News & Views from 465 California Street

Barack Obama’s Dilemma

Clint Reilly

In 1978 I had the pleasure of riding around in a car for a day with then House Speaker Tip O’Neill, soon-to-be Congressman Bob Matsui and then Sacramento Union Political Writer Dan Walters. O’Neill was campaigning for Matsui, the Democratic Congressional nominee. A large man with a rumbling voice, O’Neill exuded a love for the game of politics that was plain in the constant flow of stories about colleagues, constituents, and Presidents. He could not have been more different than Bob Matsui. Matsui was a reserved Japanese American City Councilman and attorney who had grown up with his parents in World War II internment camps. His mother and father had lost their family business and their family home. I developed a 60-second television commercial detailing Matsui’s return to Sacramento as a young boy and his inspirational rise from a World War II internment camp to successful young lawyer and community leader — the quintessential “American Success Story.” The theme of Matsui’s campaign appropriately was “Citizen Matsui.” He scored a dramatic upset against two formidable Democratic opponents in a tough June primary election.

After Speaker O’Neill’s visit, I produced a commercial with O’Neill endorsing Matsui, which ran on Sacramento television a few weeks before the November general election. It seemed to be an important coup — the Speaker of the House endorsing a 36-year old Sacramento attorney with little national or international experience for Congress. In fact, O’Neill’s endorsement tied Matsui to the Democratic establishment in Washington, contradicting Matsui’s oft-repeated message that “The old politics is failing, America needs new statesmanship.” Matsui won the election and went on to a distinguished 25-year career in Congress. But his large lead began to shrink as soon as we put the O’Neill commercial on television. A subsequent endorsement by incumbent President Jimmy Carter also backfired for the same reason. Instead of the “good housekeeping seal of approval” from respected party gray beards, the trumpeted support indicated to jaded Sacramento voters that Matsui was already consorting with the very beltway leaders he had promised to confront.

In 2007, Presidential candidate Barack Obama reminds me of the young Bob Matsui in 1978. Obama sums up the “American Promise.” A minority candidate like Matsui, he has used talent, brains, hard work and charisma to rise to the summit of political success. Obama’s achievement ratifies the myth that our nation is a land of unlimited opportunity. Unlike almost all Black candidates competing on the national stage who are automatically rejected by many White voters, his race only serves to ratify his unique message. I am reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message.” In Obama’s case, he is the perfect medium for a message that disparages not just failed policies but failed politics.

In Detroit, global competition forced automakers to reluctantly conclude that it was not a single car or a brand of cars that needed to be overhauled but the system for building and marketing automobiles. The entire American car industry needed to be turned upside down. In Washington, it is not just individual office holders or parties or programs that must be changed. Barack Obama’s magnetic message strikes a responsive chord with citizens who are repulsed by the growing gap between the high promise of democracy and the mediocre accomplishments of our democratic government.

But Barack Obama, like Bob Matsui, faces a day of reckoning. If he becomes the Democratic nominee, Obama will have to embrace the very Washington establishment he campaigned against to mobilize the resources needed to win a general election. Just as the endorsements of Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Jimmy Carter actually hurt Bob Matsui, the bear hug of today’s beltway bigwigs will contradict Obama’s message.

That’s only one reason why I am supporting Hillary Clinton for President.

Comments (1)

  • Thanks for the great article, it is a known fact that Obama is all words, tied up into a nice package and it won’t be known what is in that package until he would take the office of president, and we CANNOT take that chance, it is too important for Hillary to undo some of the tragic turnarounds of Bush Administration. She definitely knows what to do and how to do it. She just needs the chance, one thing we do know, is that she is not dishonest. She has no other agenda than to serve the citizens of this once great country.

    Posted by: Grayce Ezarik | March 28th, 2008 at 12:27 pm

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