Monday, March 24, 2008

Shades of Gray

After the nonstop voting frenzy of February and early March, the first days of spring have felt like the dog days of this presidential nominating season: kind of sleepy, a bit of a lull between primaries, not so much to blog about. Each day does seem to bring another little twist or blip, whether it's John McCain's gaffes in Iraq, or another advisor to Obama or Clinton shooting from the lip. But without a looming primary or caucus to drive the election calendar, some of the pressure and tension is off. Obama has even gone off to St. Thomas for a few days of vacation. McCain is back here in California, raising money and laying the groundwork for a November run at our 55 electoral votes.

We filled some of the down time with our latest campaign song, "Crocodile Barack," and in case you missed it on the radio, well, there it is, just click on that handy link. (For that matter, if you somehow didn't hear our Hillary Clinton song, here's that one, too).

The major campaign event of the month turned out to be the Jeremiah Wright controversy, which broke while I was off for a little break of my own, in Yosemite. Rev. Wright has been on the political radar for many months now, and some of the Hillary Clinton supporters who criticize us for alleged Obama favoritism had been forwarding links to me, with some of his more outrageous statements. But once videos of some of Wright's fire-and-brimstone started running in heavy rotation on the cable news channels, Obama had no choice but to address the words of his longtime pastor and spiritual mentor.

Obama's speech in Philadelphia was brilliantly written, I thought, and much has been said and written about it elsewhere. It was really more of a scholarly talk than a traditional campaign address: long, slow, thoughtful, laid out in a linear and logical way. It could have been a summation in a legal case, except for the absence of an emotional appeal to the jury at the close. I know people who think it was the greatest speech they've ever heard, but let's not get carried away. I don't know that I would call it Lincolnesque. At 37 minutes, it was 18 times longer than the Gettysburg Address. But it was deeply personal, and so much more reflective than a typical political speech. It also disabused me of a notion that's been kicking around my brain for a year or so now: that Barack Obama reminds me too much of George W. Bush.

Before you scoff loudly at that idea (maybe it's too late), consider the parallels. In 1999, while covering the presidential campaign of then-Governor Bush, I found him to be a reasonably pleasant guy whom many voters found inexplicably (to me) charismatic. He was a man of limited government experience, relying heavily on his personality and likeability, who avoided reporters at all costs and whose policy details were as thin as his resume. Does that sound familiar? When I covered Obama in late 2006 and early 2007, he steered clear of the media, gave vague speeches full of platitudes and lofty catch phrases, avoided answering specific policy questions, and leaned mostly on his status as a fresh face and celebrity author. At the California Democratic Convention last spring, Obama was the only one of the eight presidential contenders who did not hold a news conference or conduct any interviews. He's made himself more available as he's fleshed out his positions and gained more experience, both in government and on the campaign trail, but he's still the only major candidate this year who hasn't done an interview with KCBS.

But that speech on race has changed my thinking. Can you imagine President Bush giving a talk like that - not to mention writing it himself? What would he say? "I am the son of a rich, powerful white man...and, um, a rich, powerful white woman, too." Obama's words reflected deep contemplation, and an intellect able to translate that soul-searching into powerful speech that seemed honest and real. Bush sees everything in black and white; Obama offered us shades of gray. That kind of nuanced thinking is rare in national politics. But the world isn't black and white, and it's refreshing to hear a presidential candidate choose candor over demagoguery, especially on a subject as critical to America - and so close to my own heart - as race.

QUICK HITS: Bill Clinton returns to the Bay Area to address this year's state Democratic convention, this Sunday in San Jose. Let's see if he gets mad at us again, or brings his sax this time...John McCain holds fundraisers Wednesday at Pebble Beach and the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton...What do you think of Bill Richardson's new facial hair? I think the Van Dyke gives him a more Latin look, and makes him look a little more manicured, which could work to his advantage if he's Obama's running mate...but we'll save that V-P analysis for later in the campaign.