Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How did the Wright story start?

In his appraisal today of what the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy means for the Obama campaign, Thomas Lifson mentions the "media claque" that praised to high heaven Obama's Philadelphia speech on March 18 -- a speech that, in retrospect, looks to have been a mistake.

The question of What It All Means will be hashed over by legions of pundits and commentators in the coming days, but Lifson's mention of the media's role in the Wright controversy reminds me of another question, one that's been nagging at my brain for weeks now.

What bugs me is this: Why, on March 13, did ABC News decide to go with their story on Wright?

Conservative media had been trying to draw attention to Wright's radicalism for months, without any MSM outfit following on. And then out of thin air -- two days after the Mississippi primary, with the six-week Pennsylvania campaign just getting underway -- ABC News jumped on it, thus inaugurating the long crisis.

There are three obvious possibilities:
  • The timing was entirely coincidental. Maybe ABC had been working on it for a while and it was not until March 13 that they were able to put together a story worth airing; or else, one of their producers just happened to stumble onto the Wright angle at that time. But nobody who knows anything about bigtime politics believes in coincidences, so maybe . . .
  • Republican operatives pushed the story. By early March, it was possible to count delegates and conclude that Obama had the nomination locked. Therefore, Karl Rove and the GOP Brain Trust decide that the six-week lull before Pennsylvania would be a good time to hit Obama with this Wright-the-radical-preacher angle. But does that make sense? Wouldn't it be better to time it until August? So maybe . . .
  • Team Clinton was behind it. Sid Blumenthal called in a favor from his old buddy George Stephanopoulos at ABC, and this conspiratorial collusion results in a story perfectly calculated scares Pennsylvania's working-class white voters into delivering a miracle comeback for Hillary.
None of these explanations, however, is entirely satisfactory. The paranoid tinfoil-hat conspiracy crackpot would rather think it was Halliburton or the Mossad than to buy any of those theories. Which leads us to a fourth -- less obvious, but genuinely twisted -- possibility:

  • The Obama people did it themselves. Obama's handlers had to know this Wright thing was going to make news sooner or later. After the Mississippi primary, Team Obama counted the delegates, concluded they had the nomination locked up and said, "Better sooner than later." So they got their friends at ABC to do the story in early March, figuring that the negative impact wouldn't hurt Obama in terms of the Democratic nomination, and it would be better to get the story out early -- months before the general election campaign began -- than for it to leak into the media in August or September.

One of the reasons that this possibility makes sense is the fact that, just five days after ABC broke the story, Obama was ready with a 5,000-word "More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia.

Since when does a major presidential campaign uncork a 5,000-word speech in just five days? While I concede such a thing is possible -- a team of top speechwriters laboring long hours to improvise a major speech -- but I just don't think it's too bloody likely.

It smells like a set-up, and if I'm right -- if Obama's team got the Wright story to ABC in March as a sort of pre-emptive move against the Republicans -- then they did so expecting that Obama would emerge mostly unscathed by the self-inflicted controversy. The Philadelphia speech would fix the problem, Obama would move forward to victory in Pennsylvania, and that would be the last they'd hear about Wright for the rest of the campaign.

If so (and I admit we're now dangling at the end of a long string of hypothetical suppositions), then Team Obama badly miscalculated. Because of the "bitter" controversy, Obama got beaten badly in Pennsylvania, and Rev. Wright has refused to be silenced.

Most of all, if Team Obama believed the Democratic nomination was a lock as of March 11, they forgot to tell the news to Hillary Clinton. Notice how you're hearing a lot less pundit talk this week about how Hillary can't win?

Whatever the ultimate outcome of this election, the Wright controversy and Obama's handling of it will be one of the major episodes in this saga. And the mystery of that March 13 ABC News story will linger. It may be a blogosphere cliche, but I question the timing.

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