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?