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Shields and Brooks Weigh Obama’s Speech, Iraq War

March 21, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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This week, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama delivered a high-profile speech on race in America and the Iraq war reached the five-year mark and U.S. economic anxieties continued to mount. Analysts David Brooks and Mark Shields reflect on the news of the week.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, I’m not going to ask you about Kenya politics, OK? So you’re off the hook on that.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I’d like the give Margaret my total time on that subject.


MARK SHIELDS: She understands it and knows it.

JIM LEHRER: All right, today’s endorsement by Bill Richardson of Barack Obama, big deal?

MARK SHIELDS: Psychologically more than politically. I mean, Obama has had a bad patch, a bad week, 10 days, so this was a lift. It was a lift in a couple of respects.

One, the only Hispanic governor and a Clinton constituency with whom Obama has had problems winning support and Senator Clinton has had strong support.

And I’d say, two, the fact that we’ve had two former candidates for president drop out and endorse. Both of them were quite close to the Clintons, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, senator, had been the Democratic Party chair at Bill Clinton’s behest, Bill Richardson had served in the cabinet and been ambassador to the U.N. under Bill Clinton, President Bill Clinton, and both endorsed Obama, which, you know, made the case, overcame the argument that he didn’t have experience and he didn’t have judgment.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about it?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I basically agree on that. I think, on balance, Mark mentioned the bad patch that Barack Obama had. I think it’s been bad week for him.

I actually think it was a worse week for Hillary Clinton, not necessarily because of this, but I think the decision by Michigan and Florida not to re-vote was a serious, serious blow to Hillary Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: And why?

DAVID BROOKS: Her only chance, really, was to change the psychology of the super-delegates, people like Bill Richardson. And her shot at doing that was to win Pennsylvania, have re-votes in those other two states, win these big states, run up a big string of winning contests over the next two months or so.

Without them, Michigan and Florida’s psychology of a victory, she can’t do that. And so I think her chances of getting the nomination drop significantly, even with the bad week Barack Obama had.

JIM LEHRER: Are you saying that you believe Michigan and Florida are dead, there’s not going to be any re-do?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, just judging by the vibe of where they seem to be headed, they seem to be heading away from doing a re-vote.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, do you agree with that, Mark, it isn’t going to happen?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. And I think that now you’re left one of two devices or a combination of the two and that is somehow to drive up Senator Clinton’s positives, if you’re the Clinton campaign, and put her in the situations where people have doubts about her on two counts.

They don’t question her judgment; they don’t question her experience, her knowledge, her intelligence, or even her compassion. They say, “Can I like her and can I trust her?” And I think the more they put her in situations where she does, as she did on “Saturday Night Live” a couple of weeks ago, come across as human and likable, it’s better for her.

I think the tendency on the campaign will be, “Well, we’ve got to drive up his negatives.” So I think you may see a more scorched-earth campaign between the Democrats as a consequence of not having the opportunity that David talked about of winning those primaries or at least contesting them in Michigan and Florida and getting some momentum that way.

Obama 'elevates' with speech

David Brooks
New York Times
(Obama) has a capacity that few politicians do, which is to talk intelligently, to treat his audience intelligently, and to talk about sophisticated ideas and give a broad historical sweep.

JIM LEHRER: Now, David, you talked about Obama's bad week. Now, you're referring specifically to the Jeremiah Wright situation and his speech. Give us your reading on this, five days later.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think, first of all, the speech has been -- thousands of words have been shed on the speech, but what strikes me most is that, in a political crisis, he has the ability to elevate. He has a capacity that few politicians do, which is to talk intelligently, to treat his audience intelligently, and to talk about sophisticated ideas and give a broad historical sweep.

So he had a little mini-scandal there, and he rose above it. And I found the speech as a portrayal of race in America and the future of race, his attitudes towards race, quite impressive.

I think the core of the speech I was much less impressed by, his actual relationship to Jeremiah Wright. There is still a stain there, and that is a stain that will continue to linger.

