Barack Obama’s interview with Anderson Cooper on Wednesday night's "Anderson Cooper 360" on CNN was quite gentle. While Cooper did press Obama to address some of the criticisms that have erupted over his pastor Jeremiah Wright, he did not press him about Wright’s criticism of white people, or his claims of the government giving blacks AIDS, only one (truncated) 9/11 passage. Cooper used ten-foot-pole language about those people who would be alarmed by Wright’s America-bashing remarks: "Patriotism is going to be used by whoever it is you are facing." Used? Have you ever noticed how the media never asks if America is being "used" by leaders who spit on America?
Obama was spinning furiously.
I never heard anything nasty about America.
COOPER: In the past, you said you didn't think that your church was particularly controversial. Yesterday, in the speech, you said that -- you admitted that you did hear in the church remarks that could be considered controversial. Do you know specifically? Do you remember what you heard?
OBAMA: No. But let me give you examples. It didn't necessarily relate to some of the statements that have caused such controversy over the last few days. Reverend Wright, on occasion, for example, would talk about infidelity or issues having to do with family life in pretty blunt terms from the pulpit. And people would blush and blanch. So, it wasn't just related to his political views. He had a blunt style. And so there are -- no doubt that there were times where he might have said something that I didn't agree with politically. As I said before, I had never heard him say things that were as incendiary as the clips that have been shown.
Why fuss? He was retiring. Who picks on a retiree?
COOPER: Perhaps more incendiary of all, Reverend Wright's comments just days after 9/11 blaming the attacks on U.S. policy.
WRIGHT: Because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yard. America's chickens are coming home to roost. [That’s a very minimal clip.]
COOPER: His conversations regarding 9/11, which you said you were not there for...
OBAMA: That, I was not aware of.
COOPER: Right, but was made aware of, I guess, a year ago, when you were running, did you -- have you talked to him about that?
OBAMA: Well, you know, I told him that I profoundly disagreed with his positions. As I said before, he was on -- at that stage, on the verge of retirement. And you -- you know, you make decisions about these issues. And my belief was that, given that he was about to retire, that for me to make a political statement respecting my church at that time wasn't necessary.
Black Patriotism vs. White Patriotism?
COOPER: Even if the controversy dies down in the coming days, in a general election, if Obama is still in the race, it's likely we will hear more of Reverend Wright's most outrageous sermons. (on camera): In a general election, though, patriotism is going to come up. I mean, in a general election, patriotism is going to be used by whoever it is who you are facing.
OBAMA: And it would have been -- it would have been used -- it would have been used anyway.
COOPER: But they certainly have more fodder now, and they're going to use the Reverend Wright. They're going to use the comments made by your wife about the United States, about you not wearing a flag pin. Do you define patriotism differently than, say, John McCain? Do African-Americans define patriotism differently than white America?
OBAMA: I don't think so. But what I do think is that we have come to use patriotism as a cudgel in politics. And I think that, oftentimes, it's spoken about in ways that don't get to what I think is the core of patriotism, which is, you know, are we caring for each other? Are we upholding the values of our founders? Are we willing to sacrifice on behalf of future generations?
COOPER: Do you think what Reverend Wright said was unpatriotic or un-American?
OBAMA: I absolutely think that some of the language was unpatriotic. And I think that, as I said yesterday, his biggest failure was not to criticize America, because I think there's always been a tradition of patriotism through dissent. I mean, Dr. King criticized America. But I think that his failure was to think that America was static, all right? And, you know, when Dr. King criticized America, it was then with the prospect that we would be true to our best selves. And that, I think, is the essence of my patriotism, the belief that America is constantly changing and constantly improving, and we will never be perfect, but we can -- we can move in the direction of perfecting our union. And that is the reason I'm in public service.
Cooper ended this part of his taped interview by striking his own no-judgment-here tone, that "some" have suggested Obama has spinning, but he won’t acknowledge that obvious point: "Well, there's little doubt that Senator Obama's statements on the Wright affair have evolved since this controversy began. Some have interpreted that as spin. Others say it is simply due to the painful personal nature of this with the Obamas. We can only say that you should judge for yourselves."
Cooper then turned to pundits, and former Clinton flack Dee Dee Myers said patriotism is a trite and silly issue, but Obama has a problem: "I do think that we see the beginning of the pieces of what the Republicans will do, putting together all those elements, Michelle Obama's statements, the fact that he didn't wear a flag pin, the fact that he didn't -- once didn't put his hand over his heart when he was saying the pledge. All those things, on one level, seem sort of trite and almost silly as issues in a presidential election. But, when you put them all together, I think it's a troubling situation for Senator Obama."
Later, Cooper ran a second snippet of interview, and the tone grew even softer, a more typical case of Obama buddy-chat, with those annoying campaign-trail sympathy questions about how does the candidate relax:
COOPER: Do you think it's been too much of a distraction, this whole controversy?
OBAMA: Well, you know, my sense is, is that, sooner or later, it was going to come up. I wish it could have come up in a more calmer way. I think it, nevertheless, serves a purpose. And, hopefully, the American people will benefit from the debate.
COOPER (voice-over): A debate on race is a complicated one for a senator who says he never wanted to make race front and center in his campaign. Now he's working to make sure it doesn't eclipse everything else. The themes are familiar: change, Iraq, the economy. But perhaps the biggest applause he receives is when he mentions his speech on race. Afterwards, we speak with him backstage.
COOPER (on camera): Earlier today, you said you weren't sure, demographically, how your speech yesterday is going to play. What is your gut telling you? Out there, you were talking about it. It got a lot of applause. What's your gut telling you, more than 24 hours now, later?
OBAMA: My gut tells me that the people who were not going to be voting for me are not going to be voting for me after this speech and, even if they think I made some good points, there are other reasons why they're not going to vote for me. They think we should be staying in Iraq, or they think that I haven't been in Washington long enough. I think the people who are supporting me are continuing to support me.
COOPER: At the end of a day like this, what do you do? How do you decompress?
OBAMA: Well, you know, I'm really going to have a relaxing evening, going to a couple of fundraisers. And then I fall asleep. Although, I try to watch AC 360 all the time.
COOPER, sounding both embarrassed and pleased: Please. I don't need your sympathy. I don't want your pandering.
If Obama doesn't use watching Anderson Cooper as a way to "decompress," he could certainly see an Anderson Cooper interview was more of a relaxation exercise than a tense tap-dance.