Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rhetoric that Confounds When it Should Clarify

One can hardly criticize Chicago Sun-Times reporter Lynn Sweet for trying to call out Barack Obama on the race question behind the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. during yesterday's press conference. Unfortunately, that part of Obama's response that accused the Cambridge police officer who made the arrest of having acted "stupidly" has now resonated through so many media channels (even those overseas such as the Financial Times), that it is important to recognize that this is a perfect example of what happens when rhetoric does not align with logic. To be fair, my own recollection is that Obama's initial response to Sweet was that he did not yet have all of the facts; and it is unclear whether or not, one week after the episode took place, all of those facts have come to light. Had Sweet not posed her question as one of race, Obama could have closed the topic with that initial response; but my guess is that, had he done so, he would then have had to contend with at least one pointed follow-up question.

The real problem, however, is that Obama should have been better prepared for the possibility that such a question would have been asked. Apparently, he was so focused on making his case for health care reform that neither he nor his staff recognized that other challenging questions might arise. As a result, Obama managed to trip over the few statements on the table that could be confirmed as facts. Consequently, when the calm and certain rhetoric of his presentation declared that “the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” Obama managed to distract the issue to where Gates was arrested (the question of whether he had been trying to enter his own house), thus overlooking the actual grounds for arrest, which Tracy Jan reported for the Boston Globe as follows:

He was booked for disorderly conduct after “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior,” according to a police report. Gates accused the investigating officer of being a racist and told him he had "no idea who he was messing with,'' the report said.

On the basis of what we now know, there seems to be little question of the nature of Gates' behavior. Whether or not that behavior provided grounds for a disorderly conduct arrest and booking comes down to a judgment call on the part of the police; and the media have now generated so much "data smog" around this story that we may never get an "authentic" account of how that call was made. We are thus left with an object lesson on the risk of relying too heavily on rhetoric, which may turn out to be a significant unintended consequence of yesterday's press conference.

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