The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
Other Than That, the Story Was Accurate
“Because of an editing error, a picture caption on Wednesday about a concert Laurie Anderson played for dogs in Times Square on Monday night referred incorrectly to dogs from the Homeland Security Department that were there. While their training led them to sniff people’s bags, they were invited guests at the concert; they were not working.”—New York Times, Jan. 8
CNN’s “Town Hall on Guns With President Obama” on Jan. 7 turned out to be far better than advertised. The much-hyped event—the network ran a second-by-second countdown clock starting at least two days before it started—sounded as if it was going to be pure propaganda. But host Anderson Cooper asked his share of challenging questions, as did several members of the audience.
As for the advertising, we suppose it was effective inasmuch as we did tune in. But we are atypical in that a propaganda-fest would still have given us something to write about. And it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that, given CNN’s own description of the event.
“President Barack Obama is mounting a final-year push to make gun control part of his legacy despite Republican opposition and is expected to announce unilateral action early this week,” a pair of CNN reporters wrote in a Monday news story that doubled as a press release. “He will join CNN’s Anderson Cooper Thursday for an exclusive one-hour live town hall on gun control at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, in hopes of mounting a final pitch to the public.”
CNN did invite people on both sides of the issue to participate in the event—including the National Rifle Association, which declined. The network trumpeted the NRA’s demurral in a Wednesday story, and so did the president during the event: “There’s a reason why the NRA is not here. They’re just down the street. And, since this is the main reason they exist, you’d think they’d be prepared to have a debate with the president.” The Hill describes Obama as being “visibly angry” as he said that.
The network’s framing of the town hall’s purpose gave further reason to believe it had an agenda. “This town hall is not something the White House dreamed up or that the White House organized,” Cooper said, a tad defensively, in his introduction. “CNN approached the White House shortly after the San Bernardino terror attacks with this idea, and we’re pleased that they agreed to participate.”
That’s like responding to 9/11 with a town hall on air travel. CNN accepted (or independently arrived at) Obama’s framing of San Bernardino as primarily a problem of guns rather than of Islamic terrorism, and then offered the president airtime to make his case.
But Cooper quickly surprised us—and the president. His first question: “Have you ever owned a gun?” (You will be gobsmacked to learn the answer is no.) Cooper explained: “I ask the question because there’s a lot of people out there who don’t trust you, obviously, on the issue of guns. You keep saying you don’t want to take away everybody’s guns, but there’s a lot of people out there tonight watching who don’t believe you.”
The host cited Obama’s praise for Australia’s “tough antigun policies,” which he described as follows: “They banned semiautomatic assault rifles, they—they banned even shotguns in Australia.” Obama dodged the subject, and Cooper didn’t pursue it. We wish that he had—and that he’d pointed out that the Australian policy entailed not only a prospective ban but confiscation on a mass scale. But maybe he didn’t quite realize this. After all, the media usually avoid the C-word in favor of the euphemism “buyback.”
Cooper was not quite as adversarial as we’d have liked, and his questions could have been more deeply informed, but these criticisms are much milder than what we’d expected to write.
As for Obama, we suppose we’ll begin by noting that there were a couple of moments when he reminded us why once, long ago, we found him personally (though not ideologically) appealing. After fielding an unfriendly question from Paul Babeu, the sheriff of Arizona’s Pinal County and a congressional candidate, he began his answer: “Well, first of all, I appreciate your service, good luck on your race. You sure you want to go to Congress?” There’s a quip with bipartisan appeal.
Later he took a question from Trey Bosley, a very earnest 18-year-old from Chicago whose elder brother died in a shooting a decade ago. He began his answer in personal terms:
When I see you, I think about my own youth, because I wasn’t that different from you. Probably not as articulate and maybe more of a goof-off. But the main difference was I lived in a more forgiving environment. If I screwed up, I wasn’t at risk of getting shot. I’d get a second chance. There were a bunch of folks who were looking out for me, and there weren’t a lot of guns on the streets.
And that’s how all kids should be growing up wherever they live. I mean, my main advice to you is to continue to be an outstanding role model for the young ones who are coming up behind you; keep listening to your mom; work hard and get an education; understand that high school and whatever peer pressure or restrictions you’re under right now won’t matter by the time you’re a full adult, and what matters is your future.
That is, we liked the president when he wandered into politically uncharged topics. It reminded us of a thought we had a few months ago: Obama would probably be a great guy if only he were uninterested in politics.
