Yesterday I read David Plouffe's book and was struck by a sentence in his explanation of Bittergate -- Barack Obama's notorious campaign remark at a San Francisco fundraiser in early April, 2008, where he said that "bitter" Pennsylvania blue-collar voters "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Plouffe quotes Obama as telling him that, "I really don't know how the hell I constructed my point like that."
Well, I know how the hell he did it. In fact, it actually makes perfect sense. It is the untold story of Bittergate. Obama's remark was and still is one of the biggest stories of that historic Presidential run. It is also still one of the least understood. Though I was the first to report on his comments in my Levittown post, here on HuffPost as a citizen journalist following the candidates and covering the campaign trail, it was not until later that I fully understood the driving forces behind that statement. I don't think it was really an accident at all, but rather, that in his quick rise to power, Barack Obama did not have the chance to get to know his fellow Americans -- at least not the ones in Levittown, Pennsylvania.
I've given the full account in my upcoming e-book, Notes from a Clueless Journalist: Media, Bias and the Great Election of 2008, due out in January. The following is an excerpt, exclusive to HuffPost.
The Story of "Bitter"
The night before Haverford, I was fidgeting in a Pennsylvania school gymnasium while waiting for Hillary Clinton and weeping over a dog. Senator Clinton, of all the candidates, brought out the pet-mania in a supporter. Canine attendance at her events was a phenomenon of the trail, and I had begun to take photographs of the various dogs, all wearing Hillary regalia, many squeezed into little Hillary costumes. On the evening of Monday, April 14, however, I realized that this penchant signaled more than enthusiasm. It was a sign that here sat a room full of losers--their loss magnified by their obliviousness to the reality that their candidate also was a loser. By April, despite Clinton victories in Texas and Ohio and a likely upcoming win in Pennsylvania, no one in the press, except for those prone to Super Delegate conspiracy theories, believed that Clinton would get the Democratic nomination.
But this was the time when Hillary Clinton, nourished perhaps by the respect she had received in the poor Hispanic communities of Texas, began to get her voice and a receptive audience--always now in a town's meaner streets and not, as only a season before, in the nation's professional enclaves, which had begun to drift into the Obama camp. Here filling the gym risers at the Bristol Borough Junior-Senior High School, listening to John Mellencamp's "Small Town" and chanting Hillary-Hillary-Hillary! were the working class folk who would stick with her until the end in South Dakota because she, more than any other candidate in decades, was finding a way to speak to the many and varied losses in these Americans' lives.
This is retrospect. On that April weekday evening I did not make the connection between what I had seen in Texas and what I was beginning to hear in Hillary Clinton. I had no way of predicting South Dakota. But I knew I was looking at a gym full of losers whose bright cheer cast therefore the more garish glow. In that jaundiced reportorial frame of mind, sitting in the press compound at Bristol, desultorily I watched a woman shepherd a young man in a wheelchair onto the gym floor. Likely the young man, who had ALS, was her son. I watched a slow delight spread up these two faces, lifting to the Hillary fervor rising from the bleachers. Beside the wheelchair was a large but patient dog, tethered much more by the palpable spirit of expectation than by his leash. Contemplating the dog's jauntily-angled kerchief with its cheap silkscreening of Hillary's face, I began to tear up.
"Oh for Christ's sake, Mayhill," I said to myself, "get a grip." I could not believe I was losing it over a goddamn dog.
A man who looked vaguely familiar walked up and extended his hand. "You're Mayhill Fowler," he said. "I'm John Mullane of the Bucks County Courier Times. I like what you said about Pennsylvanians."
My first thought was vain--that he had recognized me from my original OffTheBus photo, in which my head seemed to sprout like a stalk of broccoli. Already Mullane was telling me a story, something about Barack Obama at Truman High School in Levittown, a five-minute drive from Bristol. Now I knew why Mullane looked familiar, for the previous week I had covered Obama's Levittown event, too.
