So up until a few weeks ago I read Rex Murphy sporadically at best. Then the other week he published this questionable piece on climate change (in short: regionalism should trump action) which was neither inspired or thoughtful.
Wondering if the previous week had been an outlier I read him again this weekend and was even more dumbstruck. Here was Rex Murphy deriding Obama and praising Palin ability to “connect” with her supporters.
A few thoughts here.
First, I’m willing to grant Rex Murphy that Sarah Palin may create “a more forceful bond with her supporters than [Obama does] with his.” Perhaps, but what a silly metric when used in isolation. David Koresh had a still more forceful bond with his supporters, and I’m not sure that worked out well for anyone. Obama’s oratory strength isn’t that he creates a powerful bond with his supporters (although he has, from time to time, done this). It’s that he connects with those who don’t always agree with him – he is able to reach and engage a broader audience. Sarah Palin has never done this. How often do you see an African American – or “heck” (as she would say it) anyone not white – at a Palin event?
Indeed, still more farcical is how Mr. Murphy argues Palin’s inaugural speech as a vice-presidential candidate was rhetorically equivalent to Obama’s speech on race (And that both were delivered under equal levels of pressure). Really? Sarah Palin’s speech succeeded in generating a spark yes, but among the conservative base that already loved her. It was a speech that was populist, said little, and began a process of persuading most Americans she didn’t belong in the White House. In contrast, Obama’s speech arrested a decline in the polls and engaged both his supporters and doubters. All this while addressing possibly the most volatile and politically sensitive issue in the United States. 100 years from now, Obama’s speech will likely be seen as an important moment in the history of race relations. Sarah Palin, to say nothing of her speech, will probably not be remembered at all. Rhetorically equivalent?
Finally, and perhaps most appalling was Rex Murphy’s characterization of Obama as someone who “offers a kind of self-flattery to his worshipers. They feel exalted that they have the intelligence or sensibility to see how remarkable their man is. But he remains remote.” I remember first being floored by Obama during a speech in which he did the exact opposite of this. It was January 20th and Obama walked into the heart of the African American religious community – Martin Luther King’s church – on Martin Luther King Jr Day and talked about how African Americans need to work harder to live up to MLK’s legacy. Specifically, he was particularly unflattering to his audience and argued that if African Americans wanted justice, freedom and equality, then the homophobia, antisemitism, and anti-immigrant resentment that sometimes exists in their community had to be acknowledged and confronted. Oh, to be flattered by Obama.
I’m a big fan of contrarian thinking which, between Wente and Murphy, seems to be all the rage at the Globe these days. But being a contrarian is difficult business and the most important rule is don’t over reach. Take an argument too far and it ceases being an interesting and clever experiment and is instead reduced to just being silly. Is Sarah Palin a compelling orator. Yes! But within some fairly strict bounds. Fail to acknowledge those bounds and pretty soon you end up like Palin herself, saying something that’s either foolish, or just plain wrong.