26 August 2007

The Senator & The Lt. Colonel

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Last week, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart had two terrific guests: Senator Barrack Obama on Wednesday, and Lt. Colonel John A. Nagl on Thursday. Obama was on to discuss his run for the presidency, and Nagl was featured to discuss a book he helped write, The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

These two guests were also a study in contrasts, in both presentation and content. Obama’s two-part interview with Stewart showed off the Senator as we expect to see him: disarmingly charming, affable, and extremely focused on pointing out the degree to which he represents the “change,” the kind of change our country needs. Obama was one big smile, from beginning to end, and he certainly is (with apologies to Senators Obama and Biden) more articulate than just about anyone else about the kind of inspirational quasi-movement he believes he represents. Nagl, on the other hand, was more reserved and more traditionally earnest, wearing his Army dress uniform and speaking on a subject few of us likely have much experience with; but he warmed up, and even got two jokes in at the end.

In terms of content, however, Obama was weak. The Senator bundles his change-spiel into an emotionally-appealing articulation of why he should be elected, but, as in this exchange – from part 1 of the interview, starting at about the 3:20 mark – it isn’t backed up by specifics. In responding to a question from Stewart about how the media treats the presidential campaign process, Obama noted:

“...and one of my staff said, ‘The thing you’ve gotta understand is, this isn’t on the level.’ And I think that really strikes to what people are frustrated with in politics, is that so much of what we talk about, so much of what we say, it’s not true, people know it’s know it’s not true, all the insiders understand that we’re just game playing, and in the meantime you’ve got these hugely serious problems, which are true.”

At which point, Stewart asked another question, in relation to Obama vs. Clinton – so perhaps we cannot blame Senator Obama for not elaborating on the earlier remark with some specific points about what he would do to address those “true” problems. Obama got in some good (and accurate) digs at Vice President Cheney and former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, but notwithstanding all of the criticism of others, the details of how he, Barrack Obama, would address certain issues as president remain missing. It seems to be too much of a faith-based campaign for me: you simply have to have faith that Senator Obama will do the best job of all the candidates.

Lt. Colonel Nagl, on the other hand, seemed to treat his appearance on The Daily Show for what it was: an opportunity to be clear, specific, and concise about a difficult subject. Moreover, if not exactly promotional, then Nagl was at pains to ensure that the audience understands that the American commanders currently leading the war in Iraq, including General Petraeus, are not only doing the best they can, but are doing it with intelligence and insight into the challenge presented by the insurgency. You could just about see, when the interview was finished, a glimmer of success cross Lt. Colonel Nagl’s face. He did it, after all: he survived one of the most articulate anti-war and anti-Bush gauntlets out there.

Obama faced no such challenge. Not that Jon Stewart didn’t ask some important questions but, in that context, Senator Obama was like a rock star, greeted with cheers and a “You rock, Barrack” shout-out. But if Obama represents change like a rock star represents change, we just have to ask ourselves: is that really the basis on which to elect a president? In that case, I’m sorry that Bono is precluded from running.


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