Barack Obama has proven a difficult target to hit—just ask Hillary Clinton. Opposition researchers, though, hope that they’ve found a weapon to wound Obama in his own voice as recorded for the Grammy Award-winning audio version of his 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”
While candidates often have their own words turned against them in attack ads, it’s one thing to see past statements in bloc text and something else entirely to hear the same words in the office-seeker’s own voice.
“I think the audio version makes a much more immediate impact” than the print version of his memoir, said conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt, who’s already played audio excerpts from the book on his syndicated radio show. “It turns out to be very jarring to many ears to hear Obama talking about his youthful adventures, his attitudes on race.”
In “Dreams from My Father,” Obama tells the story of his multi-racial background, childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, college career in Los Angeles and New York, and years as a community organizer in Chicago, before entering Harvard Law School in 1988. The abridged audio version was released in May 2005 after Obama entered the Senate and was already being mentioned as a presidential candidate. It won the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
”Dreams from My Father” has been widely acclaimed as an introspective and insightful read far from the anodyne campaign-oriented books politicians often produce, traits that Obama’s critics believe make it ideal for use against the candidate.
In a passage describing his high school experience in Hawaii, for example, Obama explains the allure of drugs: “I kept playing basketball, attended classes sparingly, drank beer heavily, and tried drugs enthusiastically… If the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down,” Obama intones, “it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly.”
While many voters already know that Obama used drugs as a young man, they haven’t heard the senator describe his drug use in those terms, or in his own voice. Nor have they heard him extensively quoting from the first sermon he heard from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., his longtime clergyman who he renounced during the primary, saying that “The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago."
In one excerpt from the audio book that Hewitt played on his show in March, Obama alters his voice to mimic Wright’s, and repeats passages from a sermon decrying a society “where white folks’ greed runs a world in need.” Later Obama says of Wright’s preaching, “I found the tears running down my cheeks.”
Hewitt said that on his radio show he’s been careful to play book clips in their entirety, not just in snippets that can give the wrong impression. It’s possible that the audio clips could be used in political ads, but that’s not his intention, he said.
The snippets, though, seem tailor-made for attack ads against Obama, who at first responded to press coverage of Wright’s inflammatory remarks by claiming that “The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation.”
But in the audio book, Obama recreates the very first sermon he heard Wright deliver – “The Audacity of Hope,” a phrase Obama has since used frequently, including as the title of his second book – which includes several remarks similar to those that sparked the controversy.
Obama describes the sermon as “a meditation on a fallen world. … Rev. Wright spoke of Sharpsville and Hiroshima, the callousness of policy makers in the WhiteHouse and in the State House.”
Other potentially troublesome clips feature Obama swearing, and quoting others using racial slurs.
Obama campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro denied that the senator’s audio book passages could hurt his candidacy:
“It will be no surprise if the right wing once again resorts to the politics of distraction, because they know that the majority of Americans trust Barack Obama to end the war in Iraq, provide affordable access to universal health care and find real solutions to lowering gas prices, the issues that matter most to them.”
Obama himself seemed to grasp the potential political implications of his words when he voiced the book. In the preface to the audio version, which is based on the 2004 re-release of the book he seems resigned to his words being used against him:
“I cannot honestly say that the voice in this book is not mine—that I would tell the story much differently today than I did ten years ago,” he says, “even if certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically, the grist for political commentary and opposition research.”
“My copy of his book is dog eared and covered with yellow marker,” said Floyd Brown, a longtime conservative activist who Obama recently cited by name as a prototypical political mudslinger, who added that the audio should be even more effective in bashing Obama.
“I expect to use his words a lot in the ads that I do,” Brown said. “And I would highly encourage other independent efforts—or the [McCain] campaign itself—to do the same thing.”
“Most people will only start focusing on this race after Labor Day. Most Americans don’t give a rip yet,” said Brown, who is perhaps best know as a creator of the independent expenditure Willie Horton ad that helped elect George H.W. Bush in 1988. “Most haven’t looked at the issues. They don’t know Barack Obama. It’s all about delivering messages to those people during that moment in time when they’re listening.”
Brown was coy about what specific audio quotes from the book would be used, but allowed, “What we’re doing now is test marketing messages.”
Some Republicans, though, remain skeptical. One consultant with experience in the Bush-Cheney 2004 re-election campaign warned that it “would be dramatically stupid” to use the audio in attack ads. “This country has elected two straight presidents who have tacitly or overtly admitted drug use. I don’t think it’s going to work.”
Additional reporting by Alexander Burns.
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