Seeing the Light in South Carolina

In the flesh, Obama is easy…maybe too easy

I read the New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton late last night in my hotel room in Columbia, South Carolina. I’d just driven back from attending a Barack Obama event 120 miles south in the gym of North Charleston High School (“Home of the Cougars!”). It was everything everyone said it would be, more like a revival than a political event. Even though Obama was an hour and a half late, the largely African-American crowd’s enthusiasm did not wane. People stamped their feet. Two little girls got up on stage and led the crowd in a chant of Obama’s name. The local field coordinator, Kevin, a short white guy with glasses and a goatee, got so excited that even his warm-up speech sounded southern fried. “We’ve been told too many times to wait,” he screamed. “That our time had not yet come!” Another speaker, stalling for time, mistakenly referred to the senator as “Bomrock Obrama” and was nearly driven from the gym by the booing, restless audience. When the senator did arrive, he gave a pitch-perfect stump speech, surfing the enthusiasm of the pulsating gym. When he took the stage he said, “At some point in the evening, a light is going to shine down and you will have an epiphany and you’ll say, ‘I have to vote for Barack.’”

If that epiphany never came, you couldn’t blame Obama. I’m not sure what more he could have done to make those people see the light.

Still, when I got back to my hotel room and read the Times’s assessment of the Democratic field, I realized that the editorial board understood something the rest of us consumers of daily media have missed, but which was obvious to me after just one Obama-in-the-flesh event: what the Illinois senator excels at is packaging himself for the press (and, consequently, the public).

I imagined, seeing him speak in person for the first time, that I would hear more of a discussion of policy than I’ve heard in the coverage of his campaign. I was sure that the sound bites that his stump speech produced about unity and change may pepper his talk, but could not possibly be the sum total of his message. But, basically, they were. There was very little sense that he was standing in North Charleston talking to a specific community of people. His transcendent talk was just that, transcendent. It’s not that this didn’t have a strong effect on the people who had waited to see him. It did. But there was something slightly gimmicky about his presentation. In my notebook, I wrote twice, “How will he make change?”

I looked around me, though, as I was at once emotionally stimulated and intellectually underwhelmed, and saw the press corps, yawning, checking e-mail, and one older, bespectacled man who looked like he was working on a chapter of his book. (What would you do if you had to listen to the same anecdotes and promises hundreds of times?) It occurred to me that Obama’s message was easy to encapsulate, could be boiled down to a very distinct nut graph. And his success, at least in the press, seemed to me very much the result of this convergence of time-pressed journalists’ need to tell a succinct story and Obama’s ability to deliver it. It seemed a perfect marriage. And even if many of the reporters look bored, pale, and poorly fed, he was making their job easy.

The Times endorsement listed the range of issues the next president had to confront and then said of Obama, “…we need more specifics to go with his amorphous promise of a new governing majority, a clearer sense of how he would govern.” This is not a line I would have necessarily accepted so readily before experiencing Obama last night. Is it because the daily press coverage, unlike the editorial board’s more luxurious contemplation, has muted this critical question, of which candidate has the ability to handle the presidency?

If last night made me realize that the press had maybe let Obama himself define too much how he is depicted, then this morning, at an event for Hillary Clinton at a chapel at Benedict College in Columbia, made me see how difficult it has been for her to make her case in the media. While Obama entered his event almost as if he were being lowered from the ceiling, Clinton ambled onto the stage with almost no fanfare at all. Suddenly she was just there, and there was a smattering of applause from the audience, composed mostly of African-American students from the school. The press sat in the balcony, suspended above the scene, and, still, seeming pretty disinterested. CNN’s Candy Crowley spent the entire event on her Blackberry. Clinton was book ended by Charlie Rangel and David Dinkins, and both tried to make the case for voting for—as councilwoman Bernice Scott (recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article) put it—“our community’s future and not our emotions.”

It was a hard sell. The young woman next to me was wearing an Obama sticker. But Clinton then did her wonky thing. She listed about two-dozen specific plans that were tailored for this audience of college students. She spoke of lowering interest rates for student loans, of dealing with predatory lending, of letting students excuse their debt if they took part in national service (which got the loudest applause). She knew whom she was talking to. There was little of the electricity I had felt the night before. Her argument was methodical, an accumulation of details. His was immediate, almost existential.

But I also felt lucky that I was not a reporter covering her. Where I would have known exactly how to translate Obama’s message, Clinton’s was much more difficult to distill. If I had to, I might use the same words as the Times used in its endorsement:

Hearing her talk about the presidency, her policies and answers for America’s big problems, we are hugely impressed by the depth of her knowledge, by the force of her intellect and by the breadth of, yes, her experience.

These qualities are not so easy to write about.

This is not an endorsement—though I realize it might read like one. As George Packer wrote this week in The New Yorker, the country might very well value a president who inspires over one who is ready to delve into the nitty gritty of policy. It’s not for me to say. But what was immediately obvious from seeing both of the Democratic frontrunners live here in South Carolina, as opposed to experiencing them through the filter of the news, is that there seemed to be two very different leadership styles on offer (the endorsement captured this). One candidate is easy for the press to digest, and one is considerably less so. And I can’t help but wonder whether this reality is obscuring our ability to assess what these two candidates might do as president.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.