Obama shrugged

In the summer of 1988, days after he’d been nominated by Democrats for president, Michael Dukakis took what he fancied as a Trumanesque whistle-stop train tour.

The train dipped into the northeastern corner of Arkansas for one quick stop.

I was plopped on this train and granted an interview with the Democratic presidential nominee, who enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls. I asked Dukakis how he intended to fight back against the charge by Republicans that he was a “pastel patriot” who had vetoed the required recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in the public schools of Massachusetts.

Dukakis replied curtly that his state supreme court had given him an advisory opinion that the bill was unconstitutional. He said no one would fall for such nonsense. He shrugged. I mean literally.

As I walked out of the rail car, an Arkansas Democratic official looked at me and rolled his eyes. I don’t think it was about my question. I think it was about the answer.

Sixteen years later, another Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry, also shrugged — figuratively, if not literally. It was at the very notion that conservatives could discredit his war record.

All of that is to suggest that Hillary Clinton, who hasn’t been right about much lately, may be on to something about this electability thing.

She says she’s best for Democrats to nominate because she knows how the Republicans play and she will defend and counter-attack. She says Barack Obama may be a little green when it comes to appreciating what will happen to him if he gets the nomination.

She says Democrats should not take that chance, because these stakes — the war, the economy, the very political culture — are high.

Obama’s counter-argument is that half the country loathes her and he is attracting independents and Republicans.

He may be right. Democrats can hope so.

The pattern ought to trouble Democrats, though.

Obama has thus far exhibited some of the same shrugs as Dukakis and Kerry. These are shrugs that reflect dismissive contempt for what are seen as absurd charges. These are shrugs that fail to grasp that these absurd charges, left unanswered, can fester and get one beat.

For months, an e-mail campaign spread word that Obama was a Muslim; that he had declined to put his hand on the Bible to be sworn in to the U.S. Senate, and that he had refused to salute the American flag. It’s all false, which is pretty much beside the point.

For months, Obama went his merry way, apparently indifferent to the possibility that such things can achieve lives of their own and make differences in political races. The rumors persist, and people you meet repeat elements of them as pure fact.

The Obama campaign says it’s been hard at work discrediting these rumors. That’s not evident. Results aren’t discernible.

Now we have the clumsy indiscretion of Michelle Obama. She said that her husband’s recent political success had given her a reason to be proud of her country for the first time in her adult life.

Maybe she just got carried away. Still, this was simply dreadful.

First, she seemed to have taken her husband’s messianic mythology to a bit of an extreme. Second, her comment suggested that she’s entirely too hard on her country, which is often not so good, but is always — in the broad context — a great beacon of freedom and strength and benevolence.

But bigger than any of that was this: It was politically perilous, potentially disastrous. And the Obama campaign oddly decided to dig in and try to defend the statement rather than send a contrite Michelle out to confess and repent.

Notice how quickly the Republicans acted. John McCain’s wife was taking on the statement within hours.

That’s what Hillary was talking about. It’s her best point. It’s her only point.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of “High Wire,” a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@

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