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Guns, God and Gotchas

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Long ago I discovered that the word "frankly" often meant a lie was coming. I learned this from an insurance agent, who preceded every attempt to sell me useless coverage with a "frankly." This is why I distrust what Hillary Clinton said about Barack Obama and his admittedly klutzy statement about guns, church, immigrants and bitterness -- "elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing," she said. Frankly, I don't believe her.

And this, frankly or not, is the trouble with Clinton. Obama clearly misspoke. But there are very few moments with him where I feel that he does not believe what he is saying -- even when, as with his lame capitulation of leadership regarding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I can't respect it. With Clinton, on the other hand, those moments are frequent. She is forever saying things I either don't believe or believe that even she doesn't believe. She is the personification of artifice.

The current fuss is an example. She turned Obama's statement into an affront to gun lovers everywhere, which it just might be. But since when is Hillary Clinton a gun lover, a hunter or even a weekend skeet shooter? She is apparently none of the above -- at least she will not say when she last fired a gun. The truth, if a guess is allowed, is that she does not give a damn about guns and hunting, and when she brings up her "churchgoing family" and "Our Town" values, they are expressions of treacly nostalgia and not the life of incredible affluence and situational morality she now enjoys. To paraphrase Dorothy, Clinton left Kansas a long time ago.

At times, Barack Obama has the air of a maitre d' who shows you to a bad table. It's the impeccable suit. It's the air of consummate confidence. It's the awesome self-assurance that comes from knowing that he has something you want. In the headwaiter's case, it's a good table. In Obama's case, it's himself.

That air of self-confidence can sometimes come off as smugness or indifference. The signal moment for that came in a New Hampshire debate when Obama glanced at Clinton and said, by way of dismissal, "You're likable enough, Hillary" -- a kiss-off as head-snapping as when James Cagney smashed a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's puss in the 1931 classic "The Public Enemy."

It is this quality of Obama's -- this sense that you need him more than he needs you -- that probably explains why Clinton seized upon his remarks about the poor of Pennsylvania and elsewhere who, in Obama's artless telling, have turned to God and guns. It was, as he conceded, a bumbling attempt to express an economic truth, and it gave her a chance to imply that you can judge this particular book by its cover. But the spirit of what Obama said was not condescension but empathy. People were hurting. They were bitter. He understood.

The campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has become a version of that crack about academic politics -- so vicious because the stakes are so small. In the presidential race, the stakes are huge but the differences are small. Both Clinton and Obama are liberal Democrats -- the former less liberal than the latter, but no matter. One is more experienced than the other. One is white, the other black, and one is a woman and the other is not. Still, on mortgages, Iraq, Israel and almost anything you can name, they are in general agreement.

That's why the campaign has increasingly been about what one or the other candidate said or meant to say or should have said. It's even been about what one of their supporters said -- Geraldine Ferraro on race, Merrill A. McPeak on patriotism, Billy Shaheen on cocaine and Bill Clinton on just about everything. Both campaigns have indulged in this silliness, with Obama's supporters yelling "race!" the way a certain boy cried "wolf!" and the Clintons, on occasion, pretending to a kind of political naivete that ill becomes them.

Obama should not have attributed a yearning to hunt or attend church to hard economic times. The remarks will haunt him -- witness how John McCain has also called them "elitist." But Obama was right about the economic roots of bitterness and anti-immigrant sentiment. And he's been right, too, about the patent insincerity of Clinton's criticism. Her attack is hardly based on a touching regard for gun owners or even churchgoers, but on the desperate hope that the smoothly aloof Obama can be painted as arrogant and elitist. It's old, tiresome politics -- the politics of politics -- and, paradoxically, more patronizing than anything Obama himself said.

Frankly.

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Last week I wrote that George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign had run the notorious Willie Horton ad. Bush used the issue, but an independent group ran the ad.

cohenr@washpost.com

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