Looking back, I can hardly believe I wrote about Levittown. A week ago that Monday I had posted Obama's musing on choosing a running mate. Tuesday I had flown East to resume covering the Pennsylvania primary. On the flight, I had decided to write more about his remarks, for a Friday posting. I understood that revealing the rest would be a blow, a serious blow, to his campaign, and yet on Wednesday I went to the town hall meeting in Levittown as if everything were business as usual. Even as I was resolved to keep writing about the campaigns, I was also in some state of denial. Who was that April woman? By now I have acquired too much of a reporter mindset ever again to do such a nutty thing: to cut a story in half--to suspend it in time, as it were--in order to think through a decision and meanwhile to carry on with work. Maybe that Mayhill was the real journalist. Maybe it is a paradox. But rereading my Levittown article for the first time since I wrote it (and I had forgotten I wrote it until I began researching post-November), I see that I was prescient about the political journey many Levittowners would make, if not about the immediate opportunity Barack Obama would have to focus on the distant horizon.
April 10, 2008. Barack Obama's town hall meeting in Levittown, PA, yesterday was, in the sphere of political conversation, the epilogue to Michael Sokolove's fine essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine blending a reminiscence of the changes in Levittown since his childhood there with an analysis of Obama's chances with Levittown voters. At a fundraiser in San Francisco Sunday night, Obama dismissed Sokolove's conclusion that blue collar Levittown might not be quite ready to vote for a black man. "People are misunderstanding the way the demographics in this contest are broken up the way they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to white working class don't want to vote for the black guy. There were intimations of this in an article in the Sunday New York Times today--kind of implies it's sort of a race thing. That's not what it is."
If that's not what it is--then what is it? For two hours, I talked to people waiting for the doors at Levittown's Harry S. Truman High School to open for the Obama event. The conversations would seem to support both Sokolove's and Obama's realistic appraisal that Levittown is not Obama Country. Obama's analysis of his cool reception from the working class is that it stems from a feeling of having been betrayed by government and subsequent cynicism. But it's precisely this cynicism that makes men like Ed and Frank, both Vietnam Veterans and union electricians, willing to take a flyer on Obama. In their estimation, Hillary and Bill Clinton are part of the world's wealthy ruling class that "knows exactly what they're doing but not telling us." Like many people in line--and indeed Americans everywhere--Ed and Frank aid that "we need somebody new."
Most of the Levittown town hall meeting crowd were older folk, and many of them were from New Jersey. It's only a 20-30 minute drive from Princeton to Levittown, so Princetoners have been working for Obama in and around Levittown and lower Bucks County. When I asked Afton, a pet shop owner in Princeton, if she thought Obama was right about Levittown and race, she replied, "He hasn't been on the canvass." Both she and her husband, who is determined to sell Obama on Rhodesian ridgebacks as the dogs of choice for his daughters, shook their heads. "A lot of white men are not voting for him here." Debbie, a former army brat and currently a worker for peacecoalition.org, concurred. "There's a lot of misinformation--Muslim, that he'll subvert the Pentagon." Debbie said that some of her neighbors had re-registered as Republicans just so they wouldn't have to vote for either Obama or Clinton.
Indeed larger Levittown itself seemed to be absent from the Levittown town hall meeting. The group that came out in force to see Obama were the local teachers, the people who hold communities like Levittown and its neighbor Bristol together. Many of these teachers were women and Clinton supporters who nevertheless wanted to hear Obama before finally making up their minds. Melissa, a teacher at Truman High, said that she was for Clinton because "men have messed up things too much." And, yes, "race and gender are not irrelevant" in Levittown, but "I hope we're not that shallow." Jo Ann, another local teacher, described herself as "an open-minded supporter of Hillary Clinton." She felt that Clinton had the most detailed plan to overhaul No Child Left Behind. When I pointed out that Clinton wants to "scrap" N.C.L.B. and that Obama wants to "overhaul" it, Jo Ann said she didn't see much difference, but that she'd be interested to hear what Obama had to say about education.
In the subsequent town hall meeting, Senator Obama did talk about education, as he always does, although for the Levittown and Bristol teachers he wasn't as detailed and specific, or as impassioned, as he can be on the need to improve education in America. He had arrived late at Truman High and was a bit rushed. This may have been one of those missed opportunities to which all campaigns, due to the rigors of the road, succumb. Having followed the Obama Campaign for almost a year, I have come to believe that education is the lodestar for the direction in which Obama wants to take us. The significant moment in Levittown yesterday was Obama's comment that we must be "willing to sacrifice on the behalf of future generations." As I've written before, the call to sacrifice has been a chord, at first muted, now louder, in Obama's speeches from the beginning. But Levittown was the first time I've heard him say anything more specific about that sacrifice--and the implications of "future generations" for a place like Levittown are many and not least in the field of education.
The one thing everybody waiting in line to hear Senator Obama agreed on is that change is in the air. Lower Bucks County is going Democrat (despite the neighbors who have re-registered as Republicans), Central Bucks County is going Democrat--all Bucks is going Democrat. The reality is that the white working class guys who won't vote for a black guy, or a woman, are getting old and slowly passing on. With the loss of manufacturing jobs, Levittown may be dying, but new and different towns are sprouting nearby. Everybody talked about the growing African-American communities and the million-dollar homes five minutes away. Lower Bucks County is becoming a bedroom community for people with good jobs in Manhattan, a 50-minute train ride. These commuters are, in a spiritual if not a literal sense, the children and grandchildren of the aging Levittowners, a more prosperous generation who have been able to afford bigger and better homes than those in the tracts of Levittown and Bristol Township. Perhaps someday, long after Barack Obama is President but as a consequence of his policies, a well-educated work force with twenty-first century jobs will appraise the beautiful bones of Levittown and Bristol with an eye to tearing down the old tract houses and building for a newer and greener world. Nothing lasts--everything passes away--change is inexorable. In the light of this paradoxically immutable truth, Barack Obama is right to focus in the distance, beyond racism in places like Levittown, lest he get mired in the here and now. ["Obama Courts Working Class through 'Future Generations"]
Much to do with John Mullane--a sentence from my Levittown post stands out. "He [Obama] had arrived late at Truman High and was a bit rushed." That was the crux of the story John Mullane told me less than a week later at the Clinton rally in Levittown. As is clear from Obama's remarks at the San Francisco fundraiser, he had that same Sunday, on the flight to San Francisco, been reading in the New York Times Sunday magazine Michael Sokolove's engrossing essay on returning to Levittown, where Sokolove had grown up, and finding the old working class community not particularly disposed to Obama. According to Mullane, after the town hall meeting in Levittown Obama had planned to stop by Gleason's Bar, where Sokolove had conversed with the locals. "Eight men sat around the bar, and not one of them supported Obama," Sokolove had written. Mullane said that in setting up the Gleason's stop the campaign staff had told the bar staff that Obama really wanted to talk to Steve Woods, the Gleason's habitué whose negativity had been particularly colorful. "Rapid fire, he told me the issues he cared about," Sokolove wrote. "'No. 1, gas prices. It's killing everybody. No. 2, immigrants. They should go back to Mexico. Three, guns. Everybody should have the right to bear arms. In fact, everyone should have a gun in this day and age,'" Woods had said. But, as is often the case with campaign schedules, Obama was running very late that Wednesday and never got the chance to swing by Gleason's Bar and meet Steve Woods.
"That's why Obama said what he did in San Francisco," Mullane told me. "He was thinking about Steve Woods. He'd just read about Woods in Sokolove's piece. Did you notice that Obama in San Francisco echoed both Woods and Sokolove?"
I had not noticed, but as Mullane ticked off the similarities, I agreed. Barfly Steve Woods had told Sokolove that two of his issues were immigrants and guns. In San Francisco, Obama had picked up on the words. Obama had also echoed Sokolove's succinct description of working class Levittown. "The cascade down the job ladder . . . is the sort of slide that makes a person . . . more prone to cling to the familiar," Sokolove had written. "Jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing's replaced them," Obama had said in a more loquacious rumination, reaching towards the now-famous conclusion: "It's not surprising then that they get bitter and they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment." Surely, the pejorative verb cling--the word that most offended many Americans--came from reading Michael Sokolove in the New York Times Sunday magazine.
Obama could not get Woods out of his head, Mullane suggested. "If Obama had gone to San Francisco after Levittown instead of before, and if he'd had the time to talk with Woods, he never would have said what he did."
Surely John Mullane had it. "You're right," I said. "He's like a college professor, trying to work out a problem by verbalizing a potential line of reasoning." Having known many professors, I was well aware of this tendency--one which non-academics often misunderstand. A common conclusion--a version of ridicule--is that professors often do not know their own minds or stand for much of anything. This is one reason our society at large does not have much respect for the profession. But politicians are not professors. We hold politicans to their words. And many Americans had not been pleased by Obama's comments, from wherever they sprang, about small-town Pennsylvanians.
