You’ve heard this kind of a story. A man’s boss introduces him to a new client named Mr. Starr, who happens to have a huge scar running down his cheek. The man is desperate to make a good impression and quite nervous, and knows that the one thing he absolutely must not do is address the client as Mr. Scar. So he focuses all his attention on not saying the name wrong, and what’s the first thing out of his mouth? “Hello, Mr. Scar.” He inevitably says exactly the one thing which he absolutely must not say.
Barack Obama had that moment on Sunday on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos had already surprised Obama by unexpectedly and pointedly calling him on several gross misrepresentations of his prior statements and actions. Obama’s not used to that kind of treatment from his friends in the media, so he was a little rattled, and when Stephanopoulos adamantly rejected Obama’s attempt to blame the McCain campaign for spreading rumors against him, Obama ultimately had to admit that the accusation was spurious. Then he went on to admit a bit more than he intended, saying “you are absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my muslim faith, and that…” From there he seems ready to just roll on as if nothing happened, but Stephanopolis steps in and helpfully points out that he meant to say his “christian faith.”
The Obama campaign’s spin on this is that anyone who quotes it is taking it out of context. But I watched the whole show. The quote is self-contained and clearly is exactly what it appears to be. When pressured by a reporter Obama inadvertently declares himself to be a muslim and does it so naturally that he doesn’t even realize that he’s said the wrong thing until it’s pointed out to him.
There are lots and lots of ways to interpret this, none of them very good for Obama.
From the far right we’re already seeing a ‘gotcha’ reaction, pointing to the slip as a smoking gun that all is not what it seems with Obama’s religious orientation, something which the hardcore right has been claiming ever since they learned he attended a madrasa as a kid and dug up a photograph of Obama in a robe. The cornerstone of their argument is that Islam includes the doctrine of the ‘permissible lie’ where you may conceal your faith without committing a sin if it is part of a Jihad or if you are lying to unbelievers. This feeds into the conspiracy theory that Obama is some sort of Islamic version of the Manchurian Candidate, programmed from an early age to serve the cause of radical Islam while pretending all his life to be a Christian American. It’s a nice, dramatic story, but that doesn’t make any of it true.
The defense from the left is predictable and pretty weak, dismissing it as nothing but a slip of the tongue, from someone who they have set up as a leader of genius and the great orator of our time. Arguing that someone so articulate and intelligent could get flustered and misspeak ao seriously when being questioned by a lightweight like George Stephanopoulos is a pretty weak position to take. But let’s just dismiss it. The evil Republicans have been calling Obama a muslim so much that it’s like the example from the story I told earlier. He can’t get the dreaded word out of his head, so he blurts it out.
As always, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. As Stephanopoulos argued effectively enough for Obama to be forced to agree, no one on the right who anyone takes seriously is really pushing the idea that Obama is a secret muslim. Why bother? The christian church he attended for years is as bad as anything you’ll find in Islam, and if the public will give him a pass on that they’re probably willing to overlook anything.
What this slip really does show is a weakness and uncertainty which Obama’s glibness usually hides pretty well. It shows an inexperience and a lack of focus which may be a problem in the increasingly intense final weeks of the campaign and certainly would not serve him well once elected. He’s thinking about things he shouldn’t be thinking about and losing conscious control over his reactions. He’s letting the pressure and the criticisms get to him. He may not be a closet muslim, but it’s clear that when people claim that he is one it upsets and worries him. It raises doubts and clouds his thinking. Maybe it’s because he’s not so sure who he really is and wishes he’d had a chance to explore his muslim heritage. Maybe it’s because he feels particularly vulnerable on the issue because deep down he thinks it has some merit. Maybe it’s just because he thinks it’s a particularly offensive kind of attack and it just pisses him off.
Whatever the cause, it certainly shows that beneath the calm and slick surface, there may be dark and troubled waters filled with the looming shapes of monsters from Obama’s id. We have to ask ourselves if we have confidence in a candidate who is still at the mercy of that primitive part of his psyche.