“No comment.” It may be the most useful phrase in a politician’s vocabulary. So why can’t President Obama bring himself to say it?
It certainly would have saved him a good deal of unwelcome controversy on the matter of the Ground Zero Mosque (and, yes, for all the media handwringing over the proper designation of the proposed “Islamic Cultural Center,” the plans do include a mosque).
Obama’s original comments, offered at Friday’s White House dinner to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, were:
“But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That 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. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”
According to an unnamed White House official, these remarks reflected the president’s personal views, though the source helpfully added that the president had not “delv[ed] deeply into the details of the plans for the site.”
Asked later to clarify his position (which seemed pretty clear to the iftar audience that warmly applauded it), the president was deftly evasive:
“My intention was to simply let people know what I thought. Which was that in this country, we treat everybody equally in accordance with the law. Regardless of race. Regardless of religion. I was not commenting on and will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right that people have that dates back to our founding.”
Well that’s clear then! The president’s “intention was to simply let people know what [he] thought,” without expressing an actual opinion.
This is the rhetorical equivalent of responding to the child’s question “Can I have a cookie?” with “Yes you can,” and then, upon seeing the child’s eyes light up, telling him . . . “But you may not . . .”
Only Obama wasn’t kidding around. When the great and good of the Muslim-American community applauded the president’s endorsement of the right to build a new mosque a stone’s throw from the former site of the World Trade Center, from whose ruins human remains are still being retrieved, he did not cut them off and explain that he was taking no position on the wisdom of doing so. No, he basked in an ovation bought, he later revealed, with counterfeit conviction.
How are the American people to reconcile the president’s two statements? Who was the more deceived, the original audience or the CNN reporter who elicited the codicil? On that point, Obama is coy.
As a result, we still do not know what the president really thinks about the matter (though we can surely guess). Taken at his word, he has affirmed only that Muslims have an abstract right to practice their religion in lower Manhattan. But that question has been definitively settled for two centuries, as any middle-schooler could tell you. So what was the import of the president’s speech?
To answer that it was simply moral preening or interest group politicking would be incomplete. It was also the familiar rhetorical excess of a man constitutionally incapable of silence, despite sound Constitutional reasons for being so.
For the last two years, the American people have been barraged by Obama’s private thoughts. No topic, howsoever unrelated to the discharge of his official duties, seems beyond his ken or comment. From the trivial – the desirability of a college football playoff, where LeBron James should ply his trade – to the quintessentially local – the “stupid” arrest of “Skip” Gates – President Obama simply cannot stay silent. The wonder is not that he saw fit to expatiate on the Manhattan zoning board’s decision, but that he waited so long.
The objection to Obama’s logorrhea is twofold. Superficially, Obama has the petit intellectual’s fascination with of the workings of his own mind. Unlike the intellectual, however, whose captive audience is limited to the seminar room, Obama has the stature to bore an entire nation. More deeply, local law enforcement and urban planning should be beyond the province of the president. On the question of the Ground Zero Mosque, the federal executive’s opinion is entitled to no more weight than that of any other citizen, and infinitely less than local opinion.
In other words, Barack Obama, the citizen, has a right to speak his mind; whether it is always wise for him to do so, is another question.