05/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Act II: Patriotism

I took the advice of Brian Williams today and read Peggy Noonan (just as I'll take his advice Sunday and skip the NYT), and he was right: it's a great and smart op-ed. Noonan describes the scene at Gate 14 in an airport somewhere in West Texas, central California and Oklahoma, and sets it up as a microcosm of America. What does Gate 14 want in this election? What kind of lives are they leading? What America are they living in? As someone who misses bringing her Diet Coke through security I agree with her anti-TSA sentiment, though as someone who has logged a primary in an airport (Iowa; Dallas) I recall people watching the screen, though of course many more waited for their flight with other distractions. But Peggy is going for something here so we'll give her that. Her point is, Gate 14 needs a president who talks to them, and gets them. The current president doesn't, and never will; who becomes the next one depends on who does. See Noonan:

Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama's problem. America is Mr. Obama's problem. He has been tagged as a snooty lefty, as the glamorous, ambivalent candidate from Men's Vogue, the candidate who loves America because of the great progress it has made in terms of racial fairness. Fine, good. But has he ever gotten misty-eyed over . . . the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything? How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford, or the losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter's Mill, who pushed their way west because there was gold in them thar hills? There's gold in that history.

John McCain carries it in his bones. Mr. McCain learned it in school, in the Naval Academy, and, literally, at grandpa's knee. Mrs. Clinton learned at least its importance in her long slog through Arkansas, circa 1977-92.

Implicit in this analysis is that Obama's life experience might not have bred that classic apple-pie American patriotism, which is slightly unfair, but that may, too, be her point: Elections aren't fair, and they often come down to how the voter feels about a candidate which is often decided on points like this. And it's funny that she mentions patriotism on the day when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright story is gearing back up, because it has been said (and I think I heard Ryan Lizza say it first, actually), that the initial Rev. Wright incident was not about race but patriotism, and "God Damn America" and 9/11 chickens coming home to roost. Noonan doesn't even mention Wright (just the Wright brothers) but that part she sees:

This is an opportunity, for Mr. Obama needs an Act II. Act II is hard. Act II is where the promise of Act I is deepened, the plot thickens, and all is teed up for resolution and meaning. Mr. Obama's Act I was: I'm Obama. He enters the scene. Act III will be the convention and acceptance speech. After that a whole new drama begins. But for now he needs Act II. He should make his subject America.

Once again, this may not be fair but by gosh it's true. "I'm Obama" has somehow faltered, and the campaign knows this because they are taking him out of huge rallies and into smaller settings where, as the NYT puts it, "where he is seen talking with people and not at them." Not only that, he's been Kerry'd — he's now somehow become the candidate of arugula while Hillary and McCain are down with the people (that would be the same Hillary who's earned $109 million since 2000 with her husband, the former president, and the same John McCain who used his wife's corporate jet when his campaign was strapped for cash, under a provision in campaign finance law that specifically exempts aircraft owned by a candidate or his family from other jet-chartering requirements). But it's John McCain's campaign that loves to joke about the price of arugula — a vegetable that gets the cover treatment this week in Newsweek. Which means that Obama has a problem.

Noonan notes that the questions about his patriotism come not from the absence of a flag pin — now, it seems, the universally-accepted shorthand for wondering if someone is patriotic — and Noonan calls that out as ridiculous, but she still mentions it — but the absence of knowing what his patriotism is made of. Michelle Obama's comment in February that "for the first time" she was proud of her country has had surprising staying power (and recall that that was the first time that Cindy McCain stepped up and took the mike, saying that she was proud of her country). But — the people filling Obama's rallies are consistently the kind that Michelle Obama claimed she wasn't, earlier this month when she noted — angrily — that yeah, she went to Princeton and Harvard but she grew up on the South Side of Chicago. And the kids from Princeton and Harvard waved and cheered, and wore their Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirts.

All of this adds up to a problem — a patriotism problem for the candidate with by far the most diverse American experience. He spoke about it. Remember?

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

That's it. Right there. From that speech that the media loved so much, which landed with such an impact that Mark Jurkowitz from the Project for Excellence in Journalism called it "the week of the speech," tallying up all the coverage and realizing that Obama's speech had just dominated. Dominated in one hell of a week — it was also, recall, the week of the Bear Stearns collapse, and the week of the 5th anniversary of the war. Big week — but that speech was the biggest, with 28% of the week's coverage. The economy got 16%. The war got 10%.

So it shouldn't be hard for the media to remember what Obama actually said in it — and guess what? Nothing in it has changed with the re-emergence of Jeremiah Wright. So Wright disagrees with Obama. Big deal. Doesn't that mean that he's adding to that big Conversation About Race everyone keeps saying we're having? Jeremiah Wright is the biggest red herring in this campaign, because everyone is assuming that his views are important because they may have secretly influenced Obama. Feh. If anything, this latest divergence should put that to rest. To my mind from the very beginning, the only issue about Wright was about what Obama knew of his theology and beliefs when he appointed him to his campaign in an official capacity. Nothing more. "God damn America" is protected speech under the First Amendment, just like flag-burning. Dissent is American, pure and simple, going back to throwing tea overboard in Boston harbor.

All of which brings us back to Peggy Noonan and her pals at Gate 14. They were all really into that speech back in March — it was a huge hit on YouTube, the transcript was the most-emailed story on the New York Times website (and HuffPo) — so it shouldn't be so hard to remind them why they liked it. Obama's patriotism doesn't have to be Wright Brothers and Sutter's Mill, it can be whatever he wants it to be, as simple as looking around and being amazed that he can raise his daughters in a country like this with the blood of slaves and slave owners running through their veins...where they, one day, could grow up and run for president.

The View From Gate 14 [WSJ]

In Week Of Iraq War Anniversary, Obama's Race Speech Dominated Media Coverage
Transcript: Tim Russert Show, March 29th, with Tucker Carlson and Ryan Lizza [MSNBC]