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It's possible for a writer to provide not merely useful but distinguished commentary on Barack Obama and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and here is my evidence. But very few daily journalists have either the time or talent to emulate Garry Wills, and for their sakes I guess we should be glad they don't; hearing editors snap, "Don't give me Lincoln and John Brown! I want to read about blue collar racism and superdelegates," would break their lofty hearts.
Though Wills's essay ran in the May 1 issue of the New York Review of Books he wrote it several days before Wright made his notorious appearance at the National Press Club. Yet it's not diminished in the least by subsequent events -- by which I mean not merely what Wright said about Obama and Obama said about Wright but also what the press then said about both of them. Which came in a deluge. In addition to the editorial in Wednesday's Tribune there were columns by John Kass, Clarence Page, and Kathleen Parker. In the Sun-Times, which had published its editorial Tuesday, columnists Mark Brown, Mary Mitchell, Lynn Sweet, Richard Roeper, Neil Steinberg, and Carol Marin weighed in. It was a little like 9/11 -- if you couldn't think of anything to write about Wright and Obama you didn't belong in the game.
What would we be reading if Wright had kept his mouth shut? My guess is a little more about Mike Easley, the governor of North Carolina, who made a campaign appearance with Hillary Clinton Tuesday and said, "This lady right here makes Rocky Balboa look like a pansy." Since Wright didn't keep his mouth shut, you might soon be reading (if you're not already) about Barbara Reynolds, a former Tribune reporter who runs the National Press Club speakers committee and is being accused of giving Wright a platform in order to help Clinton.
Intrigue makes good reading and might sway some votes. At this stage health plans and energy plans probably won't. Yes, I know, pundits like to argue otherwise, but the media have been kicking those tires for months now and they've gone flat. The most damned event of this endless campaign season was the debate in Philadelphia April 16, which hit bottom when the audience started jeering one of the moderators, ABC's Charles Gibson. The Times's Frank Rich commented afterward, "Viewers of all political persuasions were affronted by the moderators' failure to ask about the mortgage crisis, health care, the environment, torture, education, China policy, the pending G.I. bill to aid veterans, or the war we're losing in Afghanistan," instead, dishing up Wright, fantasy gunfire in Bosnia, commercials, and network promos. Rich argued that ABC had "tapped into a larger national discontent with news media fatuousness," offering as evidence the fact that despite the "orgy of press hysteria" over Obama's hypothesis about "bitter" small-towners who "cling to guns or religion," the public did not care -- "the polls hardly budged." (Now a poll has, though it doesn't so much measure Obama's strength as it does how the public perceives his strength.)
To show what a disaster the debate was, Rich offered comment from other major newspapers -- "Shoddy, despicable!" "A tawdry affair!" "A televised train wreck!" But wasn't this simply more of the same media fatuousness, the papers' rote decrying of what they know they must decry? I'll play devil's advocate and suggest that Gibson and the other moderator, George Stephanopoulos, were at their wit's end trying to deliver something besides the same old same old, and what they tried didn't work either. The public's had it with debates.
David Brooks wrote an interesting column for the Tuesday New York Times observing that "the most interesting feature of the Democratic race is how unimportant political events are. The candidates . . . can make horrific gaffes, deliver brilliant speeches, turn in good or bad debate performances, but these things do not alter the race. . . . People in different niches have developed different unconscious maps of reality."
Consider some of the online comment you can read in response to Governor Easley's pansy remark. I thought I knew what pansy meant, but in other realities it's just a flower. "I've never associated Pansy with gays personally," someone posted. "I also find that term a lot less offensive that much of the vile language that Reverend Wright has been spewing." A self-identified Clinton supporter said, "This is a non-issue, and even Obama would call this a silly distraction from bigger, more meaningful issues. I have to agree with him." Here's a reality so sure of itself it even makes the opposition agree with it.