Traveling, listening to Obama & McCain

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My job takes me out of a town a fair amount, and I'm currently in the midst of a 10-day trip. One pleasure of being on the road is the time available to listen to radio (in this case, election coverage on XM Satellite Radio) and to watch TV news. At home, both stay off most of the time.

Here are observations about some of the news events from the past week as they happened.

Lipstick on a pig: John McCain's criticism of Barack Obama's "lipstick on a pig" comment was unfair. Could Obama have intentionally used the term to slight Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin? Possibly, but I doubt it. Regardless, it doesn't rise to anything worth arguing over either way, and it was demeaning for the McCain campaign to pounce on the comment as some sort of revealing gaffe.

That said, Obama certainly doesn't have clean hands when it comes to attacking McCain, so his protests are over-inflated. After all, it was Obama's campaign — and Obama himself — who earlier twisted McCain's remarks about how long he would support American troops in Iraq, how many houses his wife owned, and the level of income McCain believed indicative of being "rich." In these cases, it was Obama who distorted the context of the remarks.

What's clear is that both candidates seem more than comfortable taking the low road when they deem it advantageous.

One unfortunate consequence of the "lipstick on a pig" controversy is that it distracted from a serious speech by Obama on education. Thanks to XM, I listened to the speech in its entirety. Among the highlights was a call for developing more engineers and science teachers — and to spend more in attracting and retaining top-flight teachers. But overall, it was simply long, criticizing the status quo without offering specifics.

National service: The joint appearance by both Obama and McCain at the Sept. 11 memorial service, as well as their participation in a televised forum about volunteerism, showed each at his best.

Both were impressive in their thoughtfulness, eloquence and passion — as well as in the breadth of their thinking.

One of the most debilitating elements of George W. Bush as president has been his almost total lack of speaking skills. Some people argue that talking intelligently and coherently are unimportant in an executive, who foremost must make good decisions. They are wrong. The ability to explain and persuade are vital, and both Obama and McCain represent a vast improvement over the current president.

Where Obama and McCain departed from each other in talking about national service is informative, however:

1. McCain placed more emphasis on military service as a way to "serve a cause greater than one's self." Rather than develop even more government programs to engage young people, McCain encouraged participation in one of the volunteer armed services.

2. Obama stressed the need to increase funding for volunteer programs so that those who could not afford to volunteer would have such an opportunity. His answers constantly stressing more funding clearly pleased his media hosts.

3. McCain wasn't as pleasing to his hosts, underlining that government must be careful about suppressing private and not-for-profit volunteerism through the unintended consequences of government initiatives, no matter how well-intentioned. He constantly stressed the need to maintain "balance" between government, private, church and not-for-profit efforts.

Looney tunes: Loons took over the radio for much of the next day during my travels. First, the head of the South Carolina Democratic Party (and the wife of a former head of the Democratic National Committee) said the top qualification for John McCain picking Sarah Palin as vice president was apparently that she didn't have an abortion.

Hello? And you think this helps Barack Obama how?

Faced with quick condemnations all around, Carol Fowler apologized, but it was one of those famous non-apologies, which made her look even pettier.

Next, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, likened Palin to Pontius Pilate and Obama to Jesus Christ, a nonsensical joke that was repeated later in the day by a prominent Hollywood celebrity.

Perhaps seeking balance, the radio station I was listening to gave airtime to several nuts at a right-wing forum in Washington, including a duo selling waffle mix with a racially charged image of Obama in a turban.

Again, I ask, how do these people think this helps their candidate?

Clearly, shallowness and stupidity are members support groups in both parties.

The Palin interview: Of course, coverage of Charles Gibson's interview on ABC with Sarah Palin dominated the airwaves after the Sept. 11 lull was over. My initial thought: Hillary Clinton must be furious. She must have thought, Where was such questioning of Barack Obama by the media when he first emerged as an inexperienced unknown?

Indeed, the day after the initial broadcast of the interview, her former chief political strategist, Mark Penn, was quoted in an interview with CBS News: "I think that the media is doing the kinds of stories on Palin that they're not doing on the other candidates. And that's going to subject them to people concluding that they're giving her a tougher time."

Said Penn: "This is an election in which the voters are going to decide for themselves. The media has lost credibility with them."

From my perspective, not only was Gibson's questioning of Palin antagonistic, but it was often disrespectful and condescending. Using an authoritative tone and interrupting the VP candidate numerous times, he made assertions of fact that weren't, in fact, facts.

Palin's performance wasn't a knockout by any stretch of the imagination. But she didn't disqualify herself either. She came across as a confident and ambitious leader who remains a work in progress and who is more than capable of holding her own against an unfriendly adversary.

And those are the views from my car and hotel room this week.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications. E-mail: jrust@semissourian.com.

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