Barack Obama has the master wordsmith's gift for bending language, saying something that sounds good, but heard as something not so good. Only the successful politicians have the gift for blowing the dog whistle a message pitched in a key so high that only his followers hear it. Mr. Obama can do it better than most.
He knew better than to excuse the riot in Ferguson, where thugs, hooligans and assorted ruffians massaged their grief and mourned Michael Brown by burning down the town. The grievers and mourners need no encouraging, by a president or anyone else. The bad guys in Ferguson need not sympathy but the stern message that the authorities, responsible for the safety of everyone, will take neither excuse nor "explanation" from anyone. Order will be preserved, and it is not an occasion for equivocation, evasive quibbling, or fooling around in the name of grief.
Here's what the president said in Chicago on the miserable morning after the grand jury said it would not indict the officer, Darren Wilson, who in defense of his life (as the grand jury concluded) killed Michael Brown:
"A grand jury made a decision yesterday that upset a lot of people, and as I said last night, the frustrations that we have seen are not just about a particular incident. They have deep roots in many communities of color, who have a sense that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly or fairly. That may not be true everywhere. And it's certainly not true for the vast majority of law enforcement officials, but that's an impression that folks have and it's not just made up. It's rooted in reality."
He went on to say the usual cliches about the rule of law, that burning buildings and torching cars and destroying property is bad, challenging a cop is not necessarily a good or wise thing to do, and so forth and so on. But the dogs had heard the whistle, as Mr. Obama knew they would. He put the police on notice (as well he might) but putting the hooligans on notice was the first job at hand, and done in the harsh language hooligans understand. He blew the dog whistle instead. A few more words about how he feels about destroying property and putting innocents at risk of life and limb on balance and in the moment he's against it and then it was back to blowing his whistle.
"Separate and apart from the particular circumstances in Ferguson, of which I am careful not to speak to [after speaking to them for some minutes] because it's not my job as president to comment on ongoing investigations and specific cases [which he always does] but the frustrations people have generally, those are rooted in some hard truths that have to be addressed."
The president thinks he knows where the problem in Ferguson lies, and it's not with the mob and their matches. "We know certain things work," he said, "we know that if we train police properly, that improves policing and makes people feel that the system is fair." Nothing about training people who need training not to take out their pique in rioting.
The president's "understanding," if not his sympathies, always lie with the provocateurs and the troublemakers. He took his first overseas trip as president in early 2009, with American wounds from the war in Iraq raw and bleeding, to apologize to the bad guys, so sure was he that everything is the fault of the Americans. He bowed to everyone he could find in Muslim headgear. He has seen how that worked for him, though the lesson he has yet to learn.
Six years on and he still has a weakness for deferring to the wrong players. He makes all the ritual noises about the depth of the villainy and pagan idolatry of ISIS, but he could not resist stopping in midlecture to assure everyone that the villainy was not rooted in religious faith, "least of all Islam," as if he were an imam called on to instruct the world in Islam.
"Least of all, Islam?" Was such villainy more likely to be rooted in Judaism? Or in the origins of the Christian faith? The philosophy of Buddha? Perhaps the Hottentots are guilty. Of such carelessly imprecise language doth a man reveal his true belief.
Mr. Obama is more likely to be a follower of the Great Equivicator. Words can be action, as we all know, and if this is so the Great Talker (only the Gipper was the Great Communicator) trips up himself. He can always be counted on to get it wrong.