His main purpose last night was, of course, political, and in that regard CNN’s format did not play to his strengths. He was notably ill at ease when answering challenging questions—an observation that was reinforced when he took the first friendly question and suddenly relaxed.
When the challenging questions came from the audience, he strained to show respect. But when they came from Cooper, the president’s peevishness was very much on display. One suspects he expected, as had we, that the host would be on his side. (We should note that Cooper also lobbed some softballs, so that on average he was more or less neutral.)
The oddest moment was an exchange with Mark Kelly, husband of ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (who was gravely wounded in Tucson, Ariz., five years ago today, and who stood alongside Kelly last night), in which Cooper interjected himself. Kelly’s question:
When we testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, we heard not only from the gun lobby, but from United States Senators that expanding background checks will, not may, will lead to a registry, which will lead to confiscation, which will lead to a tyrannical government.
So, I would like you to explain with 350 million guns in 65 million places, households, from Key West, to Alaska, 350 million objects in 65 million places, if the Federal government wanted to confiscate those objects, how would they do that?
That was meant to be a lay-up, designed to portray such concerns as absurd. But Cooper rejected the premise, and Obama lashed out:
Obama: What I think Mark is alluding to is what I said earlier—this notion of a conspiracy out there, and it gets wrapped up in concerns about the Federal government. Now, there’s a long history of that. That’s in our DNA, you know? The United States was born suspicious of some distant authority—
Cooper: Let me just jump—is it fair to call it a conspiracy? I mean—
Obama: Well, yeah.
Cooper: —a lot of people really believe this deeply, that they just don’t—
Cooper: —they just don’t trust you.
Obama: I’m sorry, Cooper, yes. It is fair to call it a conspiracy. What are you saying? Are you suggesting that the notion that we are creating a plot to take everybody’s guns away so that we can impose martial law—
Cooper: Not everybody, but there’s certainly a lot of people—
Obama: —is a conspiracy? Yes, that is a conspiracy! I would hope that you would agree with that. Is that controversial? Except on some websites around the country?
Cooper: There are—there are certainly a lot of people who just have a fundamental distrust that you do not want to get—go further and further and further down this road.
Obama: Well, look, I mean, I’m only going to be here for another year. I don’t know—when—when would I have started on this enterprise, right?
I come from the state of Illinois, which—we’ve been talking about Chicago, but downstate Illinois is closer to Kentucky than it is to Chicago. And everybody hunts down there. And a lot of folks own guns. And so this is not, like, alien territory to me. I’ve got a lot of friends, like Mark, who are hunters. I just came back from Alaska, where I ate a moose that had just been shot, and it was pretty good.
So, yes, it is—it is a false notion that I believe is circulated for either political reasons or commercial reasons in order to prevent a coming together among people of good will to develop common-sense rules that will make us safer while preserving the Second Amendment.
Cooper manifestly struck a nerve by reframing the question as being about gun owners’ distrust of Obama, rather than of gun-control advocates (including the inevitable Democratic nominee to succeed the president) in general. Obama served himself poorly by taking the bait and caricaturing his critics as lunatics.
It is true—and obviously so—that it is implausible to think the government could carry out mass confiscation of firearms in the next 378 days. It is entirely reasonable to think that is the ultimate goal of the gun controllers. Some of them admit it openly, though usually not while running for office.
And surely Obama does not think history will end on Jan. 20, 2017. He is thinking strategically about the effects his actions now will have beyond his term in office. He proves that with an op-ed in today’s New York Times, in which he declares: “I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform.”
Though to be sure, that threat is unlikely to have much effect. Obama isn’t about to start campaigning for Republicans, and the number of pro-gun Democrats in Congress has dropped considerably during Obama’s time in office. Among those who remain, such as Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (up for re-election in 2018), there won’t be much demand for Obama’s services anyway.
The CNN event was revealing, which is to say it turned out to be good journalism. But it is unlikely to change many minds, for one of the things it revealed is that Obama is not interested in compromise. If he were, he would offer concessions to gun-rights activists. Perhaps, for instance, they’d be open to requiring more dealers to obtain a federal firearms license if that were accompanied by a reduction in the fee and other burdens associated with an FFL, or to legislation that expanded background checks while also requiring states to recognize out-of-state concealed-carry permits.
But he has never shown any willingness to entertain such compromise. True, his approach is an incrementalist one, but that is purely a matter of political necessity. He’ll take what he can get now in the hope that his successors will be able to get more later. It’s entirely understandable that supporters of gun rights are as uncompromising as he is.
And it was probably wise for the NRA to beg off on CNN’s invitation. Obama does much better when he has a foil.
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