Magazine | October 31, 2011, Issue

Quotin’ Obama

A wire-service reporter opens a can of worms

When an MSNBC commentator accuses someone of racism, it’s dog bites man. MSNBC is a Left-heavy channel; the Left can hardly talk without accusing others of racism. Last month, however, there was a whiff of man bites dog. An MSNBC commentator accused someone of racism, all right. But the accused was a reporter for the Associated Press — not an organization you would expect to come in for such condemnation. The AP is a member of the “mainstream media” in good standing (all too good).

Here’s what happened: The AP’s Mark S. Smith filed a report on a speech by President Obama to a Congressional Black Caucus dinner. He wrote,

Obama said blacks know all too well from the civil rights struggle that the fight for what is right is never easy.

“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.”

Smith’s offense, according to his accuser? He quoted Obama faithfully — “dropped g’s” and all. His accuser, Karen Hunter, said this was “racist,” and not just “racist” but “inherently racist.” Hunter is a journalist and, depressingly, also a journalism professor. She once ghosted a book for Al Sharpton. She said that Smith should have standardized Obama’s English: “complaining,” “grumbling,” etc.

I watched a video clip of Obama’s speech. He went very, very southern in that speech. He slipped into preacher mode, strong on exhortation. Smith’s report gave you an idea of what it was like to be in the room — which a report should do. “Complaining” and “grumbling” would have robbed the report of flavor, and also of some veracity. Actually, Obama said “marchin’ shoes,” rather than “marching shoes.” Smith did not drop all the g’s he could have.

This episode sparked a memory in me. In 1988, Jesse Jackson was running for president, as he had in 1984. Clark Clifford, the Democratic “wise man,” said that Jackson was “bringing a new maturity to the American political scene.” George Will, in a column, said, Oh, yeah? “Twenty years ago, Clifford was secretary of defense. Here is Jackson on defense policy: ‘Don’t nobody want no Midgetman missile for Christmas. They don’t want no Star Wars for Christmas.’”

Will, naturally, was accused of racism, and some newspapers refused to run that particular column. The claim was that Will should have put Jackson’s statements into conventional English. In other words, he should have misquoted him, in a way. But would that have opened Will to different charges of racism? You can hear it: “What’s the matter with what the reverend said originally? You think he has to ‘talk white’?” Shortly after Will’s column appeared (or didn’t appear), the New York Times ran a chin-stroking article headed “As Jackson Rises, Reporters Search for Proper Balance.” The article asked, “How should Mr. Jackson be treated? As the first black to achieve such electoral success? As a liberal politician? Or simply as a contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination?”

The issue of quotation goes beyond skin color, of course. In the weeks before George W. Bush’s second presidential inauguration, in 2005, I was asked to write a piece for an inaugural publication. I agreed. In my piece, I quoted something Bush repeatedly said in the 2000 campaign: “I’m runnin’ for a reason.” He usually said this when he was pushing Social Security reform. He didn’t want to go to the White House and mark time. He wanted to do big things. “I’m runnin’ for a reason.”

#page#An editor sent the piece back to me, with some changes he had made. In his version, Bush said, “I’m running for a reason.” “No, no!” I replied. “That spoils the sentence, don’t you see? It takes the music out of it. We must allow Bush his naturalness.” The editor relented. Last month, during the AP brouhaha, a Politico blog noted an article that the New York Times had run in August. The article compared Bush and his successor as the governor of Texas, Rick Perry. It said the two share “a down-home way of speakin’ that’s heavy on the dropped g’s.” The paper offered an example: On the presidential campaign trail, Perry was warning against “over-taxin’, over-regulatin’, and over-litigatin’.”

In the wake of Obama’s Congressional Black Caucus appearance, some people criticized the president for his foray into preachin’. What was a guy brought up in Hawaii and Indonesia doing talking like that? Well, many people speak in different ways to different audiences, or different individuals, and that certainly includes politicians. There is nothing necessarily shameful or hypocritical about it.

When Jimmy Carter was the governor of Georgia, William F. Buckley Jr. had him as a guest on Firing Line. After the taping, the governor’s aides told WFB that they were shocked at how their boss had sounded: He was far less southern than he was back home, among his constituents. Years later, in print, WFB teased Carter about his “Firing Line voice.”