I happened to be in the south side of Chicago as a young reporter at about the time Barack Obama was beginning to go to that church. And there was a strain of liberation theology or liberation nationalism that's based around a theologian named James Cone that was there in the body politic.

And the basis of that strain was that blacks and whites are engaged in moral war. That was an element of the community. It's not something Barack Obama ever believed in. He certainly doesn't believe in it now, but he didn't fight it, either. And for a politician, it would have been suicidal to fight it. It really would have split the community, made him...

JIM LEHRER: A local politician, you mean?

DAVID BROOKS: A local politician, especially one who went to Harvard Law School.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

DAVID BROOKS: It would have made him very unpopular. And I understand why he didn't fight it, and I understand why he still felt part of that community, because there were other things going on in that church that were fantastic.

But the fact remains that there was some hateful rhetoric, hateful belief systems floating around, and he didn't fight it, but he tried to move beyond it. So that's not a glorious moment for anybody.

Walking a racial tightrope

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I don't know about people in the middle, about working-class voters and white working-class voters in Pennsylvania. And I think the jury is out on them.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read this whole thing now, five days later?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, first of all, he didn't have the option whether to give a speech. I mean, he had a couple of very...

JIM LEHRER: He was forced to do this, you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: Forced to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Politics...

MARK SHIELDS: Politically dictated. His political survival dictated it. Events had overcome whatever strategy he had.

And he had a couple of options. One, he could risk the anger and fury of African-American voters by tossing Reverend Wright over and saying, "I had nothing to do with him, you know, he's a bad guy, and I should have done this earlier," and plus both supporters and critics would have said that was the expedient thing to do, so that was probably not a live option.

He then had to try and explain what the relationship was.

JIM LEHRER: His relationship with Wright?

MARK SHIELDS: With Wright.

JIM LEHRER: OK, his beliefs?

MARK SHIELDS: And his beliefs and did it in a context, I have to say, that I've never heard from a presidential candidate before. I mean, he treated his audience, on a subject that is inflammatory and inflammatory in this country -- that of race -- he treated us like grown-ups. And that doesn't happen. And it had intellectual heft to it.

I don't deny the point David made about Reverend Wright and I think you'll see a divergence from this point forward, those who want to say, "This is Barack Obama. This is the career he's led. This is the person, the positions he's taken, and the policies he's endorsed. And this is Reverend Wright."

And I think you've already seen it on talk radio. I think you'll see it on right-wing cable, that Reverend Wright is going to be front and center.

I think it's encouraging probably that YouTube, the most downloaded item on that entire panoply of options is Barack Obama's speech.

I think it was a serious speech. I think, intellectually, it may have had a greater impact than it does viscerally.

I think there are people who obviously like him who thought it was wonderful, and swooned. There are people who didn't like him, and there was nothing he could say.

I don't know about people in the middle, about working-class voters and white working-class voters in Pennsylvania. And I think the jury is out on them.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that there are still some unknowns here?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I've been carefully watching the polls.

JIM LEHRER: I, too, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And I wouldn't say I agree. I don't think they've rendered a judgment.

JIM LEHRER: Haven't seen anything yet.

DAVID BROOKS: But I do think it did reveal things about Obama. It revealed the soaring gifts he has, the intellectual gifts, serious intellectual gifts.

I thought it also revealed a tendency, which is true also in him, to ignore some unpleasant facts. And one of the facts he ignored, he said, "Well, Wright was part of a generation. That generation had a tough time. Those ideas pertain to that generation, but we're moving beyond it."

That's not quite true. Ideas like that aren't fading away. And sometimes they do need to be confronted, and so I thought he ignored that unpleasantry.

Obama needs to move beyond Wright

David Brooks
New York Times
Obama rises above politics, new politics, but he's still surrounded by people who are used to the old politics and they do it.

