Last night, as the results from the Iowa caucuses began to look conclusive, MSNBC’s co-anchor Chris Matthews marveled at the significance of the moment in American history: the people of Iowa (what many in the media have taken to calling “lily-white Iowa”) had chosen “Barack Hussein Obama” as their Democratic candidate. On Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough, Matthews returned to his musing of last night: “I tell you, it’s going to be a headline all over the world: ‘Barack Hussein Obama wins first presidential test in America.’” This is hardly the first time that the cable news channels have expressed fascination with Obama’s name—his full name.
In December 2006, CNN itself aired an entire report on the candidate’s troubling appellation—a forename that rhymes with Iraq, a middle name of Hussein, and a surname a mere consonant away from Osama. Reporters were filmed asking people on the street whether they thought Obama was a threat to Americans, and almost all those shown said yes. We need to strengthen our intelligence, many replied. They sincerely hoped we would find him soon. But on January 1, 2007, just days after the joking report, CNN fell victim to its own phonetic association when it aired a photo of Osama bin Laden below the question, “Where’s Obama?”
Okay, so it’s an easy mix-up. Surely, it was an accident, and more than likely some intern was flogged inside his CNN regulation cubicle that day. However, the occurrence is too frequent to be completely dismissed, because such flubs and gaffes remind us of how far Obama is from our traditional image of the American president. Even Chris Matthews, in seeking to spin this as a great story of American uplift, kept emphasizing Obama’s “Kenyan father,” and saying, “I just think it’s absolutely—with an Islamic background in his family—is so dramatic.” But one has to wonder, just what is Obama’s “Islamic background”? In a piece for Time, Obama himself wrote that “although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.”
- Obama prepares to speak before a packed gallery in the Texas House of Representatives at the 2006 Texas Book Festival in Austin. (Matt Wright/CC)
Worse still, Matthews’s exuberance also seems only to confirm certain spurious bits of Obama’s biography. Most notably, the conservative magazine Insight, owned by the Washington Times, last winter claimed that Obama had attended a madrassa while living in Indonesia as a child. The report sparked a flood of rumors claiming that the candidate was a closet Muslim, reported nowhere more brazenly than on Fox News. Steve Doocy, host of Fox & Friends, reminded viewers that madrassas are “financed by Saudis” and “teach this Wahhabism which pretty much hates us.” Later in the show, a caller suggested that “maybe [Obama] doesn’t consider terrorists the enemy,” to which anchor Brian Kilmeade responded, “Well, we’ll see about that.”
Through a little simple legwork, CNN debunked the story, revealing that the school was not religiously affiliated—and welcomed students of multiple faiths. Still, when the New York Post ran an item about the debunking, the headline read: “‘Osama’ Mud Flies at Obama.” The Post defended the headline, though the article contained no reference to Bin Laden. But not a month later, they ran another article reporting that Bill Clinton had secured an endorsement for wife Hillary from South Carolina State Senator Robert Ford, who had been courted by Barack Obama. The headline read: “Bill Snares Osama Guy.” Osama mud, indeed. The Post ran a correction and the Clinton campaign remained mum. In December 2007 though, an Iowa woman volunteering for the Clinton campaign forwarded an email renewing the claim about Obama’s early education—while using his full name for emphasis. “Barack Hussein Obama,” the email began, “has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background.”
But no one typifies the effect—or effectiveness—of the confusion better than Mitt Romney. While defending the war on terror at the Greenwood South Carolina Chamber of Commerce in October 2007, Romney said, “Actually, just look at what Osam—uh—Barack Obama, said just yesterday.” Romney paused before continuing. “Barack Obama calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. That is the battlefield. That is the central place, he said. Come join us under one banner.” Romney was referring to a recently released audiotape of Bin Laden, but the press was confused enough to contact Obama’s campaign and scramble for copies of his mustering appeal to jihad. He “simply misspoke,” a Romney spokesman said afterwards. “It was just a brief mix-up.”
Perhaps, but let’s not forget a photo taken in July of Romney grinning next to a supporter with a poster reading: “No to Obama, Osama, and Chelsea’s Mama.” This succinct little catch-phrase manages to convey a much more complicated argument. Something like: Democrats are so soft on terror they’re practically terrorists themselves. Romney responded to criticism of the photograph unapologetically. “You know what?” he said. “Lighten up slightly. There are lots of jokes out there.”
This, in itself, is the most ingenious strategy. By joking about the already-existing association between Obama and Osama, the joker deftly buttresses the association without taking the blame for it himself. This is what Rush Limbaugh did in 2005. At an earlier press conference, Ted Kennedy had called Obama, “Osama Bin La—uh … Osama, Obama, uh … Obama, what’s his?” (Sigh.) Limbaugh seized on the opportunity on his radio show, seven times referring to Obama as “Osama Obama.” And it is what Roger Ailes, the president of Fox News, did in March 2007 while accepting the First Amendment Leadership Award. He performed a short stand-up routine which included the gag: “It is true that Barack Obama is on the move. I don’t know if it’s true that President Bush called Musharraf and said, ‘Why can’t we catch this guy?’” The crowd laughed—Ailes no longer had to make the connection explicit. The genius of the joke is that it seems to poke fun at the president, even as it cements an unspoken, oh-we’re-only-kidding link between a Democratic hopeful and the most wanted man in the world.
The extent to which John Edwards or Hillary Clinton seek to remind voters of this spurious connection will be seen in the coming days, as the race in New Hampshire heats up. But the real test, if Obama makes it that far, will be the run-up to the general election, when many voters begin paying close attention to specific candidates for the first time. After months of listening to the entire field of candidates campaign, the voters of lily-white Iowa went for a candidate named Barack Hussein Obama; will the rest of the country?