Thursday, August 07, 2008

Mrs. Obama Meets the Military

While Barack Obama took a pass on visiting wounded soldiers during his recent European trip, his wife Michelle has held a series of meetings with military familes. The latest stop in her "listening" tour was held yesterday, in Norfolk, Virginia, and it attracted fawning coverage from the local media. Consider this account from the Virginian-Pilot and reporter Amy Jeter:

Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, on Wednesday outlined her husband's platform to support military families through measures such as improved services for veterans and more predictable deployments.

"Few sacrifice more to serve their country than all of you," Obama told a group of military spouses and supporters at Old Dominion University. "I know that, too often, it seems like you're doing it all on your own."

Her husband's proposal also includes measures to enhance support groups for military families, bring troops' salaries closer to the private sector and improve mental health treatment for service members.


Mostly I'm here to listen and to do a lot of learning and then to transfer that information into the heart and mind of my husband," Obama said.

She began her day in Norfolk reading to young children at ODU's Lions Club Child Study Center, and she was to end the day at an evening fundraiser hosted by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Virginia first lady Anne Holton.

Earlier, students waited outside the Batten Arts and Letters Building, hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman named one of the world's best-dressed by Vanity Fair magazine.

Jeter goes on to describe the "standing ovation" that Mrs. Obama received from the crowd, and the complaints that surfaced during their roundtable. Most of them are familiar to anyone who's been a military member or dependent over the last 30 years, or so.

Fed up with TRICARE, the armed forces' health insurance program? Get in line. Can't get access to on-base child care? Welcome to the club; I heard similar horror stories two decades ago. Military lost your medical records? Been there, done that.

That's not to diminish the concerns voiced by forum participants. But many of their grievances are endemic to a large bureaucracy; many will still exist--to some degree--no matter how much money is spent on family support centers or other advocacy organizations.

But meeting with military families in wartime is smart politics, especially when Mrs. Obama only has to show up, smile and promise support. In that type of setting, there's little chance that she will commit a verbal gaffe, resurrecting memories of her earlier statements on the campaign trail.

Still, there's something troubling about the Virginian-Pilot's coverage, aside from its laudatory tone. Ms. Jeter's story omits an important fact; she never bothers to explain how the forum was organized, or who invited the participants. Readers assume it was a campaign event, but the mechanics of the roundtable are never fully explained.

Fortunately, Karen Jowers of Military Times took a moment to talk with some of the participants and audience members. What she discovered was anything but surprising:

Most were invited because they were volunteers with the Obama campaign, or were invited by someone in the Obama campaign, said campaign officials and some of the attendees interviewed by Military Times.

Most were invited because they were volunteers with the Obama campaign, or were invited by someone in the Obama campaign, said campaign officials and some of the attendees interviewed by Military Times.

Obviously, there's nothing wrong with a campaign organizing an event with the candidate's wife, and putting together its own audience. It happens all the time, on both sides of the political divide.

But there is something wrong with a newspaper that fails to acknowledge those facts. Unfortunately for its readers, the Virginian-Pilot was more concerned with printing an Obama puff piece than revealing the truth about the roundtable. The forum in Norfolk was nothing more than another staged event, aimed at winning votes among military voters, a constituency that John McCain is expected to dominate. And the Pilot was a willling accomplice in that effort.

One roundtable participant, interviewed by WTKR-TV said she was "so excited" by Mrs. Obama's appearance that she cut short her vacation to attend. It was an unfortunate comment, since it didn't exactly mesh with the image of hard-pressed military families presented in the forum.

1 comment:

Ed Rasimus said...

I've also got 23 years at the pointy end of the policy spear. It is easy to gather a bunch of folks who have a gripe in the military. That's what happy troops do best!

But they also understand that it isn't about a government increasing entitlements, it is about mission and training and budgets and leadership.

When the candidate's wife meets to promise handouts to a chosen population that doesn't rise to the level of someone who knows and supports the military nor does it equate with good policy on national defense.

When the husbands get home from the field, they will explain that to their wives.