Friday, September 11, 2009

Personal Aside: Dem Playbook Calls for Exploding Joe Wilson’s “You Lie!” Into a “Turning-Point” for Obama. It Won’t Work.


I warn you: this will be a rambling piece because the hour is late and I’m in a reminiscing mood.

The Axelrod-Emanuel axis has called for the rude heckling by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S. C.) to be cycled upward so as to become a so-called “turning point” event for President Obama’s health care program.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t favor heckling presidents while they’re making speeches or not…and especially not from the House floor. This is not…decidedly not…the English House of Commons where invective, hissing noises and simulated sounds of passing gas have greeted contentious speakers since the days of William Pitt the Younger: prime ministers are not heads of state, after all, as our president. But Axelrod whom I’ve known for over 30 years is a very interesting strategist and I am told by my Washington sources…you won’t believe I have them even in the Obama administration but I do…that he senses the rudeness could be accelerated by adroit public relations into a positive.

He may have a point. The point is NOT whether Obama was lying in his declaration that no illegal alien will receive benefits in his program. The fact is that there is nothing in any version of the health bill that excludes…at this point…illegal aliens from such benefits. But it is the rudeness of Wilson’s rejoinder that is unacceptable. Just as was the booing of George W. Bush from the Democratic side of the aisle when he delivered the State of the Union during the dark days…now happily reversed…of the Iraq war.

The New York Times saw the booing as legitimate dissent—but as always it depends on who is being booed or heckled with them. Nevertheless an outburst from the floor is decidedly not productive for those making the outburst.

At the bleakest point of the Nixon administration, the president, facing impeachment, held a news conference and CBS’s Dan Rather asked a question that was typically (given the interrogator was Rather) adversarial. Nixon responded, “Are you running for office, Mr. Rather?” Rather answered: “No, I’m not, Mr. President. Are YOU?” Nixon turned away with slumped shoulders, obviously insulted. And, believe it or not, the effect coming across the airwaves was temporarily…very temporarily…in Nixon’s favor…producing a decided thumbs-down for Rather. Nixon later gleefully told Haldeman he feigned the posture of being shaken in order to win sympathy—which he did in the encounter.

The public does not like to see its president…any president… treated insolently. The fact that the 62-year-old Joe Wilson is not a rube but cultured…a graduate of Washington & Lee and the University of South Carolina law school… (whom I first met some years ago when he was an aide to Rep. Floyd Spence, chairman of Armed Services) is all the more stunning. But I can’t imagine the sympathy for Obama will produce a tidal wave of opinion-turning as Axelrod hopes. But you can’t blame the Chicago maestro whom I used to debate myself on Callaway…when “Chicago Tonight” was exciting and unscripted…for trying. Now producer Mary Field has her orders apparently to stack the shows so the outcomes are resolutely liberal as a marketing device. Too bad.

Thus sure enough, last night on “Chicago Tonight” there was Phil Ponce “interviewing” a so-called expert on oratory from Northwestern University on the Obama speech…and, of course as you would expect from a show that extends from the white cultured liberals of Wilmette to the boundary-lines of Winnetka, the professor described warmly and approvingly each and every effect Obama had. Well let me tell you, Little Phil was so tickled. Things went clickety-click just as Ms. Field wants. The professor was thrilled…I tell you THRILLED…at the way Obama’s speech went and, of course, he saw the Wilson heckling in the same way Axelrod does: surprise!

I myself thought I saw a symptom of haggardness and taut nerves last night—not during the Obama speech (which I thought was well delivered, far too long but expertly produced)—with an Axelrod interview later on Bill O’Reilly. Why Axelrod allowed himself to go on O’Reilly in an interview just off the House floor I’ll never know…but it was not his best performance. Speaking of heckling, O’Reilly has it down to an art (as I know from an interview of some years ago) and Axelrod just plain and simple wasn’t having any. I know this is rambling but you won’t mind if I ramble about O’Reilly, will you?

Some years ago he called me up and asked me to go on…from Chicago…to tell the story of my negotiating with Jesse Jackson, Sr. on behalf of Quaker Oats. The negotiation…which I’ve written about in the past…was a success in that I defeated Jackson from his ultimate purpose which was to picket our brand Aunt Jemima which he insisted represented the demeaning image of a southern slave. As I told him before his band of clerical brothers in the Amen corner of PUSH, the image of Aunt Jemima (who never existed, by the way and was a fictional representation) was no more a representative of contemporary black women than is the Quaker Man, the symbol of our oatmeal, dressed in William Penn costume with long white curls. He and I bandied back and forth in negotiations before the ministers once each week for months.

I finally topped him by pointing out that ill-advised campaigns such as the one he was leading was responsible for driving black faces off food packages…the black chef on Cream of Wheat…the wise old black savant on Uncle Ben’s Rice. Now if he succeeded on Aunt Jemima he would perversely get rid of the last major African American face on a national brand. The consumer, I told him, reaches for that package because it identifies that black face with culinary excellence. Instead of doing this, I said, he should turn his energies to General Mills…our competitor…and lead a drive to make Betty Crocker black! Immediately the Amen Corner cheered my words until it thought better of it and slumped into a deferential silence as Jackson glowered at them.

The battle was won. But a few weeks later an executive from General Mills’ marketing called me to rage that I had sent some black civil rights activists to his door to make Betty Crocker black. I said to him: Well think about it! And hung up.

Well I tried to get that point across to O’Reilly but he was fixated on the outrage it seemed to him of my negotiating with Jackson at all. He interrupted me so often his audience never got the point.

Well, that’s enough rambling for tonight. The hour being near midnight, I’m going to bed. Needless to say when you next go to the supermarket you’ll see Aunt Jemima still beaming pleasantly at you. Assuredly, she wears a headband now like a suburban matron not the bandana she started out with. And Betty Crocker is still Caucasian. Sic transit Gloria mundi.

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