Sometimes a politician will take a different voice too far. Click on some Hillary Clinton videos from the 2008 Democratic primaries, and you may be shocked. To black audiences, she laid it on really, really thick — insultingly thick, to my ears. She might as well have been in blackface when she said the following to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network: “When I walk into the Oval Office in January 2009, I’m afraid I’m gonna lift up the rug and I’m gonna see so much stuff under there. You know, what is it about us always havin’ to clean up after people?” Thus did Hillary Rodham Clinton, of Wellesley, the White House, the Senate, and elsewhere, identify with the janitorial class.

When questioned about her “black voice,” as some dubbed it, she answered quite gracefully: She had lived in several different places, including Arkansas, and “I think America is ready for a multilingual president.”

Two years later, Barack Obama was in the White House, and his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, had been estranged from him. A reporter asked Wright whether he had spoken to the president. No, said Wright: “Them Jews ain’t going to let him talk to me.” Apparently, he was alluding to Rahm Emanuel, then the presidential chief of staff and now the mayor of Chicago, and mysterious, insidious other Jews. When Wright talks that way, it’s entirely by choice. He was raised in a bourgeois Philadelphia community by a father who was a distinguished minister and a mother who was a pioneering teacher and school administrator. I doubt Wright was ever allowed to say “Them Jews ain’t . . .” in his house — for reasons of both style and content.

By the way, MSNBC played a tape of Wright’s comment, and had the text on the screen.

Viewers heard “Them Jews ain’t” but saw “Them Jews aren’t.” That must have caused some disorientation. And whoever changed “ain’t” to “aren’t” neglected to change “Them” to “Those” — leaving it “Them Jews” instead of “Those Jews.

#page#All of us who do reporting have to think about how to quote people. Do you do it absolutely verbatim? Not necessarily. You often tidy up the grammar of the speaker. The temptation is to tidy for those you like and leave in the raw those you don’t like. More than once, I’ve quoted something Obama said about Wright: “He married Michelle and I.” I shouldn’t twit Obama like that, but sometimes I find his reputation for erudition annoying.

As a rule, I think written English ought to follow speech. I tend to write casually, and this is especially so in my online column. Once, I wrote “I’d’ve,” as in, “If I’d known you were coming, I’d’ve baked a cake.” An editor raised an eyebrow at my contractions. But “I’d have” was not quite right, and neither was “I would’ve.” “I would have” would have been disastrous — it had to be “I’d’ve.” Sometime later, inveighing against the moral indifference of my countrymen, I wrote, “The American people just want to get they freak on.” An editor inquired, “Did you mean ‘their’?” No, I didn’t! If you’re going to use a slang expression, go all the way. In for a penny, in for a pound.

When Karen Hunter accused Reporter Smith of racism, he defended himself ably. He said, among other things, that he was respecting Obama’s “intent” in that Congressional Black Caucus speech: his rhythm, his cadence, his mode. True. I would have been tempted to respond to Hunter sharply: “If anything is ‘racist,’ it’s shame at the way Americans speak.”

Some 25 years ago, I heard a black congresswoman talking about the Martin Luther King holiday. She kept saying “birfday.” I winced, thinking she would be subject to derision, that white racists somewhere might chuckle. Later on I learned that “f” instead of “th” is part of many southerners’ speech, southerners white and black. (How southern English became the English of black Americans from Maine to California is “a whole ’nother subject,” as we said in my family.) What’s more, “th” into “f” comes from England, as English tends to. There’s a reason Keith Richards, the Rolling Stone, is known as “Keef.” There’s a reason that the Health and Safety Executive — a pillar of the British nanny state — is known as “’Elf ’n’ Safety.”

Race is a minefield in America, and language can be a bit of a minefield too. When race and language mix, the minefields are doubly dangerous. How can we navigate them? I think of Abe Rosenthal, the late editor of the New York Times. Asked how he edited the paper, he answered, “With my stomach.” I also think of a phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a phrase made all the more famous by a Britten aria: “Be kind and courteous.” Stomach, kindness, and courtesy should see you through. But they won’t spare you being called a racist, because, in our environment, nothing will.

If it happens, you might reply with the words of a beloved old spiritual: “You can talk about me just as much as you please. I’m goin’ talk about you when I git on my knees.” Alternatively, “I been ’buked and I been scorned.” But “I ain’t never gonna lay my ’ligion down.” That’ll shake ’em up.

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