On Feb. 13, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani talked for almost half an hour to the Iranian American Community of Arizona. The Arizona Republic dispatched a reporter to interview Giuliani before the speech; the mayor insisted that "it's only the president who refuses to say" that Islamic radicalism is behind terror attacks. Giuliani's speech itself did not make the newspaper.
Yet that speech was a red band trailer for Giuliani's remarks in New York this week—the unannounced, by now much-discussed rant at an event put on by a new Republican economic pressure group, the one in which he said "I do not believe that the president loves America." The preview, Giuliani's Phoenix speech, was pure vitriol, delivered with some hoarseness and some sentences that never made the finish line as new, harsher sentences tumbled forth. In it, he said that Iranian negotiators were "looking into weak eyes" when they looked at the president—a sharp difference from what it was like to look at Ronald Reagan, whose toughness, according to Giuliani, was responsible for the way Iran dealt with American hostages: "The moment he put his hand on the Bible, they released them." (This was not really how or why the hostage releases happened.)
"What is wrong with him?" asked Giuliani of Obama. "Is there no passion for the lives of these innocent people? Is there no caring for them?" He continued:
When I was mayor of New York, if someone threatened to destroy New York City, I would go anywhere, anyplace, anytime, and I wouldn't give a damn what the president of the United States thought, to defend my country. That is a patriot! That is a man who loves his people! That is a man who protects his people! That's a man who fights for his people, unlike our president!
Giuliani's audience cheered and cheered at the idea that Obama was forfeiting a war on terror. Giuliani was offered water; he demurred and said "a little scotch wouldn't be bad." He was on a roll.
And he's been on a roll. His remarks in New York, at the 21 Club, a former speakeasy in midtown, were in sync with what Giuliani had been saying for years, at campaign rallies and on Fox News. I was in the crowd at an Ohio rally for Mitt Romney in November 2012 when Giuliani went hoarse with anger about how the president had let Americans die in Benghazi. He asked then, "You think if we'd elected John McCain as president, those people wouldn't have had the full resources of the United States of America trying to save them?"
For all the similarities with his previous discourses, the New York speech was different in two major ways. One: Giuliani mused about how the president "wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country." Two: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was in the audience. Walker did not react, and spent two days rebuffing requests for reaction or comment. "In this failure he displayed a cowardice unworthy of a man who would be president," insisted Dana Milbank, in a Washington Post column that rose to the top of the week's Rudy hot-take list.
The Walker cameo clearly turned this into a news-swallowing story, even if some reporters resisted it. "I missed the part where Rudy Giuliani was still mayor of NY or influential political figure," tweeted Amy Walter, the national editor of the Cook Political Report. I spent the week in Kentucky and South Carolina, talking to party activists, congressmen, and people who live productive lives; I heard nobody react to this news tidbit, either negatively or positively.
Was it news? Well, sure! But review the timing: the week before the Giuliani hubbub, the White House introduced a version of an authorization of military force against ISIS. Next week, Congress is looking at a deadline on a must-pass Homeland Security funding bill, with Republicans expected to include riders that will prompt a presidential veto. If you thought it was strange to spend the week in between discussing whether a former New York Mayor was disrespectful to the president, you're not alone.
So, why'd it happen?
The Democrats egged it on. Giuliani made his remarks right before a Democratic National Committee meeting, chaired by the embattled Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The Florida congresswoman was locked in an embarrassing battle with Democratic donor John Morgan, a marijuana decriminalization supporter who was cooperating with stories about "DWS" offering to change her stance on the issue. On Thursday, with cameras trained on her, the party chair condemned Giuliani and called on Republicans to "stop this nonsense." Not long after, a reporter asked White House spokesman Eric Schultz if the president had a reaction to Giuliani. "Mr. Giuliani test-drove this line of attack during his fleeting 2007 run for the presidency," Schultz snarked.
Suddenly, though the calendar reads February 2015, Democrats were in October 2016 gaffe-police mode. Conservatives rolled their eyes at socket-singeing speed. "Raise your hand if you think 'but they won't say whether Obama loves America" could really put Hillary over the top in Nov 16," joked Commentary editor-in-chief John Podhoretz. The Washington Free Beacon compared the media coverage of Giuliani to the far skimpier coverage of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation's money to foreign donors. The media seemed to be covering the story Democrats wanted them to cover. There was more at work, though.
The media was lecturing from inside a bubble. All Thursday, the offices of potential Republican candidates were asked to react to Giuliani. "The gist of what Mayor Giuliani said—that the president has shown himself to be completely unable to speak the truth about the nature of the threats from these ISIS terrorists—is true," said Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Senator Ted Cruz declined to comment. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said through a spokesperson that he did not "question President Obama's motives."
Why this? Why now? After all, it wasn't a new tone for Giuliani, and Phoenix wasn't exactly a one-stoplight hamlet with no video cameras.
