Author Says Obama Is Not a 'Phony' When He Changes His Speech Patterns, He's a 'Translator'

Appearing on the Charlie Rose show on PBS Monday, New Yorker editor (and former Washington Post reporter) David Remnick tried to argue his way out of his new book’s reporting on the phoniness of Barack Obama. Remnick suggested Obama has been a "translator" between races and cultures.

Rose asked him to discuss Reverend Wright. By dumping him, the most significant message Remnick came away with was "He wanted to win," so dumping Wright was essential, and inescapable. But Remnick still tried to claim that "there’s a lot of positive qualities in Jeremiah Wright, and it’s foolish to look past them. He was a social activist. He was utterly committed to his community, a church community that grew."

The "translator" talk occurred as Remnick also tried to revise and extend his remarks on Meet the Press that Obama didn’t have the talents of Ronald Reagan:

DAVID REMNICK: That said, he has his own talents, and one of his great talents -- and it was a developed talent, he didn`t have it right off the bat. It took hundreds and hundreds of speeches -- was the ability to go into a certain kind of environment, whether it`s a near North Side living room with one kind of crowd or black church on the south side of Chicago, or any other environment and be himself, but be a shape shifter just enough so that the vocabulary, the references, and the cadences work in that way.

CHARLIE ROSE: I think many of us who have multiple experiences have that ability.

REMNICK: Absolutely. Martin Luther King, the greatest speaker of all, had that capacity. He could make references to Reinhold Niebuhr and Buber and all the great theologians --

ROSE: Intellectuals --

DAVID REMNICK: Absolutely -- and then be in another place and it being hotter, and still being himself. When you become a phony is when you give yourself away, when you`re always performing. Here it’s a kind of translation. And Cassandra Butts, one of Obama`s longtime friends, had been a friend of his at Harvard Law School practically from the first day, said that Obama is a translator.

What does that mean? He`s a translator in the sense that he is African-American -- all you have to do is look at him and there`s no doubt that he`s African-American. This business that he`s not is -- something deeply wrong with it, and worse.

And at the same time he grows up in a very white world. Not only his grandparents and his mother raising him who were white, but he`s also growing up for predominantly in Hawaii.Hawaii is a place that prides itself on being a multicultural center. But it`s multicultural without black people for the most part. Most of the African-Americans in Hawaii live on naval bases, on army bases.

So Obama is an adolescent, and he`s black, and he`s in a high school that`s incredibly lush. It`s like Exeter on the sea or something, Andover on the sea. And he is surrounded by Asian kids and white kids and so on, but he wants to learn how to become African-American. He has to learn it. That’s fairly uncommon. Most people are who they are because of who’s at the kitchen table.

Rose shifted the topic to Wright on the subject of how the Obama campaign didn’t want their candidate to give a major speech on race:

ROSE: On the other hand, you have these stories where he wanted to make a speech about race, but he had to frame it. And his advisors were saying no, no, no, don`t do it.

REMNICK: No way. Even as early as Iowa he said I want to give a speech about race. They said, you know what, let`s give a speech about Iraq, or anything other than race -- medical insurance.

ROSE: And then bring this to Jeremiah Wright.

REMNICK: And so race comes to him. It`s not that he skipped race entirely. It`s not as if he never talked about it, but never in a full way. So Jeremiah Wright is present on the first day of the campaign. Benjamin -- Ben Wallace Wells for "Rolling Stone" magazine wrote a very admiring piece about Obama. It comes out just as he`s going to announce for the presidency, and there`s quotations from Jeremiah Wright in there and it`s pretty hot stuff.

And it was remarked upon enough so that Obama said, you know, Reverend Wright, maybe it wouldn`t be that great an idea for you to give the benediction at the announcement speech in Springfield. We`d love you to come, we`d love you to give us a private prayer, but -- and that`s where it started to go sour.

ROSE: What does it say to you when he said that to the guy?

REMNICK: He wanted to win!

ROSE: Exactly. But I wanted you to say it.

REMNICK: He wanted to win.

ROSE: And loyalty to a pastor that had enormous influence had to be sacrificed?

REMNICK: I think, yes, absolutely. There`s no hesitating there.

ROSE: And that says something about him at every step.

REMNICK: It means that --

ROSE: He wants to win.

REMNICK: Absolutely.

ROSE: And he`s willing to as forces shape -- no matter what your generosity may want you to be, is willing if push is come to shove, shove.

REMNICK: I think that is the case of any politician who gets to a certain level.

ROSE: Agreed. The Reverend Wright -- was joining that church a political act or an act of faith?

REMNICK: No, I think it was sincere, because of both the personality of Wright, which I know is completely distorted and to some extent maybe rightly so, because some of the things he`s said both during that period and afterwards have been unattractive at best, and horrible at times.

But there`s a lot of positive qualities in Jeremiah Wright, and it`s foolish to look past them. He was a social activist. He was utterly committed to his community, a church community that grew. He was for help for people with AID and -- HIV and AIDS when that was not common among many churchmen. Obama was attracted to him not -- I don`t think mainly for cynical reasons, I think for really sincere spiritual and, yes, even political- social justice reasons.

ROSE: That church played a role that this that community.

REMNICK: Absolutely.

ROSE: And he wanted to be --

REMNICK: Yes, yes. And there`s no doubt that it`s politically helpful to be in a big church.

ROSE: And when Wright decided he was going to go public and go to the National Press Club, there came a time he had to say --

REMNICK: He had to cut it loose. Jeremiah Wright`s performance at the National Press Club just left no choice for Barack Obama. He left nothing to ambiguity. His speech was perfectly fine. He talked mainly about the history of the black church. But once the questions came at him, he just lost it. He lost his poise.

ROSE: What`s the relationship today?

REMNICK: There is no relationship.

ROSE: None. But they did meet during the campaign when he urged him --

REMNICK: They met and it just went nowhere.

ROSE: The press did not know that story.

REMNICK: They kept it secret.

ROSE : How did that happen?

REMNICK: We can’t get everything in real time. We know that about a lot of things.

ROSE : And how much at heart is he to understand him, a politician?

REMNICK: Totally.

ROSE: OK, fair enough.

REMNICK: And that doesn`t have to be a bad word in American parlance.

Getting a Wright scoop isn’t just about "can’t," but about "won’t." The media had no interest in following up on that story.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis