Monday, October 20, 2008

Tap Dancing with Joe the Plumber: Breaking Down the Rhetoric of the Unintentional Star of the Final Presidential Debate

Kevan Yenerall is associate professor of political science at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author (with Mark Sachleben) of Seeing the Bigger Picture: Understanding Politics Through Film & Television (2005, Peter Lang).

Hello folks,

Thanks to Dr. Caliendo and Dr. McIlwain for their public service, the Project on Race, and for their invitation to post my thoughts.

First, here are some useful links to Joseph Wurzelbacher (labeled by the McCain campaign as “Joe the Plumber”) and his exchanges with Barack Obama, Katie Couric, and Diane Sawyer:
When reviewing Joe the Plumber’s comments, I found a few things that stood out – most immediately and significantly, his dismissing of Barack Obama’s lengthy (five-minute) discussion of his tax plan (if and why he would change the top tax rate to 39%, up from the current 36%) as a “tap dance” – despite the fact that Obama’s exchange with Joe was, at least to my ears and eyes, quite direct and remarkably on topic for a conversation with a presidential candidate at a political event/photo op.

Moreover, in his interview with CBS’ Katie Couric after the debate, Joe claims to have “no idea” as to Obama's positions, even as Obama has been articulating them for 18 months on the campaign trail, and even after Obama’s five-minute response to Joe’s questions at the political event in Ohio.

Joe hits the golden racialized oldies notes played increasingly at the right wing sock hops the last several weeks:

“He can speak pretty…”; “we’re not sure where he stands yet, even after the debates…”; “he speaks eloquently, but I still don’t know where he stands…”; “Unfortunately I asked the question, but I still got a tap dance…he was almost as good as Sammy Davis, Jr.”

These, to me, these phrases, and the citing of Sammy Davis, Jr. (as opposed to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers or Shirley Temple, etc.) are a pretty clear way of expressing that Obama is shifty, elusive, deceptive, and slippery. Eloquent and pretty talk – but no substance.

On its face, such descriptions are not inherently racist, of course – but then coupling them with Sammy Davis raises some serious questions as to the speaker’s overall intent. It also, frankly, harkens back, in some ways, to the central character of a minstrel show.

Note as well, the fact that Joe’s description of Obama as a pretty talker and an eloquent speaker – Obama’s tools to avoid substance and clarity – is nearly the same language and approach that Sen. McCain took in the last debate with Sen. Obama.

On other matters:

I learned last week, from one of my classes, that not only is ACORN single-handedly responsible for the new Democratic registration edge in PA (now over 1.1 million vs. 600k in 2004) – apparently, the closed PA Democratic primary had nothing to do with the swelling Democratic registration – but that William Ayers ghost wrote Obama's Dreams from My Father.

According to the student, this allegation – and what he perceives as an accurate assertion – was broadcast on the 104.7 FM station in Pittsburgh, an ultra-conservative station with Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and local personality Jim Quinn.

Now how's that one for a whopper?

According to my student, the radio station featured experts who substantiated the allegation, and who claimed that Ayers’ and Obama’s style and content were all-to-similar.

Given the feverish fervor at the McCain-Palin rallies the last few weeks, the Republican ads linking Obama and Ayers, and Gov. Palin’s stump speech asserting that Obama “pals around with terrorists” – one wonders how such right wing radio whoppers are affecting an already toxic environment.

Until next time,

Kevan the professor, Pittsburgh, PA
(in the middle class)

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