Well: Just as a heavy snowstorm in New York gets more attention than a civilization-crippling snow storm in Boston, a gaffe in the media capital of the world matters more than a gaffe in the hinterlands. New York's media is full of excellent reporters who grew up or made their careers under Giuliani, and could cover the latest remarks as Chapter One Million in a Greek drama. (The best example of this probably came from Wayne Barrett, an investigative reporter who covered the mayor at his nadirs and his post-9/11 apex, and who reacted to the remarks with a column that rehashed the mayor's failed marriages and his father's criminal connections. It has been shared more than 20,000 times on Facebook.)
The media seemed to be making up rules as it went along. In 2008, Barack Obama said it was "unpatriotic" for George W. Bush to add trillions to the national debt. In 2004, Howard Dean warned Democratic voters that there was "a group of people around the President whose main allegiance is to each other and their ideology rather than to the United States."
And then there was Giuliani. When he spoke, we learned that it was off-limits for someone to question an opponent's patriotism. The platonic ideal of this sentiment came from Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart:
[Rick] Perry, Giuliani, D’Souza and countless others are part of a larger problem in American political discourse: The constant questioning of whether Obama not only loves this country, but also whether he would do everything in his power to protect it. Those engaging in this destructive discussion are the ones who “don’t love America.”
In two sentences, it's, one, a problem to question the president's patriotism, and, two, a responsibility to question the patriotism of people who say this about Obama. There is no escape from this logic hole. Actually, it's shaped like the hole conservatives dive into when they claim that Obama revealed his true radicalism when he said that his election would "fundamentally transform America," as if every politician doesn't run on transforming his state or country or city, and as if—to pick a name entirely at random—Walker's popularity with Republicans surged when he started transforming decades of labor rights and entitlement spending norms in Wisconsin.
Raaaacism. No, you have not caught a typo; you will collect no prize. On the right, it's generally understood that most charges of "racism" are political point-scoring that always, always, zings their team while the Democrats go un-zinged. Thus, "raaaacism," as if the word is being bellowed at you before a lawyer files suit. Columnist Michelle Malkin has been calling out "RAAAACISM" for years; "raaaacism" occurs whenever a progressive reads an attack on the president as an attack on his race.
Anyone who covers conservative politics had a shudder of déjà vu when Giuliani held forth about Obama's upbringing. In 2010, the conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza published an essay and then book in which the "roots of Obama's rage" were identified as his friendship with Communist poet Frank Marshall Davis, and his quest to identify with his Kenya-born father. D'Souza has been on quite a journey since then—a downward spiral of his reputation and personal life, twinned with two successful books and documentaries that brand Obama as alien, and any criticism of America as an attempt to undermine the very fiber of the country.
Context matters. When D'Souza or Giuliani accuse the president of letting criticism of America into his heart, they're out of bounds. But Obama, who was mostly raised by his mother's white parents, has written about the anti-colonial, anti-imperial, social democratic theories he heard growing up. In Dreams from My Father, Obama remembers what the poet Davis said to him, after a night of whiskey drinking, about his white grandfather:
He can't know me, not the way I know him. Maybe some of these Hawaiians can, or the Indians on the reservation. They've seen their fathers humiliated. Their mothers desecrated. But your grandfather will never know what that feels like.
It's normal for biographers or profile writers to look for insight in the upbringings of politicians. But the approach of D'Souza et al. have made the press treat this stuff as beyond the pale.1 When Giuliani talked to Maggie Haberman, trying to clean up his remarks, he insisted that he was talking not about Obama's race but his influences. "Some people thought it was racist—I thought that was a joke, since he was brought up by a white mother, a white grandfather, went to white schools, and most of this he learned from white people," said Giuliani.
The next day, Representative Steve Cohen—a white, Jewish Democrat who wins landslide elections in a mostly-black Memphis, Tennessee district—tweeted what he thought of that.
This is a deep source of conservative frustration. They want to accuse Obama of radicalism the way that they once accused undergraduate Saul Alinsky-scholar Hillary Clinton of radicalism; the way that they see the media reading into Paul Ryan's Ayn Rand-fandom, or the Koch brothers' patriarch being a member of the John Birch Society. And when they try, they're accused of othering, and racism.
They'll keep trying. Some of the anger at Obama grows out of the belief that, as a candidate, he was sold as more moderate than he was. He was challenged not by a Giuliani, but by Arizona Senator John McCain, who prevented aides from attacking Obama over the words of Pastor Jeremiah Wright, and waited until their final debate to bring up former Weather Underground terrorist and Obama friend Bill Ayers.
At the 2008 Republican convention, one speaker went so far as to argue that Obama had a great, uniquely American life story. McCain and Obama, this speaker said, "they're both good and patriotic men with very different life experiences that have led them to this moment of shared history." He mocked Obama, but then he came back around to praise. "His rise is remarkable in its own right. It's the kind of thing that can happen only in America."
Shortly thereafter, Giuliani finished his speech and left the stage.