As Mullane and I talked, I realized that this was the coda to my essay about Obama's remarks in San Francisco. This was a good story in its own right. But I knew I would not write it. I could not do it. With my life turned upside-down--the scrutinizer become the scrutinized--buffeted by suspicion and accusation, I turned away, feeling that any revisiting of the fundraiser story would be tainted by questioning of my motives in doing so. Indeed for the rest of the presidential race I carefully eschewed any use of the adjective "bitter." By that Monday evening in April, I suspected, furthermore, that if I did not write up John Mullane's conclusions, no one else would. The days when I assumed naively that someone in the mainstream media would get a particular story were long gone. In fact, John Mullane told me that he had called Michael Sokolove to point out the interesting connection, but that Sokolove had yet to follow up.
Monday, April 14, Bristol, Pennsylvania was a day I failed to commit the act of journalism. Even though my stepping forth to cover the presidential campaigns is in many ways so much more the story of my learning to be a journalist than it is of the great election of 2008, nevertheless there would be only three days between April and December when I presumed to think I was more than a pretender. Now I wonder if my failure to follow through on John Mullane's story is at heart the reason why--even thought at the time I had no full sense of its importance.
On June 30, 2008, John Mullane and I met again in Bucks County. At a McCain rally in Pipersville, Mullane reintroduced himself and again mentioned the Sokolove-Woods-Obama connection. "I wrote about it, you know," Mullane said, and I made a mental note to check out his piece, but at the time I was absorbed with the difficulties, as a citizen journalist, in transitioning to the daunting hurdles in covering a general election rather than a series of primaries. In the last days of the race, reading Michael Sokolove's "second return to Levittown" article on November 9 for the New York Times "Week in Review," and two weeks before having read Matt Bai's cover story on Obama and the working-class vote for the October 15 New York Times Sunday magazine, I began to grasp the significance of the loss for a wider audience of John Mullane's story. I found it curious that Michael Sokolove in his November article, an account of his return to Levittown on Election Day to interview voters, made no mention of Steve Woods, particularly since John Mullane had pointed out to him the Woods connection to Obama's infamous remarks.
I had already been wondering about Matt Bai, interviewing Obama aboard his campaign plane late in the race with McCain and yet not confronting Obama when Obama said, "I was actually making the reverse point [in San Francisco]." By now, the campaign's explanation for Obama's remarks was that he had misspoke. It is clear from the audiotape, however, that Obama did not say the opposite of what he meant. Since such misspeaking happens to all of us now and then, we know it when we hear it. In his October article, Bai recounts Obama telling him, "That [those remarks] was my biggest boneheaded move." Likely this was a disarming, slightly-confessional airborne moment. But Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia Democratic consultant, had called Obama's remarks "boneheaded" the Friday I posted them and quickly the adjective had become a campaign staple. Therefore, Barack Obama was not really engaging Matt Bai with a glimpse of introspection.
At this point, in the last days of the election, I looked up online John Mullane's article of April 15 for the Bucks County Courier News. In fact, Mullane wrote two articles, for like Sokolove he returned just before the election to the subject of the Levittown voter. In April, Mullane had headed straight for Gleason's Bar and talked to Steve Woods, who, as it turns out, had been fooling around a bit with Times reporter Michael Sokolove. Woods did not own a gun. He had nothing against legal immigrants; his mother was an immigrant. Steve Woods, it would seem, like many of the working class folks I met on the campaign trail, had given the big city reporter what Woods thought the guy wanted to hear. It was this kind of passive-aggression that had held me back from writing about the many racist remarks I got in Texas. In most conversations, as I have said before, I suspected that the Texan peppering candidate Obama with racial slurs was not a racist and likely had an African-American acquaintance or two. It was an act for my benefit--because isn't that just what snotty educated not-from-around-here reporters believe about folks like us no matter what we say or do?
