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Thank You, Daily Caller, for Your Dud of a Story

If you didn’t spend fifteen minutes watching Fox News last night, so you could see the campaign bombshell that Matt Drudge had been hyping all afternoon, then that’s fifteen minutes you got to spend on a productive activity—clipping your toenails maybe, or counting the number of shags on your carpet. I wasn’t so lucky. I tuned in, because watching these events is part of my job description. The big revelation turned out to be a 2007 speech then-candidate Barack Obama gave to an audience of black ministers.

The speech had received considerable coverage during the 2008 election cycle. But the Daily Caller had since obtained the full video, in an "exclusive," including parts that contemporaneous accounts and video excerpts had omitted. Among them were passages where Obama praised the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and spoke extemporaneously about the raw treatment African-Americans have sometimes gotten from the U.S. government. According to the Daily Caller article, which contained no byline, “the racially charged and at times angry speech undermines Obama’ carefully-crafted image as a leader eager to build bridges between ethnic groups.”

Does it really? The video, along with the story, is available on the Daily Caller website. If you feel like giving them the traffic, you can read and watch and decide for yourself. Or you can take your cues from the Romney campaign and some fellow Republicans, who seem to think it's no big deal. Or you can just read Steve Benen's analysis.

But I did want to make one substantive point, just because the issue matters to me.

The only truly new wrinkle in the full video, as far as I can tell, were references Obama made to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Obama blamed slow reconstruction efforts in part on a federal law called the Stafford Act, which requires local or state governments to put up funds before drawing down federal dollars. After Hurricane Andrew and 9/11, Obama said, the federal government quickly waived the Stafford requirements for South Florida and New York, in order to speed the recovery. That didn’t happen in New Orleans and Obama suggested, by implication, race had something to do with it. The Daily Caller described this statement as “basic dishonesty,” given all of the money that the federal government ended up spending on New Orleans reconstruction. 

I’m not the world’s leading expert on Katrina and its aftermath, but I know a little something about it. I also know how to use Lexis-Nexis, which quickly pointed me to a USA Today article about lagging reconstruction efforts in New Orleans. Here's what it said about the Stafford Act:

Emergency federal funding is governed by the Stafford Act, whose rules require cities and states to match a certain percentage of federal disaster funds. The U.S. government quickly waived the match requirement after previous disasters, such as Hurricane Andrew in South Florida in 1992 and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
But the match requirement — 10% in the case of the 2005 storms — wasn't waived for post-Katrina recovery and rebuilding until May, when Congress passed a bill abolishing it, delaying many projects.

Huh. Sounds like Obama was right. As for Obama’s suggestion that race explains the disparity, that’s obviously conjecture. But it’s hardly unreasonable to think the federal government would have responded to Katrina more aggressively, both in the immediate aftermath and during the long recovery process, if the wealthy and predominantly white elites of Manhattan and South Florida were screaming about the slow reaction.

As David Frum suggests, the question shouldn’t be why Obama talked about these sorts of issues. The question should be why more politicians didn’t join him. In that sense, I'm actually grateful to the Daily Caller for putting the question into the news.

Update: I shuffled around a few sentences for clarity.

follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn