By FRANK RICH
THIS campaign season has been in desperate need of its own reincarnation of Howard Beale from “Network”: a TV talking head who would get mad as hell and not take it anymore. Last weekend that prayer was answered when Lawrence O’Donnell, an excitable Democratic analyst, seized a YouTube moment while appearing on one of the Beltway’s more repellent Sunday bloviathons, “The McLaughlin Group.”
Pushed over the edge by his peers’ polite chatter about Mitt Romney’s sermon on “Faith in America,” Mr. O’Donnell branded the speech “the worst” of his lifetime. Then he went on a rampage about Mr. Romney’s Mormon religion, shouting (among other things) that until 1978 it was “an officially racist faith.”
That claim just happens to be true. As the jaws of his scandalized co-stars dropped around him, Mr. O’Donnell then raised the rude question that almost no one in Washington asks aloud: Why didn’t Mr. Romney publicly renounce his church’s discriminatory practices before they were revoked? As the scion of one of America’s most prominent Mormon families, he might have made a difference. It’s not as if he was a toddler. By 1978 — the same year his contemporary, Bill Clinton, was elected governor in Arkansas — Mr. Romney had entered his 30s.
The answer is simple. Mr. Romney didn’t fight his church’s institutionalized apartheid, whatever his private misgivings, because that’s his character. Though he is trying to sell himself as a leader, he is actually a follower and a panderer, as confirmed by his flip-flops on nearly every issue.
Concern for minorities isn’t a high priority either. The Christian Science Monitor and others have published reports that Mr. Romney has said he wouldn’t include a Muslim in his cabinet. (He denies it.) In “Faith in America,” he exempted Americans who don’t practice a religion from “freedom” and warned ominously of shadowy, unidentified cabalists “intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism.” Perhaps today, in his scheduled turn on “Meet the Press,” he will inveigh against a new war on Christmas being plotted by an axis of evil composed of Muslims, secularists and illegal immigrants.
As Mr. O’Donnell said in his tirade, it’s incredible that Mr. Romney’s prejudices get a free pass from so many commentators. “Faith in America” was hyped in advance as one of the year’s “big, emotional campaign moments” by Mark Halperin of Time. In its wake, the dean of Beltway opinion, David Broder of The Washington Post, praised Mr. Romney for possessing values “exactly those I would hope a leader would have.”
But Washington is nothing if not consistent in misreading this election. Even as pundits overstated the significance of “Faith in America,” so they misunderstood and trivialized the other faith-based political show unfolding this holiday season, “Oprahpalooza.” And with the same faulty logic.
Beltway hands thought they knew how to frame the Romney speech because they assumed (incorrectly) that it would build on the historical precedent set by J.F.K. When they analyzed the three-state Oprah-Obama tour, they again reached for historical precedent and were bamboozled once more — this time because there really was no precedent.
Most could only see Oprah Winfrey’s contribution to Barack Obama’s campaign as just another celebrity endorsement, however high-powered. The Boss, we kept being reminded, couldn’t elect John Kerry. Selling presidents is not the same as pushing “Anna Karenina.” In a typical instance of tone-deafness from the Clinton camp, its national co-chairman, the former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, said of Oprah, “I’m not sure who watches her.”
Wanna bet he knows now? Even before Oprah drew throngs in Iowa, the Des Moines Register poll showed Mr. Obama leading Hillary Clinton among women for the first time (31 to 26 percent) in late November. Now his surge is spreading. In New Hampshire, the Rasmussen poll after Oprah’s visit found that the Clinton lead among women had fallen from 14 to 4 percent in just two weeks. In South Carolina, where some once thought Mr. Obama was not “black enough” to peel away loyal African-American voters from the Clintons, he’s ahead by double digits among blacks in four polls. (A month ago they were even among African-Americans in that state.) Over all, the Obama-Clinton race in all three states has now become too close to call.
Oprah is indeed a megacelebrity. At a time when evening news anchors no longer have the reach of Walter Cronkite — and when Letterman, Leno, Conan, Stewart and Colbert are in strike-mandated reruns — she rules in the cultural marketplace more powerfully than ever. But the New York Times/CBS News poll probably was right when it found that only 1 percent of voters say they will vote as Oprah asks them to. Her audience isn’t a pack of Stepford wives, and the message of the events she shared with Mr. Obama is not that her fame translates directly into support for her candidate.
What the communal fervor in these three very different states showed instead was that Oprah doesn’t have to ask for these votes. Many were already in the bag. Mr. Obama was drawing huge crowds before she bumped them up further. For all their eagerness to see a media star (and star candidate), many in attendance also came to party. They were celebrating and ratifying a movement that Mr. Obama has been building for months.
This movement has its own religious tone. References to faith abound in Mr. Obama’s writings and speeches, as they do in Oprah’s language on her TV show and at his rallies. Five years ago, Christianity Today, the evangelical journal founded by Billy Graham, approvingly described Oprah as “an icon of church-free spirituality” whose convictions “cannot simply be dismissed as superficial civil religion or so much New Age psychobabble.”
“Church free” is the key. This country has had its fill of often hypocritical family-values politicians dictating what is and is not acceptable religious and moral practice. Instead of handing down tablets of what constitutes faith in America, Romney-style, the Oprah-Obama movement practices an American form of ecumenicalism. It preaches a bit of heaven on earth in the form of a unified, live-and-let-live democracy that is greater than the sum of its countless disparate denominations. The pitch — or, to those who are not fans, the shtick — may be corny. “The audacity of hope” is corny too. But corn is preferable to holier-than-thou, and not just in Iowa.
Race is certainly a part of the groundswell, but not in a malevolent way. When I wrote here two weeks ago that racism is the dog that hasn’t barked in this campaign, some readers wrote in to say that only a fool would believe that white Americans would ever elect an African-American president, no matter what polls indicate. We’ll find out soon enough. If that’s the case, Mr. Obama can’t win in Iowa, where the population is roughly 95 percent white, or in New Hampshire, which is 96 percent white.
I’d argue instead that any sizable racist anti-Obama vote will be concentrated in states that no Democrat would carry in the general election. Otherwise, race may be either a neutral or positive factor for the Obama campaign. Check out the composition of Oprah’s television flock, which, like all daytime audiences, is largely female. Her viewers are overwhelmingly white (some 80 percent), blue collar (nearly half with incomes under $40,000) and older (50-plus). This is hardly the chardonnay-sipping, NPR-addicted, bicoastal hipster crowd that many assume to be Mr. Obama’s largest white constituency. They share the profile of Clinton Democrats — and of some Republicans too.
The inclusiveness preached by Obama-Oprah is practiced by the other Democrats in the presidential race, Mrs. Clinton most certainly included. Is Mr. Obama gaining votes over rivals with often interchangeable views because some white voters feel better about themselves if they vote for an African-American? Or is it because Mrs. Clinton’s shrill campaign continues to cast her as Nixon to Mr. Obama’s Kennedy? Even after she apologized to Mr. Obama for a top adviser’s “unauthorized” invocation of Mr. Obama’s long-admitted drug use as a young man, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, was apparently authorized to go on “Hardball” to sleazily insinuate the word “cocaine” into prime time again. Somewhere Tricky Dick is laughing.
But it just may be possible that the single biggest boost to the Obama campaign is not white liberal self-congratulation or the Clinton camp’s self-immolation, but the collective nastiness of the Republican field. Just when you think the tone can’t get any uglier, it does. Last week Mike Huckabee, who only recently stood out for his kind words about illegal immigrants, accepted an endorsement from a founder of the Minutemen, whose approach to stopping the “illegal alien invasion” has been embraced by white supremacists and who have been condemned as “vigilantes” by President Bush.
For those Americans looking for the most unambiguous way to repudiate politicians who are trying to divide the country by faith, ethnicity, sexuality and race, Mr. Obama is nothing if not the most direct shot. After hearing someone like Mitt Romney preach his narrow, exclusionist idea of “Faith in America,” some Americans may simply see a vote for Mr. Obama as a vote for faith in America itself.