likewise trying to turn his inspiring rhetoric into a liability.
Patrick and Obama had apparently compared notes as recently as last week. Patrick not only urged Obama to respond. He even, as he told the New York Times, “shared language from his campaign with Mr. Obama’s speechwriters.”
An unusual arrangement? You betcha. A class A felony? Absolutely, if you were the Clinton campaign, and desperate to slow the Obama train down.
The “Media Advisory,” labeled “TIME SENSITIVE,” arrived by e-mail Monday morning: “Rep. Jim McGovern and the campaign’s Communications Director Howard Wolfson will hold a conference call TODAY at 11:00 a.m. EST to discuss a recent speech delivered by Sen. Obama.”
And then there was the YouTube link, where the Obama and Patrick snippets were juxtaposed to wonderfully squirmy effect.
It was more than just squirmy, Wolfson tried to argue over and over again. This was big.
“When you are running on your rhetoric and the power of your oratory, and the words that you are using turn out to be somebody else’s, I think it undermines a very central and important premise of Sen. Obama’s candidacy.”
Good point—once you swallow the premise that Obama is running merely on his rhetoric and his oratory.
Some of the reporters on the call weren’t necessarily buying it—that it was such a big deal, or even if it was, that Obama was the only offender. Could Wolfson be sure, ABC’s Jake Tapper wondered, that Sen. Clinton hadn’t done similar borrowing herself?
Guess what? Wolfson couldn’t be sure. (And by that same afternoon, the networks were airing assorted Clinton “lifts” as well. From her husband—presumably with his blessing. From John Edwards—presumably not.)
And guess what else? Wolfson insisted that even if she had borrowed a line or a phrase here or there, that would be … different.
“Sen. Clinton is not running on the strength of her rhetoric. She is not running to be the orator-in-chief.” And Obama is?
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.