Frank Luntz Breaks Down Obama's Race Speech

This is a rush transcript from "Hannity & Colmes," March 19, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

My relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect.

He contains within him the contradictions, the good and the bad, of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.


SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST: That was presidential hopeful Barack Obama defending his relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. So was his speech successful?

Joining us now with a look at what worked and what didn't, pollster Frank Luntz.

Well, what do you think of that? Did that work?

FRANK LUNTZ, POLLSTER: Well, the first thing is that he read it on the teleprompter and, frankly, he didn't read it that well. When you are in a situation where you're being challenged, when your credibility is under attack...

HANNITY: Don't read a teleprompter.

LUNTZ: Don't ever read a teleprompter. Look at them straight in the eye. I could have done this show from Washington. I wanted to be in New York, because I wanted to talk to viewers directly.

The second thing it says it "contains within him the contradictions, the good and the bad of the community that he has served."


LUNTZ: This is not your hairdresser. This is not the guy who does your nails. This is your pastor. This is your rabbi; this is your priest. This is a spiritual leader of a community.


Watch Frank Luntz dissect and analyze Obama's words: part 1 | part 2

LUNTZ: And someone who's led him. I think that he actually cheapened his response by putting it that way.

HANNITY: You see, but when you talk about the teleprompter, it seemed to me that — this is how I read this whole thing, he had all his advisors in a room. They dotted the "I's"; they crossed the "T's." And this was about — he became a politician, because I think he was very effectively standing above the fray. And now he became a politician trying to save his career. This was political expediency, as evidenced by that, right?

LUNTZ: Well, here's the other issue. When you get to this word "disown." I want viewers to watch...

HANNITY: This is incredible.

LUNTZ: ... when he equates his own grandmother with his pastor. It's very powerful, and I don't think it was done quite well. Let's take a look.


OBAMA: I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother, a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street and who, on more than one occasion, has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.


HANNITY: It's amazing how he remembered that, Frank Luntz, but he didn't remember a single, single thing that his Louis Farrakhan-loving preacher had said over 20 years.

LUNTZ: This is someone who's — Barack Obama is an outstanding communicator. And he's not just effective among Democrats. He wins independents and Republicans. But I now follow the words that he chooses. And if you watch his speech overall, it is Kennedy-esque.

But the moment that you start to look at the language — and I've got the text here. That word "disown"...


LUNTZ: ... he's going to pay a price for that in that he brings in his own family and tries to do that.

HANNITY: Because he stays friends when he says he doesn't disown. He's still friends with the guy.

KRISTIN POWERS, GUEST CO-HOST: But wasn't he talking about the...

LUNTZ: More than just friends.

POWERS: Wasn't he talking about the complexities of people? That's the way I heard that.

LUNTZ: You are correct. And he's trying to explain it. But the problem is when you get to words like "disown," it's a rationalization. It's a defense rather than an explanation.

And on times like it this, you really do have to speak from the heart. You don't read a text. You don't speak to a teleprompter. And he didn't do that.

And there's one more bite that I want to show our viewers. It's where he talks about and he characterizes Reverend Wright. Let's take a look.


OBAMA: We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro in the aftermath of her recent statements as harboring some deep, deep-seated bias. But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.


LUNTZ: Now, that has the opportunity to be constructive, but is it going to be destructive? And that's what we don't know.

Can we have a discussion in this country about race where we don't have an approach that tries to level accusations? And can we have a discussion that doesn't say that whites are racist and African-Americans are not? Are we going to have this kind of open conversation?

And one other point, and we'll get to this, also, when this — at the end of the break. There are issues of economy. Our economy is melting down. Our stock market is going up and down every single day. We still have issues in Iraq and national terrorism, and yet, Barack Obama is now responding to his pastor. This cannot be good for the presidential campaign, and it cannot be good for his own campaign.

POWERS: Yes, but he also here was just sort of trying to make the point that people are — again, this is all about the complexity of people. I felt like, with the Geraldine Ferraro thing, as well, that she was sort of unfairly tarred. Now, the campaign has had a little bit to do with that. But that people are unfairly characterized by these narrow things, not the totality of who they are.

LUNTZ: And if I can ask you a question...


LUNTZ: ... did what Geraldine Ferraro say, was that even in the ballpark?

POWERS: No, no, no, I agree.

LUNTZ: Why would he do it? Why would he try to equate the two?

POWERS: Because I think — I think he was trying to make the broader point about complexity, which is the way I heard it.

