Search­ing for an Obama nar­ra­tive

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Once upon a time, the two par­ties’ na­tional con­ven­tions chose pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees. Now, they are tele­vi­sion shows that try to es­tab­lish a nar­ra­tive — one that links the long-since-de­ter­mined nom­i­nee’s life story with the on­go­ing his­tory of the na­tion, one that shows how this one man is per­fectly po­si­tioned to lead Amer­ica to a bet­ter fu­ture. The hope is that the nom­i­nee will get a bounce in the polls.

And they usu­ally do. Gallup poll data shows that nom­i­nees got a 5 per­cent or bet­ter bounce from 14 of the 16 na­tional con­ven­tions be­tween 1976 and 2004. And that’s even for nom­i­nees that in ret­ro­spect seem less than in­spir­ing.

In 1988, Democrats pre­sented Michael Dukakis as the son of im­mi­grants who pro­duced the Mas­sachusetts mir­a­cle; Repub­li­cans pre­sented Ge­orge H.W. Bush as the pi­o­neer who went to Texas and was now ready to take on an­other mis­sion. Both got 11 per­cent bounces.

The big­gest of all — 30 per­cent — went to Bill Clin­ton, “the man from Hope” in 1992, helped by Ross Perot’s with­drawal on the day of his ac­cep­tance speech. The no­table ex­cep­tions came in 2004, when a po­lar­ized elec­torate gave Ge­orge W. Bush only a 4 per­cent bounce and John Kerry — “re­port­ing for duty” — ac­tu­ally lost ground.

There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween the two par­ties, how­ever. The Democrats can usu­ally de­pend on the main­stream me­dia ac­cept­ing their nar­ra­tives un­crit­i­cally, while the Repub­li­cans can ex­pect them to punch holes in their sto­ry­lines. In 1988, the me­dia didn’t note that Mr. Dukakis was less an earthy eth­nic than a re­former in the Mas­sachusetts Pu­ri­tan tra­di­tion, but it was ea­ger to point to the se­nior Mr. Bush’s aris­to­cratic East­ern back­ground.

The nar­ra­tive of this year’s Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion can be fore­cast with some as­sur­ance. It will em­pha­size Barack Obama’s roots in Kansas more than Kenya or even Hawaii; it will por­tray him as a leader from a new gen­er­a­tion ea­ger to cast off the par­ti­san­ship of the last decade; it will hail him as a sym­bol that Amer­ica has risen above past prej­u­dices and can once again stand proud in the world.

His ac­cep­tance speech in In- vesco Field will in­vite com­par­i­son with the other two Demo­cratic nom­i­nees who spoke in sta­di­ums, Franklin Roo­sevelt in Philadel­phia’s Franklin Field in 1936 and John Kennedy in the Los An­ge­les Coli­seum in 1960.

An in­ter­est­ing ques­tion is whether main­stream me­dia have any ap­petite for un­der­min­ing this un­de­ni­ably at­trac­tive nar­ra­tive. Of “the whole Obama nar­ra­tive,” one re­porter told The New Repub­lic’s Gabriel Sher­man, “like all sto­ries, it’s not en­tirely true.”

Mr. Obama’s record of reach­ing across party lines is, as his own an­swer to Rick War­ren’s re­cent Sad­dle­back Civil Fo­rum showed, pretty thin. His pa­per trail is sur­pris­ingly thin, too. He has left no pa­pers from his Illi­nois Se­nate days; he hasn’t listed his law firm clients or pro­vided more than one page of med­i­cal records; the pa­pers of the Chicago An­nen­berg Chal­lenge, which he chaired and in which the un­re­pen­tant ter­ror­ist Bill Ay­ers was heav­ily in­volved, were sud­denly closed to Na­tional Re­view’s Stan­ley Kurtz by the Richard J. Da­ley Li­brary at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois.

Main­stream me­dia, with the con­spic­u­ous ex­cep­tion of ABC News’ Ge­orge Stephanopou­los, have shown lit­tle cu­rios­ity about Mr. Obama’s con­nec­tion with Mr. Ay­ers. It will also be in­ter­est­ing to see if there is much cov­er­age of Mr. Obama’s 2003 vote in Illi­nois against pro­tect­ing in­fants born alive in at­tempted abor­tions, now that his cam­paign has con­ceded the bill was vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal to one that passed the U.S. Se­nate 98-0 in 2001.

Obama back­ers dis­miss at­tempts to un­der­mine his nar­ra­tive as dis­trac­tions or as racism, be­yond the bounds of rea­son­able dis­course. Most of the main­stream me­dia tend to agree. Mr. Ay­ers is no more likely to ap­pear at the con­ven­tion than the disgraced John Ed­wards. But other me­dia have a voice. Mr. Obama will prob­a­bly get a nice bounce out of his con­ven­tion. But it’s not clear whether his nar­ra­tive can be sus­tained in the weeks and months ahead.

Michael Barone is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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