Lawrence O'Donnell's Offensive Interview with Herman Cain

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Cable news reached a new low when the MSNBC host invoked Vietnam veterans and dead civil rights marchers to insult the GOP candidate

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Despite all the hours of Bill O'Reilly that I've watched, the unfortunate experience of hearing Mark Levin at his worst, and listening to Rush Limbaugh for more hours than I can count, I've never been more disgusted by a broadcaster's interview with a presidential candidate than I was Thursday night, when Lawrence O'Donnell repeatedly hectored candidate Herman Cain in a disrespectful way. As a cable news host, he had every right to ask the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza tough questions. Given the opportunity to interview Cain tomorrow, I'd press him about what he means when he says that many black voters are brainwashed into voting for Democrats, confront him about his changing position on the wisdom of assassinating Anwar al-Awlaki, and challenge his factually inaccurate ideological boilerplate about protests against Wall Street banks.

What I'd avoid is the smugness O'Donnell displayed throughout his long conversation with Cain, the focus on creating idiotic gotcha moments rather than drawing out or clarifying Cain's positions -- is there any respectable reason to ask a presidential candidate to respond to a Hank Williams Jr. appearance on Fox & Friends? -- and more than anything else, the several especially objectionable questions O'Donnell posed that were offensive even by the standards of cable news.

Where to begin? It's difficult to choose, but my jaw dropped farthest when O'Donnell demanded, "Mr. Cain, what are you grateful to this nation for? You served in the Navy. They paid for you to go get a graduate degree while you were in the Navy. Are you grateful to the government for doing that? Are you grateful to this government for passing the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act?" In fairness to O'Donnell, Cain said that he was grateful, but I was put off by the bullying inquiry into gratefulness to country, expecting any moment that O'Donnell would start demanding to know why Cain wasn't wearing a flag lapel pin; and when O'Donnell then mentioned the civil rights laws, I thought to myself, Are blacks who grew up in that era and witnessed the epic struggle for equality really supposed to be 'grateful' that the government finally granted the rights that were their due as humans, and that they ought to have had all along?

The exchange was also notable because O'Donnell got his facts wrong. As Cain would politely point out, "Let's get the record straight, I didn't serve in the Navy, I was a civil servant. I started working for the Department of the Navy as a mathematician and ballistics analyst." The tenor of the interview is perhaps best understood by looking at how O'Donnell responded to being corrected.

O'Donnell: I misread your book and its references to the Navy. I thought you served in the Navy. You're now telling me you didn't. Can you explain how you avoided military service during the Vietnam War and during the draft, and why you should be commander in-chief if you did successfully avoid service during the war that came during what would have been your war years? After avoiding the Vietnam War, why should you be commander-in-chief?

Cain: Lawrence, you know, do you stay up nights coming up with the wording of these questions?

O'Donnell: Just thought of that one now when I heard you didn't serve in the Navy or the military during Vietnam. How did you do that?

Cain: You say, "How did I avoid the Vietnam War?" I wasn't trying to avoid the Vietnam War! Here's what happened, Lawrence. I was working in a critical area called exterior ballistics. I worked on something called rocket assisted projectiles for the Department of the Navy. It was my local board in Atlanta, Georgia, that told me, "We would rather have you continue to do that analytical work, to help the Navy, rather than us draft you." Secondly, when they had the lottery, I made myself available. The year that they had the lottery for the draft, they did not draft me because they didn't get to my number. So I think that's a poor choice of words on your part to say that I "avoided" the Vietnam War. I made myself available to my country, and they did not draft me. The rest of the time I was serving my country in a critical role called exterior ballistic analysis. So I am offended with your choice of words in terms of what I was doing during the Vietnam War.

You'd think that would conclude the subject.

Incredibly, O'Donnell followed up by saying, "I am offended on behalf of all the veterans of the Vietnam War who joined, Mr. Cain. The veterans who did not wait to be drafted, like John Kerry, who joined. They didn't sit there and wait to find out what their draft board was going to do. They had the courage to join, and to go, and to fight that war. What prevented you from joining? And what gives you the feeling, after having made that choice, you should be the commander in chief?"

Obviously, this is an absurd standard to apply, and it is difficult to imagine the Vietnam veterans that O'Donnell so opportunistically invokes being upset that a man of their generation didn't enlist after being told by his draft board that his work for the Navy was where he could contribute most.

