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Inside Politics

Greenfield: Point of personal privilege

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst
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(CNN) -- "Humor is the nitroglycerin of politics," a political analyst wrote long ago. "Very powerful, but if it's not handled carefully, it can explode in your face."

Actually, I wrote those words in a widely un-read book. And I never realized just how perceptive that observation was until today.

A piece I did for "The Situation Room" -- a piece I thought an obvious, patently absurd parody of muddled political thinking -- engendered howls of outrage from elements of the blogosphere, where it was assumed I actually meant to tie Sen. Barack Obama with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And therein lies a tale.

My starting point was the way Obama prefers to dress: a jacket, collared shirt, no tie -- a kind of "business casual" look.

No, actually my starting point was the hysteria that surrounded the Illinois senator's trip to New Hampshire over the weekend, the kind of hysteria that the political community, faced with a year when few people vote for anything, habitually displays.

So, I said, "in the sprit of wretched excess," let's focus on the "crucially significant" issue of what Obama was wearing.

Now, I suppose I could have held up a large sign saying: "This is a joke -- not to be taken internally, externally, or most of all, seriously."

Foolishly, I assumed our audience would pick up on this not-so-subtle point.

But just to put the button on it, after looking at past candidates' wardrobe choices (or malfunctions), I sternly "warned" Obama he might be playing with fire by dressing in much the same way as Iran's president does.

"You know," my wife said when she saw the piece, "I wonder if there are people who might think you were serious."

"Not a chance," I replied from my decades of experience. "How could anyone possibly take such analysis seriously? Or consider it a ham-handed effort at character assassination?"

Wife 1, Husband 0.

"Talking Point Memo," the home of Joshua Micah Marshall, pronounced the observation "weird." "The Daily Howler" saw it as part of the same media instinct that ridiculed Al Gore for his "earth tones" clothing choices back in 2000. The Columbia Journalism Review Web site weighed in with "character assassination." (It acknowledged that the effort might have been a weak attempt at humor).

Is some of this my fault? It has to be, for the same reason famed Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach liked to say that when someone misses a pass, 90 percent of the time it's the fault of the passer.

I figured there was no way on planet Earth that anyone could possibly take such a presentation at face value. I was wrong.

Most of what happened here, I think, is a demonstration of the hair-trigger instincts that have grown up among some of the bloggers (not to mention the need to fill all that space every day, or hour, or 15 minutes).

In a political world where partisans routinely assume the worst about their adversaries -- and where conspiracy theories stretch from Bill Clinton as a drug ring- and murder-enabler to Bush as planner of 9/11 -- there's a tendency to find malice aforethought.

And explosions of outrage take a lot less a time than falling into the habits of the Mainstream Media -- like, say, calling or e-mailing a reporter to ask, "What were you thinking?"

For a few moments, I thought about testing this notion by updating under my name Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay "A Modest Proposal," in which he suggested solving Ireland's overpopulation and famine issues by using babies as food.

Surely, I thought, even these folks would get the joke ... right?

Don't hold your breath waiting for that one, friends.


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