Talking Down to America
By Michael Winship
I haven't worked in the realm of children's television in more than a decade, but lessons learned in that world are lessons learned for life.
First and foremost: never condescend. When writing for kids, think of them as slightly shorter grown-ups with fewer bad habits and better credit.
Would that the Bush administration followed the non-condescension rule for adults. Instead, they've taken a page from the playbook of the late Uncle Don, host of a kiddy show during the glory days of radio.
It's apocryphal, one of those hoary urban legends, but the story goes that after finishing the broadcast of his usual half-hour of moonbeams and treacle, Uncle Don turned to a colleague - not knowing the microphone was still hot - and said, "Well, that ought to hold the little bastards."
Similarly, the White House seems to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that dispersing the same old, Uncle Don-style effluvium to the American public will continue to placate and hold us close. But more and more of us know it's nothing more than a bad smell.
A comparison of two noteworthy speeches last week - Barack Obama on race, George Bush on Iraq - shows the difference between a candidate who talks to us like grown-ups and an incumbent who seems to think he's still reading "My Pet Goat" to second graders in Sarasota.
Regardless of how you feel about Obama's candidacy or the continuing issue of his past affiliation with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, last Tuesday's speech in Philadelphia was formidable, candid, sophisticated rhetoric.
As Republican Peggy Noonan, a virtuoso of speechwriting for Ronald Reagan, observed in Friday's Wall Street Journal, "He didn't have applause lines. He didn't give you eight seconds of a line followed by clapping. He spoke in full and longish paragraphs that didn't summon applause. This left TV producers having to use longer-than-usual soundbites in order to capture his meaning. And so the cuts of the speech you heard on the news were more substantial and interesting than usual, which made the coverage of the speech better. People who didn't hear it but only saw parts on the news got a real sense of what he'd said."
What he said was, as per civil rights activist and historian Roger Wilkins, "the most extensive discussion of race ever by a presidential candidate." He rejected Wright's incendiary remarks but not his friendship, and he placed the minister's words in the context of the history of black churches in America.
"The anger is real," Obama said. "It is powerful, and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."
Then he added, "A similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race.... So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."
Oh my. "This wasn't the gauzy vision of diversity draped in tapestry metaphors and rainbow hues," The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos wrote. "It was a nation confronting its sins and overcoming its deeply held fears and prejudices."
Contrast that reality with the banana oil the president was peddling when he spoke at the Pentagon the next day, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war. "The surge has done more than turn the situation in Iraq around," he insisted. "It has opened the door to a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror.... The significance of this development cannot be overstated."
Yes, it can. As Senate Majority Harry Reid noted, "We are proud of the warriors who have fought hard to reduce violence in Iraq in recent months. But America is not secure and the costs and consequences of the war continue to mount.
"Al-Qaeda is stronger than it has ever been since 9/11, Osama bin Laden remains at large, the readiness of our Army and Marine Corps is at its lowest levels since Vietnam, and trends in Afghanistan are deeply troubling. The military has done its job; it is time for this administration and Iraq's political leaders to do theirs."
In his new book, "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power," journalist Fred Kaplan concludes that the strategies of the Bush/Cheney co-presidency are based "not on a grasp of technology, history or foreign cultures but rather in fantasy, faith and willful indifference toward those affected by their consequences."
It's no wonder when told by ABC's Martha Raddatz that two-thirds of Americans believe the war is not worth the cost in lives, money and international respect, the reply of Consigliere Cheney was a dismissive, supercilious, "So?"
Speaking on behalf of former little bastards everywhere, that kind of condescension has got to go. November can't come soon enough.
Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. This article was previously published in the Messenger Post Newspapers.