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posted: 8/13/2012 5:00 AM

It's a question of context

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Barack Obama claims only that his legislative and foreign policy achievements in his first two years matched those of "any president -- with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln" in "modern history." Some Obama enthusiasts are less restrained.

They suggest that among presidents, he ranks as the most learned since John Quincy Adams, the most profound since James Madison and the most visionary since Thomas Jefferson. And he is, of course, the most rhetorically gifted politician since Pericles.

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Yet, remarkably, he is frequently misunderstood. How can this be?

After the June 8 news conference in which he said "the private sector is doing fine," he, responding to the public's strange inability to parse plain English, held another news conference in which he said: "It's absolutely clear the economy is not doing fine; that's the reason I had a news conference."

That clarified everything, but then on July 13 the public, which Obama really must regard as a disappointment, again failed to comprehend him. In Roanoke, Va., he gave what any reasonable person must admit was an admirably pithy and entirely clear distillation of his political philosophy: "You didn't build that." The public's obtuseness forced his campaign to run an ad saying "my words about small business" had been taken "out of context." Ah, context.

In late October 1980, as Ronald Reagan prepared for his one debate with President Jimmy Carter, Reagan's aides worried that Carter might unearth some of the inconveniently colorful things Reagan had said over the years, such as, when Patty Hearst's kidnappers demanded the distribution of free food, including canned goods, Reagan reportedly said something like: This would be a good time for a botulism epidemic. When an aide wondered how Reagan could explain that quip, there was a long pause, and then another aide impishly suggested: "Say it was taken out of context."

As Obama tries to cope with the public's peculiar inability to discern his meanings, perhaps he can take comfort from very similar difficulties of another candidate for national office. On Aug. 18, 1920, the Democrats' vice presidential nominee, campaigning in Butte, Mont., said that it would be fine for the United States to join the League of Nations because our nation would have multiple votes. He assured listeners that "the votes of Cuba, Haiti, San Domingo, Panama, Nicaragua and of the other Central American states" would not be cast "differently from the vote of the United States," which is "the big brother of these little republics."

Then, referring to his days as assistant secretary of the Navy, the vice presidential candidate said: "You know I have had something to do with running a couple of little republics. The facts are that I wrote Haiti's constitution myself and, if I do say so, I think it a pretty good constitution." He added: "Why, I have been running Haiti or San Domingo for the past seven years."

As David Pietrusza writes in "1920: The Year of Six Presidents," Haiti and the Dominican Republic had been U.S. protectorates since July 1915 and May 1916, respectively, but the boastful candidate had not written any constitution. Nevertheless, he repeated his indelicate claim -- U.S. Marines had recently been involved in some Haitian bloodshed -- at three more Montana stops and then in San Francisco.

When, inevitably, the candidate's words caused consternation here and there, he insisted he never said them, adding magnanimously, "I feel certain that the misquotation was entirely unintentional." But the controversy continued, so on Sept. 2, in Maine, he added: "I should think that it would be obvious that one who has been so largely in touch with foreign relations through the Navy Department during the last seven years could not have made a deliberate false statement of this kind."

Idaho's Republican Sen. William Borah dryly said: "I am willing to admit that he didn't say it, though I was there and heard him say it at the time." Thirty-one witnesses of the Butte speech signed an affidavit attesting that the candidate had said what he was reported to have said, but public attention had wandered and the issue faded.

Far from being badly injured by this episode, the vice presidential candidate went on to become one of the three presidents in "modern history" -- Obama includes Lincoln -- whose achievements in their first two years are, Obama says, "possible" to compare to his. The candidate was one of liberalism's saints, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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