The United States is fighting two wars, has nearly 50 million people uninsured, and has unemployment that is approaching double digits. Yet the media world remains focused on the bizarre events that took place inside the home of a Harvard professor on July 16 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am too, alas, and I share the consensus view that Barack Obama made a serious mistake when he momentarily lost his legendary self-discipline and weighed in on the Skip Gates contretemps in a press conference last Wednesday, endorsing Gates’ view that the incident shared some relevance to the genuine problem of racial profiling. It did not, which is not to say it was justifiable—only that it had nothing to do with race.
By endorsing a racial reading of the incident, the president—as almost all commentators have pointed out—ended up burying the arguments he had made for the previous hour regarding health care and much else for the time being. That’s conventional wisdom, of course, but what is going unremarked is the degree to which Obama’s comments have demonstrated the dismal quality of conservative commentary these days, which in many ways appears to mirror the fortunes of a movement with someone like Sarah Palin as its titular head.
I could start almost anywhere, but take a look at the piece put up by National Review’s Mona Charen. She complained that the president’s response to what she foolishly calls “Gatesgate”—in a nod to conservatives’ decades-long campaign to trivialize Richard Nixon’s Watergate crimes—“actually sheds a lot of light on his approach to health care and other issues, for this reason: Obama adopts his positions before knowing what he is talking about. How could he not have known all the facts? Press Secretary Robert Gibbs mentioned on ‘Fox News Sunday’ that the Gates matter was one of the issues the White House press operation had briefed the president on before the press conference. Numerous accounts of the imbroglio were available online—though the president need only pick up the phone to get all the information he wants. This is worth bearing in mind as the country takes a good, hard look at the president’s plans for health care reform. He didn’t want information. He preferred his comfortable, prejudiced view.”
The stupidity of the above criticism comes pretty close to Onion-like self-parody. Plenty of people may disagree with President Obama’s priorities, but virtually no one thinks he does not do his policy-related homework. After all, the rap on the health care presser was that it was too wonkish, too bogged down in detail, and insufficiently inspirational. And recall, Obama had no way of knowing he was going to get a question about Gates—why should he have?—at a time when almost no one, including Gates himself, had all the information. (No one but the cops knew at the time, for instance, that the 911 caller, Lucia Whalen, never mentioned race to the responding police officer.)
So the idea that Obama did not know everything about something he could not have known everything about and had no particular reason to know in the first place—and therefore should not be trusted with a health care plan, which, by the way, is being written in Congress, not the White House—is really too ridiculous even to merit a response. And yet believe it or not, it’s actually among the more coherent right-wing attacks on Obama one sees when one invites these folks to bring race into the equation.
Some of the others I’ve come across include:
- On Fox, Limbaugh says of Obama’s Gates answer: “President Obama is black. And I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder.”
- Also on Fox, Glenn Beck claimed that Obama’s response demonstrated “‘a deep-seated hatred for white people.’”
Media Matters noticed a particularly interesting theme regarding Limbaugh and Beck that involved ACORN, the largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people in the United States:
- Rush Limbaugh. During the July 24 broadcast of his radio show, Limbaugh stated that Obama’s response was “the reaction of a community agitator. We got the reaction of a community organizer. We got the reaction of an ACORN leader.”
- Glenn Beck. On the July 24 broadcast of his radio show, Beck said that “the only thing you really need to know about this guy is that he’s a community organizer” and that Obama was attempting to “[o]verwhelm the system.” He added: “[W]hen we go on the air and I, you know, rip apart the guy from ACORN, especially if he’s black. … [I]t allows them to take that videotape and say, ‘See? It’s the white man against the black man.’ It helps them.”
Blogger Peter Daou at the Huffington Post also discovered a kind of harmonic convergence of wingnuttery, noting, “In addition to the racial undertones of the birther movement, one theme gaining traction on the right in light of the Gates arrest is that Obama is racist: Examples HERE, HERE, and HERE.”
Meanwhile, Daou, who apparently has a far greater tolerance for this kind of thing than yours truly, further finds that “Fox Nation is suggesting that Obama’s health care bill is a back-door bill for slavery reparations. And yep, they suggest that white people will die as a result.” The original article linked to by Fox Nation is from Investors Business Daily and concludes as follows: “The racial grievance industry under health care reform could be calling the shots in the emergency room, the operating room, the medical room, even medical school. As Terence Jeffrey, editor at large of Human Events puts it, not only our wealth, but also our health will be redistributed.”
And while this doesn’t exactly fall into the category of wignuttery, though undoubtedly it feeds more of it, why is the Politico reporting that “Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. donated heavily to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign?” (He contributed $4,600 to Obama and $1,000 to Hillary Clinton.) Does the Politico think Obama’s comments were a payback for the generous financial support he’s received from Gates? Do the editors there think Obama said to himself, “Well, this may screw health care but the guy ponied up $4,600 so what choice do I have but take his side?”
I wrote a column in The Nation this week on this incident despairing of our ability as a nation to ever talk about race sensibly. But it is becoming more and more obvious that we cannot really talk about anything sensibly so long as anyone takes these folks even remotely seriously. When people wonder how a great nation like ours can allow nearly 50 million people—many of whom are children—to go without proper health coverage, that’s at least one big reason.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at The Nation and writes regularly for The Daily Beast.