In the wee hours of Saturday morning, an E-mail arrived from an old friend. “Can you believe the arrogance of this guy?” it said. He did not have to explain to whom he was referring.
Hours earlier, the president of the United States had thrown kerosene on what had been a simmering, but still localized, fire. Before a White House commemoration of Ramadan, President Obama was understood by all who heard him to have endorsed the Cordoba House’s plan to erect a 15-story mosque-cultural center two blocks away from ground zero, the heart of the 9/11 attacks. Unlike his unscripted response to a question at a press conference a year earlier, when Obama appeared to weigh in on one side of another heated controversy (that which pitted an African-American professor against an Irish-American police officer), Obama spoke from a prepared text. The president, who prides himself in his communicative skills and his staff, had ample time to craft his remarks.
The “arrogance” to which my friend referred was more apparent in the president’s intonation and in the sophistry on which he based his argument, than in what he actually said. “But let me be clear,” the president said, “as a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else…” Obama raised his voice significantly when he got to the word “else.” He made no effort to disguise his contempt for those who would dared disagree with him--as if any or most critics of the proposal believed that Muslims (or “anyone else”) did not have a right to practice their religion. Therein lay the sophistry. As has become his wont, Obama had set up a straw man that he could knock, while appearing to cast himself on the side of the angels.
Debra Burlingame, sister of the pilot who perished in American Airlines flight 77 nearly nine years ago, got to the core of what my friend saw as “arrogance.” In a television interview, she suggested that the president saw a chance to broadcast to the Muslim world that he believed the nation that had elected him president and in whose name he spoke was comprised of a bunch of bigots. That narrative is certainly consistent with all the apologies Obama has delivered to Muslims worldwide for alleged offenses the West had shown them.
The made "clear"--a word he uses with greater regularity than has any president since Nixon ("I want to make one thing perfectly clear")--that he sees the "bully pulpit" of his office more as an opportunity to lecture (usually about his own good intentions) than as a means of persuasion. His concept of “dialogue” extends no further than monologue, through which an enlightened president, who considers himself smarter than the ordinary person, imparts the truth of the day.
The president’s suggestion that freedom of religion includes “the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances,” struck many of his supporters as far-fetched, if not even extreme. After weeks of having his staff criticize conservatives who opposed the mosque-community center for inserting themselves into a local zoning matter, the president had done precisely that--and on steroids.
And then in response to criticism that poured in from nervous Democratic candidates and donors, Obama, who so often exudes the air of being “above” political concerns, did what any two-bit political hack does when caught in a whirlwind. He dissembled. Again showing contempt for the intelligence of his listeners, he had the gumption to say that he "had not and will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there." Really? When this proved too much for elements within his progressive “base,” a White House spokesman put out the word that saw the need to reassure the country that the president had not changed his position. (Are we being “clear”?)
A president who truly cared about “wisdom”--or even common-sense--more than in maintaining his bona fides within the ranks of politically correct would have used the White House event to promote understanding among those who support and oppose building the construction of the mosque-community center on the selected site. Such a president would have given the project’s promoters and opponents a chance to discuss their concerns and actually exchange ideas. That would have entailed extensive outreach on the part of his staff and a major investment of presidential listening.
Instead, Obama opted for well-scripted cheap shot. Having transformed what had been largely a local controversy into a national one, the time may be at hand to resolve it on the national level. Ground zero, we are repeated told, is “hallowed ground.” That is a term we use to describe other places where Americans were slain in battle--places like Gettysburg and Pearl Harbor. Congress recognized the significance of those other sites when it brought them and their surrounding environs under federal jurisdiction. It should do so again now.