Lynn Sweet is from Chicago, where Barack Obama launched and refined his community activist/politician credentials. Sweet writes and blogs for the Chicago Sun-Times, and is one of my favorite columnists/bloggers.
When Sweet asked the now-famous question to Barack Obama last night about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., it seemed so out of place. The point of the news conference was health care. Surely, Obama must have expected a sympathetic question from a hometown friend, something along the lines of, “how many children will be saved by your health care proposal?”
But Sweet knew what she was doing. After 45 minutes of Obama’s droll droning on about health insurance reform, during which time the reporters barely could stay awake, Sweet waved a red flag in front of a clearly frustrated Obama:
Thank you, Mr. President. Recently Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge. What does that incident say to you and what does it say about race relations in America?
While many people have faulted Obama for opining on a subject about which he didn’t know the facts, the way the question was posed made a non-answer almost impossible. The question was not about Gates, but about race relations, something about which Obama frequently spoke during the campaign. While Obama could and should have deferred as to the propriety of the Gates arrest, Obama could not resist speaking about race relations, and thus began his downfall. A news conference about health care became a news conference about race, probably the last thing Obama wanted.
The rest, as they say, is history.
UPDATE 7-27-2009: Incredibly, Obama made his statement even though he had been prepped to give an answer about the Gates situation, so while Sweet may have boxed him in with the wording of the question, there was no surprise on the topic.