The Calling of the Dogs
The good and just Burt Likko wrote a post today on the controversy surrounding Newt Gingrich’s Food-Stamp President hubbub from last Monday night. Coincidently, this was posted on the heels of a post of mine which, while not about the controversy per say, did use it as a pretty firmly planted jumping off point.
The short story: In that debate Monday night Burt and I heard two very, very different things transpire.
If you haven’t read Burt’s post yet, you should. Burt brings his usual keen and dispassionate eye to a sticky subject, and in it made me rethink my own visceral response to Newt’s response to Juan Williams. Where I found a very loud and low-toned dog whistle, Burt could find none – despite going to great lengths to parse the transcript in order to find them.
The mental test I went through after having read Burt’s post led credence to his findings. What, I asked myself, if it had been someone on the other side of the fence that had said such a thing… would I still have heard the whistle? And I find that if I replace “Gingrich” with “Romney” and read through the transcript I no longer hear it. What’s more, if I’m being honest I must admit that when I look at the transcript without attaching any names I can find nothing objectionable. On top of it all, I recognize that I tend to be far more cynical than Burt.
The interesting question for me, then, is why – after acknowledging all of the above – do I still feel that Burt’s reading of the situation is wrong, and mine is right?
At the core of it, there are probably two reasons.
The first has to do with context. As Burt points out, in his response to Williams Newt doesn’t mention race at all. However, I think it’s also important to recognize that Newt was responding to a very specific interview on January 6 he gave where he was – very specifically – talking about black people:
(Apologies! The only youtube video I can find of the quote WIlliams was following up on does not allow for embedding – but you can see it here.)
In the debate, Williams is following up and asking for clarification about that interview, and asks specifically if Gingrich can see how African Americans might find it insensitive. For me, in this context, it seems a stretch to say that if Newt never mentioned blacks in his response that they are not inferred, nor that he would have no idea that his response might be taken to mean that he did.
But the second reason I hear the dogs being called has to do with the man himself. As I sated above, I do not believe I would have had the same reaction if that response had come from Romney on Monday night. We tend to believe we “know” the candidates we love and hate. This is just wishful thinking on our part. We don’t really know them at all; we simply know what their and their opposition’s PR teams want us to know about them. Because of this, we must grade candidates on their “past performances,” if you will. With Romney I see nothing that would have led me to believe that the dialogue Burt transcribed was in any way race baiting. But Newt?
The constant churning of the campaign often means that things that happened just a month ago seem a million miles away. (Seriously, doesn’t it seem years since we were all talking about Herman Cain?) So I think we can all be forgiven if we forget that after his campaign stalled out of the gate and he found himself short of funds, Newt became a single issue candidate. That issue? The Muslim menace.
As Newt desperately sought funds, his entire campaign became a call to arms about the hidden dangers hidden among people of color in our very cities and neighborhoods. To hear him say it, this was the only issue that mattered. He and his wife began touring and speaking together about this scourge, and even made a movie. The only reason they were even in the race was to make to speak out on this most important issue.
Now cynics might point out that this strategy was on the heels of the so-called “ground zero” mosque controversy, or that this call to arms came at a time when his campaign looked dead in the water and he was in desperate need of cash and publicity. A cynic might even point out that once he was back in the spotlight, flush with cash, the ticking time bomb he so publicly fretted about just kind of disappeared into the background. At least that’s what a cynic would say.
As I said above, I am far more cynical than Burt.
So yes, when Juan WIlliams asked Newt to follow up on some seemingly insensitive statements he made discussing African Americans and the NAACP, I hear that dog whistle in his reply. It could be that Burt’s dispassionate ear is hearing more clearly than mine, or it could be that I’m just far more of a dog than Burt. The only one that really knows which of us is right is Gingrich himself, which is a shame. Because out of all of us, he’s the one person who I don’t trust to give an honest answer.