LUNTZ: But there is a greater crime and a smaller crime. This is the difference between a mass murderer and someone who stole a pack of gum out of a five-and-dime store.



OBAMA: You can play Reverend Wright's sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election. And make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words.

We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she's playing the race card. Or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election, regardless of his policies.


POWERS: That was Barack — more from Barack Obama's speech earlier today. And we're now going to continue with Frank Luntz.

So, what did you think of that clip?

LUNTZ: Look, it's a powerful point that we have to move on, that there were bigger issues that we are facing. The question is can you have this discussion without trivializing it — trivializing it? Can you discuss race without immediately going to the most extreme positions? And I'm not convinced that we can.

On news networks, on articles in newspapers, it is very hard to talk about it without people getting defensive or accusatory.

However, in this next clip, and this is the one part of the speech — and I have always appreciated Obama's communication. This is the one part of the speech that I personally found offensive, because he now he tries to make it partisan and political. Let's listen.


OBAMA: Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talkshow hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.


LUNTZ: Now, look, let's talk about class warfare, which is what the Democrats have always tried to do against the Republicans. It's been Bob Shrum's strategy since the 1970s.

This is not about Republicans talking about affirmative action or welfare or Democrats or whatever. This is about a religious figure, a very important person in Senator Obama's life, who has a point of view that is frightening.


LUNTZ: This is a very legitimate discussion. And I — I do believe that this is turning against him.

HANNITY: You see, I agree. And now, we first interviewed right here on this program March of 2007. And anybody that's listened to my radio program or watched this program, you know that we have been in the forefront of raising the issue of Barack Obama and his associations, not only in this case, but with William Ayers and the Weather Underground.

Here's a question I have, because we're dealing tonight with — with honesty, and we're dealing with judgment. Those are the two fundamental questions here.

LUNTZ: And association.

HANNITY: and association. That means a lot.

LUNTZ: You judge — you judge people by the friends they keep.

HANNITY: I agree. What if Barack Obama, for the entire year that the MoveOn media out there has ignored any scrutiny of him, and they've gone along with the bumper sticker of change and the slogans. What if he really deep down in his heart thinks like Pastor Wright?

LUNTZ: It's not for anyone to answer that question.

HANNITY: Well, is that dangerous for this country? I think that would be dangerous. That would mean we would have — if he agreed with Wright, and I don't know that he does, but if he did, that would mean a racist and an anti-Semite would be president of the United States.

LUNTZ: But I want to be fair. What is in his heart we cannot tell. We can only react to the language, to the words that he has used.

HANNITY: Do you believe he didn't know this about — about him, about Wright?

LUNTZ: We know that he had denied, linguistically. He said he had never been there.

HANNITY: When this was happening. Until today.

LUNTZ: And now he's acknowledged that he has. But here, Sean, if YouTube were ever to get footage, video of him there when this happens, then he's in trouble.

HANNITY: But didn't — weren't we cued up to that when he didn't show up? When he disinvited him to the invocation? You don't disinvite your pastor unless there's a good reason. You don't say, "Those sermons are kind of rough," unless you sat there and knew that they were kind of rough.

And even though he said originally, "Oh, I didn't — I had no idea that this — this type of thing was being said." There's an inherent inconsistency here.

And he seems — again, I'm back to the political expediency. This is a speech for somebody trying to save their career after a 20-year association.

LUNTZ: And I want audiences to watch the retape of this. Because if they see in the speech that he had done and your segment with Dick Morris...


LUNTZ: Underneath him was the phrase "judgment to lead?"


LUNTZ: Does this suggest that he has the right judgment? The friends that he chooses, the religious leaders that he follows, and the things that he says. It's a legitimate question.

HANNITY: What would be the danger? You talk about words that work. What should Senator McCain do, what should Senator Hillary Clinton do? In the less than a minute we have left, should they get on this at all or stay away from this and let those of us that have led from the beginning continue to talk about it?

LUNTZ: For Senator Clinton her problem is that every time she tries to touch anything like this, she ends up hurting herself.


LUNTZ: She just comes across negatively. And for Senator McCain, his job is foreign policy.

HANNITY: Yes. You know, it's gotten out there in the media that — that we — that I broke this story. It's gotten out that our interview back in March — and by the way, other people tried to take credit, and that's just their egos talking.

But in reality, there are people hostile to me in ways that I have never seen in my 12-year career — e-mails, letters, threats — because I told the truth. Can you believe that?

LUNTZ: And you've got the evidence. You've got the tape to prove it. Congratulations, Sean.

HANNITY: Thanks. We'll talk more in the future.

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