Steve Woods is merely the human interest element in Mullane's April column. These are the key sentences: "Obama read it [Sokolove's article in the April Sunday New York Times]. When he finished, he told his staff he wanted to book a speaking engagement at the biggest high school in Levittown." Upon reading his piece at last, I emailed John Mullane. In his reply, he expands upon the assertion. "Congressman Patrick Murphy [an early Obama supporter in Pennsylvania] at the opening day of little league baseball in Levittown told me that Barack had read Sokolove's Times piece on his way to San Fran, and had expressed great frustration to his staff about the comments quoted from Gleason's Bar. Obama told his staff he wanted to visit the bar to find out why his policies weren't selling with ordinary Levittoids."
Here is the missing link in the Bittergate story--a story that, for all the verbiage, no journalist, including me, properly told. It was in many ways the biggest story of Election 2008 until the entrance of Sarah Palin upon the scene. And yet nobody got it. Time and again, pundits and voters asked, "Who is Barack Obama?" As a reporter on the campaign trail, I had re-learned a lesson from my teaching days: people do not believe something is true simply because you tell them so. Beyond all the beautifully-crafted campaign rhetoric, beyond the soaring (and therefore to many minds suspect) enthusiasm of supporters, beyond the increasing (and to many minds annoying) infatuation of journalists, the answer to the question about Obama rested in a resolve he made--an April dramatic action.
Here is a guy who, reading that a bunch of other guys do not like him and sure as hell are not going to vote for him, very much wants to meet these guys. He is determined to do so. He is intrigued. He is not only going to the bar where they hang out, but he tells his staff to book the biggest school in town right away, as soon as possible. Obama gives the order on Sunday; the Levittown event is Wednesday. But the revelation is not that his campaign had amazing organizational skills. Rather here is a man who does not hold a grudge. Where most individuals would respond to the Gleason's guys with some peevishness at the very least, Obama bears them no ill will. Politicians are drawn not first to their core supporters but to those outside the circle. It seems to be an attraction as sure and strong as a magnetic force. And, of course, that urge to garner is one way in which power ultimately corrupts. That being said--here in his response to reading about Steve Woods and his companions, in his curiosity and in his lack of animus, is Barack Hussein Obama.
Mullane's two Courier Times columns reveal, just as he and I had spoken on that April Monday night in Bristol, the impetus for Obama's unfortunate remarks in San Francisco. A thoughtful and well-spoken man did not suddenly bungle a sentence. Rather he did not know who these Pennsylvanians were and are, and he was trying to figure them out. Barack Obama did not understand them. I know them because I grew up in small towns in both the South and the Midwest. And therefore I had called Obama out on his assertion that he wanted to bridge the country's cultural divide. But why would a Barack Obama have understood these Americans? He had known only islands, growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia. He had come to the mainland to attend a small college in Pasadena, California. Then he had lived in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduating from Ivy League schools and briefly working. Choosing Chicago, partly as a way to establish an African-American identity, he had quickly become a member of that city's large and influential circle of educated African-American professionals. Except for a brief legislative campaign foray to downstate Illinois and a summer in Iowa before the caucuses, Barack Obama had not had any sustained encounters with ordinary Americans in the heartland.
In his quick rise to power, Barack Obama did not have the chance to get to know his fellow Americans. This is the truth that his words at the San Francisco fundraiser reveal. Friday evening at Ball State University in Indiana, only hours after my piece went up, Obama tried to explain his San Francisco remarks. His paraphrase, perilously close to his San Francisco linkage between religious belief and economic distress, shows how far he had to go in understanding Middle America. "I didn't say it as well as I should have. But what is absolutely true is that people don't feel like they are being listened to. And so they pray and they count on each other and they count on their families." Instead of acknowledging that people pray in many circumstances, and that some pray daily no matter the circumstances, and that for those of religious belief such belief exists a priori to any quotidian detail of human existence--instead of placing prayer in this larger context--Obama clumsily rephrased himself. Then Obama tried to place the blame elsewhere for the brouhaha. "Lately, there's been a little typical sort of political flare-up because I said something that everybody knows is true, which is that there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns . . . who are bitter." Finally, he came up with a better rephrasing. "So I said, well you know, when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on."
The next day, in a Saturday conference call with the press, small-town Pennsylvania mayors who supported Obama took up his cause. John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, said, "We are very much a community of faith . . . . We have over twenty church congregations here." As the larger campaign would do consistently going forward, Fetterman shifted the conversation to the social problems on which everyone also agreed: the loss of jobs, the needs in health care, a call for better education. "We've lost ninety percent of our population," Fetterman said, in speaking of jobs. Richard Gray, the mayor of Lancaster, contributed to this purposeful confusion of the issue by arguing semantics. People were angry, not bitter. It is not that people cling, but that they have been diverted away from the real issues. A signal, however, that the campaign thought Obama had more than a semantic problem was the fact that not the mild-mannered David Plouffe, who usually spoke on the more important calls, but the wily strategist David Axelrod directed the conversation.
"The question at hand here is what is the mood about our economy," David Axelrod said, rescuing Mayor Gray from the diversion argument in which, as Gray added "gender and sexual preference" to the mix, he began to mire rather than help the campaign. We need to keep focus on economic issues and special interests and trade deals, Axelrod said. "It means consistent leadership--telling people what you mean and sticking to it," Obama's chief strategist said, seemingly--although of course no one in the press could see--with a straight face. "Senator Clinton pounced on this first thing in the morning--predictably. She has been a longtime foe of trade deals." David Axelrod was already wielding the tactics that would work for the campaign: recast Obama's remarks; attack the opposition; push the argument to terrain far, far away from cultural issues like guns and religion.
Therefore, the damage control and spin began, at first wobbly, with Obama himself in Indiana and then with the mayors' conference call and later the Pennsylvania Sportsmen for Obama conference call (a campaign/press gem for all time). The line of defense would be exactly that which Obama first drew at Ball State and Axelrod redrew in the mayors' conference call, most importantly shifting attention from the verb "cling" to the adjective "bitter"--never the controversy--but the Obama Campaign would make it seem as if it were. And so the fallout from the San Francisco gaffe gelled into "Bittergate."
Like any political campaign, Obama's could not tell the truth. A presidential campaign can hardly say that the candidate does not know the voters yet but is making progress. Furthermore, Obama was careful never to apologize directly--at least in part likely because he is a superstitious man. There was a history of verbal gaffes in Pennsylvania political contests. In every instance where a candidate had apologized, he or she had lost.
Therefore, in that Saturday conference call with the press, David Axelrod said merely, "He [Obama] was sorry for the offense anybody took from them [his words]."
"People have interpreted it [the San Francisco remarks] in a way he didn't mean," Axelrod went on to say. Over time, this would become the campaign meme. And so on October 19 Obama said to Matt Bai, "I was actually making the reverse point," and Bai did not take him up on the assertion--at least not for The New York Times. In elaboration, Obama added, "I mean, part of what I was trying to say to that group in San Francisco was, 'You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong.'" If Obama had so exhorted, I would never have had that shock moment of distress because he was inferring the opposite. I would never have had anything to report. More importantly, even though Barack Obama may by now have come to believe his statements to Bai, these untruths, patently false upon examination, are not worthy of him. But just as I am now wedded to the observation that Obama is an elitist--a comment I made in order to keep myself from speaking the truth, a comment on a subject I find irrelevant to discourse about presidential qualifications--so Barack Obama is wedded to the assertion that he said the opposite of what he meant.
Despite the talk post-election that 2008 has been a game-changer for tactics and tools and strategy in presidential races, some basics, like message damage control and its consequences, have remained the same. Nowhere is this less-than-exciting reality more evident that in the media's failure to get the whole story of Bittergate. By the time Matt Bai wrote the Times October piece on Obama and the working-class vote, he did not want to revisit an old story in Pennsylvania. Bai followed Obama on to fresher territory: Virginia and that state's working-class voters. The media were no longer interested in Pennsylvania, because all signs pointed to Obama and not McCain winning there. The hot topic in autumn was Virginia, and the possibility that a Democrat might carry the Old Dominion for the first time in decades.
More importantly, Michael Sokolove never followed up on John Mullane's story. If the Internet has been as transformational for politics as post-election pundits would have it, then surely Sokolove would have posted an addendum to his Levittown article on "The Caucus," the New York Times online political blog, and linked back to Mullane's Courier Times column. But Sokolove did not. For all the self-congratulatory cork-popping among Internet media enthusiasts about the leveling influence of the blogosphere and the democratization of campaign coverage, for all the chatter about linkage and knowledge transfer, the real story of Bittergate never made it out of Pennsylvania--never made it out of Bucks County. In fact, Googling a string of terms like "Obama--Pennsylvania--bitter--guns--religion--San Francisco" produces hundreds of articles from known media outlets and bloggers, all linking to one another in a circle, like an enormous tiger chasing its tail. Without more information--like Mullane and Courier Times--several hours of Googling will not provide the two columns by J.D. Mullane.
