Kathleen Parker and the Idiotic Debate Over ‘Exceptionalism’

Washington Post columnist (and CNN host) Kathleen Parker turned in some thoughts (1/30/11) about what she didn’t hear Barack Obama’s State of the Union address:

He didn’t say it. That word: “exceptional.” Barack Obama described an exceptional nation in his State of the Union address, but he studiously avoided using the word conservatives long to hear.

She goes on:

The exceptional issue may be political, but it isn’t only that. The idea lies smack at the heart of how Americans view themselves, and the role of government in their lives and in the broader world. Is America exceptional or isn’t she? Is there something about this country that makes us unique in the world?

The right-wing obsession with Obama’s alleged reticence about declaring the United States “exceptional” is notable mostly because, as we pointed out here (12/21/10), the primary example Obama’s exceptional critics cite comes from a press conference in 2009 where Obama said this:

The United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Apparently that use of the word “exceptional”–you know, the thing Obama refuses to say–wasn’t quite exceptional enough. Parker knows that incident, but must write in circles in order to make the criticism of Obama hold up:

Exceptionalism became radioactive a couple of years ago when Obama was asked at an overseas news conference whether he subscribes to “the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world.”

His answer has haunted him since:

“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

I remember thinking at the time: Bzzzzt. Wrong, Harvard. That is not the correct answer. There was more to his response, in fact, but the impression was already set.

What Obama added was that “we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.”

Not so hard to say after all?

Let me see if I understand this. Obama doesn’t declare the United States to be exceptional–except that he does. Namely, the part of this much-discussed 2009 press conference where he explains that America really is exceptional–an answer of a sort to those deluded Brits and Greeks. Is the problem that he doesn’t declare American greatness loudly enough?

For the record, the State of the Union address included some boilerplate political rhetoric:

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

That, too, is what sets us apart as a nation.

So what’s the problem, then? Obama would seem to make all the usual noises about American greatness. But some folks–Parker included–don’t seem to believe it. Given that this is the same Kathleen Parker who once wrote about how Obama lacked a certain American “fullbloodedness,” it seems pretty clear that she’s still got some hang-ups about him.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.