JIM LEHRER: Does he still need to -- does he have to continue to talk about this in order for this thing to really work for him?

DAVID BROOKS: I don't think so. I think what he needs to do is displace Wright. Wright had a certain very divisive attitude about relations. Obama's attitude, his genuine attitude is very different. It's very unifying. It's very ecumenical. And so he just needs to talk about who he is.

JIM LEHRER: And forget about Wright and talk about Obama?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and that will be clear as -- because no one can say that what Wright believes Obama believes. That's just not true.

MARK SHIELDS: I endorse that completely. I would say this: However you feel about Obama, his speech, the content, you read that speech, it is a total reputation of the implication that Geraldine Ferraro left in many minds, that his candidacy was based on affirmative action.

I mean, this is a guy, the first great intellect. I mean, this isn't somebody who got there, "Oh, let's pluck somebody out of the back because he's the right skin."

And I do think that -- we hear this time and again, whether it's an inaugural address, an acceptance address, "Oh, the boss wrote it himself. Oh, the boss wrote it himself," when we know that 18 speechwriters worked on it.

He wrote this himself. It was deeply personal.

Having said that, I think they made two serious mistakes since the speech. I think first was his mistake saying his grandmother was a "typical" white person. Nobody in America wants to be called a typical Catholic, a typical Jew, a typical Texan, a typical whatever. That is not -- that was wrong.

And the second thing I think was an error in judgment on the campaign's part, and that was releasing the photo of Reverend Wright and President Clinton on the day...

JIM LEHRER: They just did that. They just did that.

MARK SHIELDS: They did that today.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, today.

MARK SHIELDS: And I just think -- I mean, to take the high moral ground, which they had taken in that speech, and then to kind of, "Heh, heh, heh"...

DAVID BROOKS: This is the classic thing about their campaign. Obama rises above politics, new politics, but he's still surrounded by people who are used to the old politics and they do it.

Five years later, many regrets

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
It was a war in which the United States sullied, stained and repealed one of the great American values, that is that, in wartime, war demands equality of sacrifice.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, your thoughts, five years of the Iraq war, what are you thinking about right now, David...


JIM LEHRER: ... about the war and the rest? What needs to be said about it? Let's put it that way.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's been a searing experience for the country and for a lot of us. I would say it's changed my view of the world quite dramatically, as I look back.

And I think what I knew but didn't practice was the sense that societies are complex, organic organism, more complex than we can possibly understand. And if you're going to intervene...

JIM LEHRER: You mean other societies than our own?

DAVID BROOKS: Ours, too. Ours, too.


DAVID BROOKS: And if you're going to intervene in a society, you have to respect the complexity and respect your own ignorance of that complexity. And that's something every conservative should really know, but sometimes those facts were held in abeyance in the enthusiasm of the moment.


MARK SHIELDS: We know, Jim, we went to war against a country that had never attacked us, that never threatened us, on the bogus claim that that country had weapons of mass destruction which were a threat to us.

And it was not a moral war, and it was not a just war. It was a war in which the United States sullied, stained and repealed one of the great American values, that is that, in wartime, war demands equality of sacrifice.

All the sacrifice in this war has been borne by the 1 percent of Americans who are in uniform and their families. The rest of us have been quietly by, especially those of us who opposed the war, and been moral defectors.

We haven't protested the fact that this is a war that our children and grandchildren will pay for. We haven't even -- we've blithely accepted tax cuts, and no draft, and no burden, paid no price, bore no burden, and accepted leadership that demanded nothing of us, and we've demanded nothing of them.


DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think that desire to sacrifice is hanging out there. It's still an unmet need in the body politic. There are still thousands of young people, people of all ages, who want to do some sort of service.

And for the next president, that will be something to pick up, not to draft them. We're not going to have a draft. But to increase national service is something McCain has talked about, Obama, Clinton. They've all talked about it. And I think it will emotionally help heal some of the unwanted desire to actually rally together after 9/11.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.