In his email to me of November 17, 2008, John Mullane wrote:
"I called Mike Sokolove at his home in Bethesda, Md. and connected the dots--from Woods to Sokolove to Murphy to Obama to you. Mike was intrigued, and agreed that it was his article and his interviews at Gleason's that inspired Obama's thoughts.
I asked Mike for a quote, and he said he had to collect his thoughts. He sent me an e-mail response, which is what appeared in the April 15 column.
By the way, I went to Gleason's in October, prior to one of the Obama/McCain debates, and chatted with Steve Woods. He told me he had reconsidered and was now going to vote for Obama. I wrote a column about it, which was published Oct. 16.
Neil Samuels, vice chair of the Bucks County Democratic Organization, e-mailed me to say he liked that column. He said he had e-mailed a copy to Mike Sokolove. I will speculate that this is why Sokolove returned to Levittown on Nov. 4 to see for himself that Obama had 'closed the deal' with working class whites here. Sokolove did not mention me or the Courier Times in his second piece for the Times. But, let's face it, May, you've been among the big dogs of journalism on the campaign trail. That's the way a lot of them are. The higher up some people go on the journalism food chain, the stingier they get giving credit to others.
A couple of years ago I wrote a column poking fun at the Times. It ended up on Jim Romenesko's journalism blog at Poynter.org, which is widely read in the industry. I got an angry email from a Times editor calling me and local writers like me, 'hacks in the hinterlands.' So there you go. Why give a hack in the hinterlands of Pa. any credit? Obama and guys who write for the Times and other august publications regard themselves as a cut above most of us. If it had been Sokolove at the San Fran fundraiser--and not Mayhill Fowler--Obama's 'bitter' comments to those his donors would still be their little secret."
I like to think that Michael Sokolove would have heard the significance in Obama's San Francisco remarks and reported them. Nevertheless, some of my experiences post-Bittergate speak to the truth of what John Mullane calls the journalism food chain. In a panel discusssion about Internet impact on politics and journalism at the Personal Democracy Forum media conference in New York City in June, 2008, for example, Ben Smith of Politico made a distinction between himself, as a journalist, and me. "She's a source. She's a great source. She smuggled a tape recorder into a fundraiser and put the audio online. . . . The central thing she did was bring a tape recorder into an event and emerge with it. . . . We [journalists] love it when sources do deceitful things on our behalf." At the forum, I was struck not so much by the condescension, for I was not a smuggler but a chronicler, however small-news, of a hundred or so campaign events by June 2008. I was struck, however, by Ben Smith's misapprehension of my intent in writing about Barack Obama at the San Francisco fundraiser. "She tried so hard to protect Obama from his words," Ben Smith said. On the contrary, I was calling Barack Obama out--politely, to be sure. If he were not the same man who had once stood up and declared that Democrats need to honor a place for religious belief in the public square, then he was not the man I had thought he was. And if he did not figure out how to talk about small-town Americans to more worldly coastal folk then even if he were President he would get no chance at "change."
And so the fiefdoms of journalism failed a story. Bai was not interested in old news. Sokolove did not link. Mullane could not get out of the county. I lost my nerve.
I also lost a certain naïveté. Since I had long since done background research on Obama, I knew the extent to which he had cut-and-pasted both his biography and his journey through the world of Chicago politics. But it was not until I saw him as the consummate politician with just the right touch of pander perfectly nail the Philadelphia speech for the AFL-CIO, and until I heard him in San Francisco a few days later, that I began to regard him coolly. I admired him still, but with more skepticism and at a distance. What happened to me in the aftermath of Bittergate, moreover, made me see that if I wanted to do good reporting I had to keep that distance. Ironically, even as I was becoming detached, many journalists, now that it looked like they would not be fruitlessly investing in another John Kerry, began to allow themselves to fall for Barack Obama. A complementary narrative was unfolding, as both Obama and Clinton spoke more and more to and about the working class Americans who had once been the constituency of the now-forgotten John Edwards of North Carolina.