A Further Perspective

The Obama Code

The president's G's going missing, only to resurface. So what was he really saying?

By 9.29.11

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"When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink." -- George Orwell, "Politics and the English language"

Last weekend, President Obama gave a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus. It would have passed largely unnoticed into the giant, gaseous cloud of accumulated Obama speeches that hangs somewhere above Washington had it not been for an Associated Press reporter dutifully doing his job.

Reporter Mark Smith quoted the President this way:

"Take off your bedroom slippers. Put on your marching shoes," he said, his voice rising as applause and cheers mounted. "Shake it off. Stop complainin'. Stop grumblin'. Stop cryin'. We are going to press on. We have work to do."

Though that is precisely what the president said, it differed from the official White House transcript, which included the three missing g's. Smith, sensing something important not in the president's words, but in the way he delivered them, thought it important not to change them. For that simple application of journalistic integrity, he was called a racist.

On Chris Hayes' MSNBC show, author and, unbelievably, professor of journalism Karen Hunter said the AP story was "inherently racist." She explained, "I teach a journalism class, and I tell my students to fix people's grammar, because you don't want them to sound ignorant. For them to do that, it's code, and I don't like it."

At this point it might be worth noting that in 2009 Hunter said, also on MSNBC, that people who show disrespect to the president are racist. For a professor, she certainly has issues with logic. Hunter, it would seem, is an expert at silencing dissent by alleging racism.

Why, though, would accurately quoting the president be racist? Because, Hunter believes, not cleaning up the president's grammar makes him "sound ignorant." Yet did the president himself not utter the words that way -- on purpose?

Anyone who has watched Obama speeches -- which would be anyone who has flipped on an American television set at any random time in the past three years -- knows that Obama does not always drop his g's. He made a conscious decision to do so when speaking before the Congressional Black Caucus. Whatever for?

Like Al Gore and Hillary Clinton before him, Obama went before a large black audience, dropped his normal manner of public speaking, and temporarily adopted the stereotypical cadence and rhythm of a black preacher. It was an embarrassing, transparent pander. He very deliberately attempted to sound less sophisticated -- "ignorant," to use Hunter's word (not mine).

Now the AP reporter present at the event understood that this was not the president's customary delivery, which made the delivery noteworthy. So he transcribed it verbatim.

"Normally, I lean toward the clean-it-up school of quote transcribing -- for everyone," Smith told Mediaite. "But in this case, the President appeared to be making such a point of dropping Gs, and doing so in a rhythmic fashion, that for me to insert them would run clearly counter to his meaning. I believe I was respecting his intent in this. Certainly disrespect was the last thing I intended."

Disrespect wasn't what Smith intended; but arguably it was what the president intended.

How else to describe the normally precise and famously articulate president trying to connect with a roomful of black lawmakers by speaking as though, again in Hunter's description, he were "ignorant"?

If Hunter is right that dropping the g's is "code" for calling someone ignorant, then surely the president, having dropped his g's to imply commonality with his audience, is guilty of suggesting that the entire Congressional Black Caucus is ignorant.

Of course, the other option is that Hunter is simply full of it.

But she does make a point about "code" worth pursuing. For indeed the president was using code. He spoke to the CBC because so many of its members were upset, even angry, about his failure to deliver on his promises. Unable to calm them with something substantive, he opted for an emotional connection. He employed the language and speaking style of past civil rights leaders to manipulate CBC members into again fighting for him despite the plain fact that he has failed them.

It is as this president always does. A pork-barrel spending bill written specifically to pay off Democratic special interest groups is called, inaccurately, "stimulus." Tax increases and corporate welfare are labeled "investments." People who make $200,000 a year are called "millionaires and billionaires." A tax increase on millionaires is named "the Buffett rule" to imply that it would fall only on billionaires. It goes on and on.

Speaking in "code"? There is not the slightest shred of evidence that the AP was doing that on this story. But it is perfectly obvious that the president does so whenever he wants to hide his real intentions behind a cloud of euphemisms and misleading rhetoric, which is often.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.