Obama and Clinton YouTubed

Whether Barack Obama’s Speechgate is a nonissue, a callous Clinton attack or the tip of the iceberg of Obama’s rhetorical and ideological harvesting, the real political marvel of the season is the emergence of YouTube as a viable political cyberhatchet. Somehow, sandwiched in between videos of drunk kids destroying dorm rooms, abortive American Idol auditions and Weasel Attack!, YouTube has found a bit of extra space for candidates to brawl for the eyeballs of potential voters.

Whereas last year’s CNN/YouTube-sponsored debates for Democrats and Republicans merely underscored the grotesque ignorance of the average American numbskull with a computer, the country’s most famous video mecca is now the ultimate See For Yourself platform of political propaganda.

Campaign brutality and factual fecal-flinging are nothing new, of course. Much was made of Joe Biden’s parlance in his 1988 presidential bid being lifted from the UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock, but most never watched Kinnock’s speeches and saw them referenced only in the print of newspapers, brief excerpts on the nightly news and videotapes distributed by Michael Dukakis. Flash forward twenty years to the Clinton camp posting side-by-side video exemplars of Barack Obama and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s rhetorical flourishes invoking MLK Jr., FDR and the Declaration of Independence, among other things -- where viewers can now judge for themselves the severity of the transgression, even taking into account the cadence, timing and emphases of the two statesmen.

"They often riff off one another. They share a world view," Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod told the New York Times, describing the candid, cooperative nature of the personal and political relationship between Obama and Patrick. "Both of them are effective speakers whose words tend to get requoted and arguments tend to be embraced widely."

Clinton, campaigning in Madison, naturally saw it differently. "If your whole candidacy is about words, then they should be your own words," she said. With the magic of YouTube, voters no longer need to choose between a mere two viewpoints. The internet excels at providing an amorphous, baseless gray area with more opinions than could possibly be imagined, and in this increasingly polarized race, it’s actually nice to have a choice, rather than accepting the speech as either a “requoted riff” or outright plagiarism.

But YouTube is a devil temptress, offering its share of unique challenges and nightmares for candidates. Most critically, there is no limit to the wrath that these campaigns have wrought, and in truest cyclical cyberspace justice, what goes around comes around. Facing Clinton’s accusations, Obama’s campaign pointed to their own videos of Clinton intoning two phrases claimed by the Illinois senator: “Yes, We Can” and “Fired Up, Ready to Go” (if only Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers all carried cell-phone cameras for upload in 1972, then they might be able to make a case for the originality of their si se puede! ).

John McCain once called attention to an interview Mitt Romney had done with Good Morning America, often seen out of context courtesy of YouTube’s amateur editors, and required Romney to spend money and time to refute the skewed charges. In turn, some Ron Paulites made a video contrasting John McCain’s befuddling answer during a GOP debate with similar troubles experienced by a Miss Teen USA contestant, unfavorably cross-editing his response with hers and ending the video with a last word from Paul in a parking lot after the debate. Bloomberg reports that over 500,000 people have seen the clip online.

Indeed, the sheer volume of material, while giving the viewer unprecedented access and an openness of perspective rarely seen in the two-party, three-TV-network system that dominated most of the twentieth century, delivers a profound amount of garbage: some vindictive, some untrue, many both.

The instant accessibility of nearly every campaign appearance, speech and rally tears back the veneer that politicians impart a message to each and every one of us. Truth be told, they recycle endlessly and borrow liberally, making Obama’s recent situation neither unique nor necessarily excusable. Candidates are, at last, becoming aware of the power of a fully accessible and infinitely flexible internet that is both friend and enemy, a purveyor of boundless truth while fraught with lies. For every massive wave of propaganda and campaign talking points that candidates and their supporters send crashing over the net, so too is there an undercurrent of perpetually prying eyes, always able to ascertain for themselves what to believe and what to expose. -- Joe Horton

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun