The last Democratic Presidential debate was both uplifting and depressing. The uplifting part of it came in the moments of real substance from Sens. Clinton and Obama. For my part, Obama was the steadier, clearer, and the more inspiring voice over the full arc of the evening. The depressing parts were many of the questions from Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. Their miscues were only exceeded by the utterly debasing efforts by Hillary Clinton to keep alive the sort of non-issues raised in the opening series of questions from these lions of the national press corps.
The debate convinced me that our press is all to willingly complicit in the politics of mass distraction. The politics of mass distraction aims to blind voters to real tangible concerns in their own lives and before the nation as a whole, with innuendo, name-calling, fear mongering, or intolerance. Standard Republican stuff, right? You can recognize it in phony declarations of patriotism. Circa 1988: "I support a constitutional ban on flag burning?" Circa 2008 "Obama doesn't wear a flag lapel pin". You can recognize it by scurrilous efforts at guilt by association. Circa 1988 "He's a card carrying member of the ACLU". Circa 2008 "Senator Obama, knows sixties Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers."
As we head into a potentially severe recession, we're asking a United States Senator running for President about Bill Ayers? As we wage a two-front war and take on historic debt we're spending precious minutes in a rare public forum to ask about Bill Ayers? As inequality between the rich and the poor rises to a distressing magnitude not seen since prior to the great depression we're talking about who knows Bill Ayers? BILL AYERS!!!
After twenty years of the politics of polarization and mass distraction I hope I am not the only American who was outraged that so much time was wasted on this peripheral foolishness. But, frankly, it is precisely what Clinton's consultants wanted to happen and it is precisely what the McCain campaign wanted to happen.
And yet, miraculously, Obama dealt with it all with incredible poise and gravitas. Watching him perform made me wish I were a magic genie. If I was such a genie I would immediately grant Barack Obama three wishes.
The first and most important of these wishes is that he continue to be blessed with exceptional grace, intelligence, and leadership ability. Time after time, as Gibson and Stephanopoulos asked questions drawn straight from the politics of mass distraction playbook, Obama spoke directly to the question, yet moved on to explain why it wasn't the real issue, and tried to direct the discussion back to what really matters. From the "bitter" remark, to Reverend Wright (again), to the flag pin, he explained why these sorts of pre-occupations are a serious disservice to the American people and the challenges we face today.
My second wish is that Obama have an opponent who either quickly develops a sense of grace (unlikely after her "35 years in public life") or who is soon dispatched in disgrace. While Senator Obama tried to distance both himself and Senator Clinton as well from the petty, Republican politics of mass distraction Hillary, in contrast and true to form, took every opportunity to play into the politics of mass distraction. "I think these are issues we have to discuss…." Even Gibson and Stephanopoulos didn't mention Louis Farrakhan. No, that was our loyal democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. Can you say: "Race card!"
Obama was right, she has taken the "wrong lesson" from her many years battling Republicans. She hasn't learned what it takes to win. She learned well what it takes to fight a low, dirty game of the politics. Thankfully the polls suggest it is not working. Her negatives are now at an all-time high with record numbers of Democrats feeling that she can't be trusted. Imagine that. What these polling results suggest is that she singularly fails the basic test of character. I suppose this is why Republicans have always wanted her to be the Democratic nominee. They know that over the course of a long campaign character will out.
My third wish is that the press corps develops a greater intelligence and sense of principle. It is as if they literally worked for a set of political consultants rather than being independent thinkers seasoned in both the demands of excellent journalism and the rigors of national politics. The questions often seemed little more than zingers from political spin-meisters. And this is not just a problem with Gibson and Stephanopolous ; most of the debates this season have exhibited a similar problem to one degree or another. It cheapens political discourse and contributes to a general cynicism about politics when the press panders in this fashion.
Obama is right. We are at a historic juncture. It is incumbent upon the candidates seeking our votes, and the press corps charged with reporting on these events, to do better than they seem to be doing. And as I watch Obama exhibit more and more the aura of a president, I continue to have the audacity to hope his aspirations will be realized. My most immediate hope is that the voters of Pennsylvania will be the genie in the bottle this time.
Lawrence Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.