Split Screen: Media torn between Syria strategy and King celebration

As the day wore on, the drums of war threatened to drown out the dream.

The stage had been set for President Obama to speak on a day fraught with historical significance, the 50thanniversary of Martin Luther King’s unforgettable words on the Washington Mall. There was, of course, a lovely parallel as the first African-American president prepared to pay tribute to the slain civil rights leader who could not have envisioned a black man living in the White House.

But Syria was poisoning the well, so to speak.

An exercise in nostalgia and symbolism hearkening back to 1963 had to compete with a plan to rain Tomahawk cruise missiles on a Middle Eastern country in 2013.

It was, in short, a collision of hope and fear. A day to prepare for violence and a day to celebrate non-violence.

The media grappled with both stories, trying to balance a day of great cultural significance to African-Americans—and, given what King accomplished, all Americans—with the harsh reality of U.S. preparations to strike a country accused of using chemical weapons.

There were anchors standing in front of maps with potential military targets and talk of intelligence about forbidden weapons—more reminiscent of the march to war in 2003 than the civil rights era.

The airwaves were filled with urgent questions: Would some cruise missiles accomplish anything? Should Obama consult Congress before taking action? Can the Syrian rebels be trusted? Could the U.S. be drawn into a military quagmire?

(By the way, what’s up with the administration leaks – which John McCain called “crazy” on Fox & Friends—about what military targets that American missiles might strike? Why don’t we just send Assad a map?)

Of course, King is now a national symbol of unity in a way he was not a half century ago.

As National Review, in an implicit rebuke of William F. Buckley, now says of the march:

“Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time. They worried about the effects of the civil-rights movement on federalism and limited government. Those principles weren’t wrong, exactly; they were tragically misapplied, given the moral and historical context. It is a mark of the success of King’s movement that almost all Americans can now see its necessity.”

On the Aug. 28 anniversary, dueling images were the order of the day. There was McCain blitzing the cable shows, calling for strikes that would degrade the air power of “war criminal” Bashar Assad, while Al Sharpton spoke at the rally and granted interviews to MSNBC, ending with promos for his show on the network.

Retired colonels talking war strategy in New York studios competed with such  Lincoln Memorial stars as Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Jamie Foxx and Oprah, along with the likes of Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Caroline Kennedy.

In the mid-afternoon, the president got his moment in the—well, not quite sun, since it was a rainy day, but on the nationally televised stage.

Obama paid tribute to the 1963 marchers, speaking of how “America changed for you and for me,” pivoting to “our great unfinished business” of closing the economic gap between the races.

He even took a couple of swipes at his own side, invoking “excuse-making for criminal behavior” and poverty being used as “an excuse for not raising your child.”

African-American commentators dominated the post-game chatter.

On Fox, Juan Williams found it noteworthy that Obama had said “racial politics can cut both ways."

“This is the politician inheriting the mantle from the prophet," he said.

On MSNBC, Toure was thrilled with the speech.

“If you’re not moved, you may not have a heart,” he said.

Chris Matthews didn’t feel the tingle, though, saying Obama failed to offer much that was concrete.

On CNN, Don Lemon called it his favorite Obama address ever.

“This speech spoke to every single person in America,” he said.

And Van Jones, a former Obama aide, praised his ex-boss for embracing King’s values.

It was almost as though Obama had immunity from criticism on this day, although some conservatives said he had missed an opportunity to talk about this or that.

The march seemed to be a Democratic affair, with Bill O'Reilly observing that not a single Republican or conservative was featured as a speaker. And at times it seemed to be a production of MSNBC, which not only devoted the most airtime from the mall but licensed the right to air the 1963 dream speech from the King family.

As the echoes of the march fade, the coverage will undoubtedly march to the drums of war.