By Tom Shales
Thursday, July 23, 2009
When a politician says "Let me be clear," what follows is often anything but. It's a tradition in obfuscation that probably got a big boost from Richard Nixon's "Let me make this perfectly clear," one of that president's signature phrases. But when Barack Obama uses it, as he did Wednesday during his fourth prime-time presidential news conference, the odds seem a little better than usual that clarity really is a possibility.
For the most part, clarity reigned at the news conference, televised live on many broadcast and cable channels from the East Room of the White House. Obama was using the occasion to put forth more propaganda for his administration's version of health-care reform.
The hour-long telecast offered "a kind of combo platter," said Katie Couric of CBS News, since it began with a nine-minute mini-speech by the president and was then followed by 10 questions from journalists, nearly all of them obediently hewing to the topic of the night as Obama had decreed it.
Ironically or not, it was the last question, one that was not about health care, that found the president being especially clear about what he meant -- so clear that White House staffers may be doing some repair work on it Thursday. Obama was asked about the recent and already infamous incident in which distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was apprehended in his own home in Cambridge, Mass., after having to force his way in because of a jammed door.
Gates, who is African American, was initially charged with disorderly conduct by Cambridge police even after Gates showed them identification proving he lived in the house. Asked to react to the incident, Obama said "the Cambridge police acted stupidly" when they arrested Gates. (Charges were almost immediately dropped, and Gates was released from custody.) Somehow one expects a politician, especially the nation's Politician No. 1, to be more mild and measured in his remarks. "Stupidly" may seem a perfectly appropriate word to those who read about the incident or saw TV reports, but for Obama to have used it may create a brief fuss.
Frankly, it seemed refreshingly blunt. Obama amplified the remark by pointing out that blacks and Hispanics are still "disproportionately" stopped by police officers around the country and that the practice of profiling is hardly extinct. Then again, Obama added, "I stand here as testimony to the progress that has been made."
As usual, Obama turned in an admirably effective performance at the news conference, even if it did seem a little too tidy -- and even rehearsed -- for nearly all the reporters to fall in line and stick with the matter at hand rather than pursue their own little butterflies as in many administrations past. Obama had a list of reporters and called on each one in turn; the assembled reporters played pass-the-mike, using a rather primitive hand-held microphone to address the president and pass along questions that could hardly have been very surprising to him.
Still, viewers who sincerely wanted to know the essentials of the president's health-care reform plan got an opportunity. Television even became an issue in the discussion, when one reporter asked if Obama had been true to his pledge that the debate on health care be available on C-SPAN, the public-affairs channels supported by the cable industry.
Obama's use of the personal and the colloquial helped keep him from seeming pompous, as when he said many Americans are being "clobbered" by high health-care costs, and then explained the necessity for a deadline on debate and action by saying, "If you don't set deadlines in this town, things don't happen."
Though polls show his popularity in slight decline, Obama did nothing at the news conference -- other than preempt or delay some prime-time shows -- that would seem potentially harmful to his image. About the most justifiable criticism that could likely be made: "Barack Obama still seems too good to be true." It's doubtful any president would lose sleep over such criticisms as that -- no matter what the Cambridge police department might be saying about him Thursday morning.