a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Obama and Durbin’s "mistake"

Posted by Thomas Nephew on April 2nd, 2008

…we have a tendency to demonize and jump on and make mockery of each other across the aisle, and that is particularly pronounced when we make mistakes. Each and every one of us is going to make a mistake once in a while…and what we hope is that our track record of service, the scope of how we’ve operated and interacted with people, will override whatever particular mistake we make.

By itself, this is a worthy, almost banal remark. In context, however, Barack Obama’s June 21, 2005 statement on the Senate floor was something less innocuous — because the “mistake” was a remark by Senator Dick Durbin several days earlier, after describing an FBI report about Guantanamo detainee treatment to the Senate:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings.

Readers will no doubt recall the ensuing howls of rage from the right wing jungle. I’m not trying to burnish my “moral vanity” credentials here, but I think that between his statement and silence, Obama would have been a better friend to Durbin — and more importantly, a better defender of the values he shares with Durbin — if he’d chosen silence.

When I riffle through things Obama has said that are vaguely disturbing or off-putting to me (on Lieberman, on the Roberts nomination, on Social Security), I realize that’s “all” they are — rhetoric. But then, his rhetoric is part and parcel of why Obama is a frontrunner now. When he’s “on” I do feel a glimmer of hope for a better America, one united in turning the page on endless war, fear, and suspicion — an America turning its back on a meaningless variety of partisan politics not much more elevated than gang warfare, fueled by loyalty, payback, and a chain of command.

Yet the lion’s share of that gang warfare is initiated by the other side — and conversely, not all partisanship and advocacy is meaningless or mistaken. Durbin’s wasn’t; his comparisons were apt, even eerily precise. It’s true that much of what passes for political debate is more heat than light. But I think Obama is prone to make that diagnosis too easily, and to turn that diagnosis into a pat reaction of deprecating controversy — and its participants — on grounds of “tone,” regardless of the uncomfortable truth at its core. (Obama’s 2005 Daily Kos post “Tone, Truth, and the Democratic Party” is another example.)

Thus, Obama detected “courage” in Durbin’s apology, rather than his initial remark.Similarly, he opined that “…our politics seem to be ginned up by interest groups and blogs and the Internet.” In fairness, he may have meant those groups and blogs howling for Durbin’s scalp. But if so, the words were artfully chosen to vaguely point a finger everywhere rather than anywhere deservedly specific. And at any rate, Durbin — of all people — is the only person Obama identified (three times, as The Nation’s Alexander Cockburn points out) as having made a “mistake.”

So am I flip-flopping to Clinton because of this? No; I’m just tending a little, cool, skeptical flame about Obama. I imagine I’ll need it; even if I’m on his side in the primaries, that doesn’t mean he’ll always be on mine once he’s hit the big time. Just ask Senator Durbin.

NOTES: I first wrote about this in American Street, somewhat less charitably towards Senator Obama. Obama’s remarks at the beginning of the post are via Alexander Cockburn of The Nation, whose trenchant essay is unfortunately inaccessible to nonsubscribers; my chief contribution is to also link to the Congressional Record, and note the “ginned up…by blogs” remark. “[E]erily precise” refers to my post “Look pretty similar to me,” juxtaposing testimony from Guantanamo and other American sites with historical documentation of Nazi and Soviet detainee treatment practices. Click here and here for posts on this site about Durbin’s remarks and subsequent apology.

One Response to “Obama and Durbin’s "mistake"”

  1. » Blog Archive » I agree — let’s all be more skeptical Says:

    […] * E.g., here, here, here, and here. My principal Clinton-skepticism post is here. EDITS, 4/13: […]

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