THE PLANK AUGUST 17, 2008
contributing editor Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi
Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, gives his take on Obama and McCain's appearance at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church yesterday:
you watched the Best Political Team on Television discuss the joint appearance
of Senators Obama and McCain Saturday night at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church,
you heard a lot of chatter about which candidate performed better. In their
usual manner, however, the mainstream media--or, as leftwing bloggers calls it,
the Village--missed the point. The real debate was not between the candidates
but between Rick Warren and the Best Political Team on Television.
Warren won, and in a
landslide. His questions were at times inane, but nowhere near as inane as the
campaign has been. Paris Hilton and Britney Spears made no appearance. Barack
Obama was not asked to defend himself against the idea that he is a rootless
celebrity. Speaking to one preacher, he was never asked to comment on his
former preacher. This was politics before Karl Rove. The only question is
whether it will also be politics after Karl Rove.
McCain was given fair and balanced treatment as well. If he wanted to emphasize
foreign policy, Warren
let him do so. If he was more comfortable repeating stories he has told many
times before, that was OK with the pastor. My guess--and it is only a guess--is
that Rick Warren does not know much about policies in which he is not all that
interested. But neither does McCain. Like Obama, he was allowed to project the
kind of person he is.
this was contrary, not to the media narrative of the campaign, but to the
media's narrative of itself. We ask tough questions, television journalists convince
themselves, and our job--remember Tim Russert--is to contrast what candidates
say with what they said. But there is not, and never has been, anything tough
about it. Candidates learn how to get their talking points across, no matter
what the question. By the time the debates roll around, everything has been
said, which means that everything is repeated.
saw two men, not two candidates, speaking with Rick Warren. One was
conversational, intelligent, and responsive. He seemed to listen to the
questions, to think about them, and to answer them. I liked his performance,
but, then again, I am a liberal and a Democrat. What was most interesting to
me, though, was that Obama never pretended to be anything other than what he
is. If you want a president who knows the details of policy on the one hand and
thinks the world is complicated on the other, you would vote for this guy.
also took the opportunity Warren
offered to be himself. He was witty, energetic, and quick. He was far too quick
for my tastes--I would not be happy with a president so convinced that his job
was to rid the world of evil--but I was left in no doubt about how he views the
world. Over the course of his career, there have been many John McCains: the
conservative, the maverick, the conservative redux. But only one John McCain is
about to receive the Republican Party's nomination for president in 2008, and
that one got to show his stuff.
Rick Warren's job was to elevate the tone of the campaign, he succeeded. Any
person who had not been paying too much attention to the ads and the spin was
offered a real choice about the nature of leadership. Is this the right moment
for a leader who will try to elevate us by speaking to our ideals? Or is
elevation really another term for elitism, the times demanding someone who will
respond to our fears? We have had choices such as this in the past, but we were
not all that aware of what we were choosing: In the fateful 2000 campaign, for
example, such a choice was there, but the mainstream media scoffed at Al Gore's
thoughtful side and accepted George Bush's word that our foreign policy was
wins the 2008 presidential election, it will not be like that one in 2000. This
time, we will not be able to pretend afterwards that we did not know what the
stakes were. For that we have Rick Warren, and not CNN or Fox, to thank.
Click here for Noam Scheiber's case that Obama emerged the victor from the event. Click here for Wolfe's take on the broader significance of Obama and MccCain's appearance at Saddleback Church and Warren's potentially positive influence on religion and politics. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)