Coming from O'Donnell on MSNBC, the lecture is especially grating. When Andrew Breitbart released his recent book, I explained at some length how he embodies many of the attitudes and behaviors that he claims to abhor in other people -- his self-serving reasoning is that liberals behave badly, so he is justified in behaving in exactly the same awful ways as a countermeasure. Rush Limbaugh does it too, complaining about race-baiting, and then doing it constantly.

In this interview, O'Donnell goes to absurd lengths to use patriotism and jingoism as cudgels to attack his conservative guest, almost as if he is doing a Stephen Colbert style parody of the tactics he imagines a right-wing blowhard might employ. Does he realize he's becoming what he claims to abhor?

That brings us to the segment of the interview that is causing the most consternation. It concerns a passage from Cain's book. Understand that it is a very strange, surprisingly unpolished book. If it had a ghost writer, he or she failed. Certain passages are offered for reasons impossible to discern. The narrative jumps from one anecdote to another, and sections that would, in a normal book, be emphasized or lead to some larger point are offered sans comment.

The passage at issue is preceded by a story about how Cain and his brother got a BB gun for Christmas, shot their cousin in the butt, and got it taken away. Immediately following that story is this:


One very hot day when he and I were out with Mom, we got very thirsty and started to walk over to a public water fountain. Mom reminded us that we must use the "coloreds" fountain. Being somewhat rambunctious, however, we made sure no one was watching us, and then we drank, first from the forbidden "whites only" fountain, and after that from the "coloreds" fountain. Then we looked at each other and said, "You know what? The 'whites only' water tastes just the same as the 'coloreds' does!"

On a day-to-day basis, because the civil rights movement was a few years in front of me, I was too young to participate when they first started the Freedom Rides, and the sit-ins. So on a day-to-day basis, it didn't have an impact. I just kept going to school, doing what I was supposed to do, and stayed out of trouble--I didn't go downtown and try to participate in sit-ins. But I well remember, as a young teenager, seeing signs printed in large black letters at the fronts of buses: "White seat from front, colored seat from rear." One day when I was thirteen, my friends and I were riding home from school in a half-empty bus--this was at the time when the civil rights movement was just getting off the ground and some police officers were just looking for a reason to shoot a black person who "got out of line." So, counter to our real feelings, we decided to avoid trouble by moving to the back of the bus when the driver told us to. By that time, the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides had kind of broken the ice, even though things hadn't fully changed. So we saw it every day on TV and read about it in the news. Dad always said, "Stay out of trouble," and we did.

The book then moves on to another subject (mathematics!) -- no larger point is made about the civil rights era. I imagine a lot of white people who read that passage shared something like my reaction: Wow, I can't imagine what it was like to live through that era as a black person -- to have kids whose "real feelings" urged them toward civil disobedience, even as you felt they were too young, and urged them against it, wondering if you were doing right, as they wondered too.

I'd be hesitant to judge anyone's reaction to that situation. How did the MSNBC host respond? "Where do you think black people would be sitting on the bus today if Rosa Parks had followed your father's advice?"

Cain replied, still not losing his cool, by pointing out that at the time that the anecdote happened, his father was giving advice to a high school aged boy, not an adult like Rosa Parks, for whose courage he was thankful.

O'Donnell then launched into an attack: "Mr. Cain, you were in fact in college from 1963 to 1967, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, exactly when the most important demonstrations and protests were going on. You could easily as a student at Morehouse between 1963 and 1967 actively participated in the kinds of protests that got African Americans the rights they enjoy today. You watched from that perspective at Moorehouse when you were not participating in those processes. You watched black college students from around the country and white college students from around the country come south AND BE MURDERED, fighting for the rights of African Americans. Do you regret sitting on those sidelines at that time?"

Cain hinted that an illness in his family prevented him from being as involved as he would've liked, which is beside the point.

So there you have it: a histrionic question that it's hard to imagine being asked on MSNBC to anyone other than a black conservative. In a 20 minute interview, O'Donnell tried to bully Cain into 1) acknowledging thanks for the Civil Rights Act, 2) apologizing for his failure to volunteer for Vietnam when he wasn't drafted, and 3) confessing that he did less than white activists during the Civil Rights Movement. If there were ever a segment designed to show liberals the folly of trying to mimic Fox News, this is it. I really dislike that network. And in this interview, O'Donnell was beneath it. Kudos to Cain for keeping impressively composed and responsive during an ordeal where Vietnam veterans and dead civil rights marchers were shamelessly invoked to bait him.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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