As the editorial coordinator of HuffPostâ€™s OffTheBus project, I had the privilege and responsibility of doing the final edit and ultimately approving for publication the web story Friday that has set off a firestorm over Barack Obamaâ€™s remarks about a â€œbitterâ€ attitude that sometimes plagues economically-pressed small towns. Specifically those in Pennsylvania.
Writer Mayhill Fowlerâ€™s story -- now with more than
2500 5,000 comments on it -- was picked up by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, CNN.com, the Associated Press, Fox News, Reuters, Politico, the Lou Dobbs Show, Hardball, Olbermannâ€™s Countdown, The Atlantic.com, The DailyKos, TalkingPointsMemo and myriad other outlets.
McCain and Clinton quickly jumped into the fray. And Obama released a video to respond to the controversy (posted below).
Hereâ€™s the background: Last Sunday, citizen journalist Mayhill Fowler â€“ true superstar at OffTheBus and a declared Obama supporter-- was present at an Obama fund raiser in San Francisco during which the candidate got a little loose lipped with the crowd while her tape recorder was running. On Monday she filed an initial story â€“ which also got a lot of attentionâ€”on his declarations that he doesnâ€™t need a hawk to bolster him as VP.
Working from the same material, Mayhill then filed a second story early this morning â€“ the one that has exploded. (You can also hear the audio of Obamaâ€™s speech here). Basically, Obama tried explaining to his tony crowd of San Fran funders why some folks in the Pennsylvania hinterlands might have, um, some cultural leanings that depart from those of the good people of the Sunset district or Marin County. Hereâ€™s what he said:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them...And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
When the piece came across my desk for editing Friday morning, I honestly could not anticipate what sort of storm Obama's musings would touch off. I knew exactly what Obama was straining to say and while I recognized he did so in a rather clumsy fashion, I didnâ€™t think they would elicit such intense reaction (Shows you what I know).
I think of all the ink spilled on the subject in the last 18 hours or so, Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic.com does one of the better jobs of unpacking the significance of the gaffe.
We're dealing tonight with a classic Kinseyian "gaffe," where a candidate says what he means and then is forced to account for it. Let's separate, for the moment, the politics of Obama's words from the argument he is making. In Obama's version, working class voters in the Midwest have been inured to promises of economic redress because both Democrats and Republicans promise to help and never do; since government is a source of distress in their lives, they organize their politics around more stable institutions, like churches or cultural practices, like hunting. The outlet for their economic duress is in lashing out, in giving voice to their grievances; In Obama's formulation, Republicans are especially eager and willing to exploit cultural trigger points.
Ambinder points out that this isnâ€™t exactly an earth-shaking rumination and that even John McCain has made similar observations. But thereâ€™s a still a problem here for Obama.
[T]he perilous words for Obama are "bitter," "cling to," "guns" and "religion." Those disinclined to put themselves in Obama's head will read the sentences and see Obama dismissing both religion and American gun culture the opiates of the masses. Voters may believe that one's position on cultural issues is a better reflection of their inner values than one's position on economics.
Here's the video from Obama.
But the politics are unquestionably dangerous for a candidate whose appeal depends on him transcending traditional political adjectives like "liberal" or "elite."Despite his working class upbringing, Obama's hyperconfidence sometimes translates as holier-than-thou, elitist, aristocratic, Dukakis-esque. Republicans know that these attributes aren't popular in middle America, so they will use every opportunity to remind independents and moderates about them. Obama's professorial disquisition at a fundraiser reinforces in real time these stereotypes. And the complexity of his subject matter does not lend itself to an easy response. One bright spot for Obama: his campaign's response to the story was quick and strong.
I want to say a few words about the author of the piece, Mayhill Fowler. A highly-educated, sophisticated intellectual as well as an ardent Obama supporter, she has become a mainstay of OffTheBus. She employs a highly-personalized, reflective narrative style to her unconventional reporting â€“ an approach that would be, indeed, non-grata, within the official campaign reporting bubble. It violates almost all of the conventions of traditional reporting (though not its ethical code) and that's what makes it all so damn interesting.
I, personally, would have written her piece much differently than the way she chose. It would have been less about me and more about Obama. But Mayhill has developed quite a loyal and appreciative audience and with her most recent work demonstrates that citizen journalism can do many, many things still inaccessible to the MSM. Itâ€™s also quite a bit of fun to see how a report like hers can actually set the agenda for the entire national press. I've also been impressed with the way that Mayhill has struggled with her own conscience, her own values and as well her hopes and desires. She was and remains an Obama supporter. And it wasn't easy for her to write a piece that she knew, while truthful and accurate, would nevertheless be used by his political opponents. Not an easy task, I assure you.
Hereâ€™s just some of the links to and about Mayhillâ€™s story.