Some would argue that journalism died in 2007 when “fake news” anchor Jon Stewart was ranked among the most trusted TV news anchors in the U.S. – along with that other fake news purveyor, Dan Rather (second item) in a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. But “citizen journalist” Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church, put the toe tag on the bloated MSM corpse on Saturday night by conducting one of the most thorough and informative interviews – he termed it a “conversation” – The Stiletto has ever seen.  

The Stiletto thought that Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s technique of pitting candidates against one another in the primary debates effectively put them on the hot seat and forced them to explain themselves. But Warren’s innovation of interviewing Barack Obama (D-IL) and John McCain (R-AZ) one-on-one for an hour and asking each the identical set of questions so voters could compare apples with apples should become standard practice.    

The MSM professed to be unimpressed, reports National Review’s Byron York: 

Not a few people in the press thought it was a bad idea. Asking each man the same questions meant Warren couldn’t tailor his queries to each man; sure, he could ask Obama about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but what sense would it make to ask McCain, too? It seemed like a recipe for nothing much at all.

But Pastor Rick hasn’t built a huge church and sold more than 25 million copies of The Purpose-Driven Life for nothing. By the time Warren finished questioning Obama, people were eager to hear how McCain would handle the same subjects. In a debate, candidates are often asked the same question, but the second guy has always heard what the first guy said and tailors his answer accordingly. At Saddleback, there was something much different — and more revealing — going on. 

The “Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency” was held at the Lake Forest, CA, megachurch before an audience of some 5,000 church members. A coin-toss determined that Obama would go first – McCain was kept in a room in another building without access to a radio or TV so he could not hear the questions in advance.  

Warren’s questions were divided into four categories: Stewardship, Leadership, Worldview and America’s Role in the World, and the questions covered everything from when a baby “gets human rights” and embryonic stem cell research to whether there is evil in the world and what is “worth dying for” and worth “sacrificing American lives for.”  

Here are the highlights, based on a rough transcript posted on Warren’s Web site (where necessary, The Stiletto added corrections and contextual links). The Stiletto put each candidate’s answer to Warren’s questions side-by-side for easier comparison.

RW:  Who are the three wisest people you know in your life and who are you going to rely on heavily in you administration?  

BO: One person I’d be listening to … Michelle, my wife, who is not only wise but she’s honest. … I think any leader needs somebody who can get up in your face and say, boy, you really screwed that one up, you really blew that. … Another person in that category is my grandmother, who’s an extraordinary woman. She was never went to college [sic] … she’s just a very grounded common sense, no fuss, no frill kind of person and when I’ve got big decisions I often check in with her. …  In terms of the administration … I don’t think I’d restrict myself to three people. There are people like San Dunn [sic; the transcript should read “Nunn”], a Democrat, or Dick Luker [sic; the transcript should read “Lugar”] a Republican … I got friends ranging from Ted Kennedy to Tom Colbert [sic; the transcript should read “Coburn”], who don’t necessarily agree on a lot of things … What I found very helpful to me is to have a table where a lot of different points of view are represented and where I can … ask them questions. 

JMcC: The first one I think would be General David Petraeus, one of the great military leaders in America [sic] history, who took us from defeat to victory in Iraq. … I think John Lewis. John Lewis was at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He had his skull fractured, continues to serve, continues to have the most optimistic outlook about America. He can teach us all a lot about the meanings of courage and commitment to causes greater than ourself [sic]. Meg Whitman … the CEO of eBay … 12 years ago there were five employees, today they are [sic] one and a half million people that make a living off E-mail [sic; transcript should read eBay] in the world. One of these great American success stories and in these economic [sic] challenging times, we need to call on the wisdom and knowledge, background of people like Meg Whitman.  

Between The Lines: As Barack Obama named his wife, Michelle first among those he will rely on to advise him as president, her worldview and background needs thorough vetting, and it’s ridiculous to suggest that she should somehow be “off limits.” Also, what to make of Obama’s grandmother - whom he characterized as a racist during the primary season – being his second most trusted advisor now that he’s positioning himself for the general election? What’s next, replacing the Kanye West tracks on his iPod with Donny Osmond?  

RW: Can you give me an example of where you win [sic; the transcript should read “went”] against party loyalty and maybe even win [sic; ditto] against your own best interest for the good of America? 

BO:  I worked with John McCain on … the issue of campaign ethics reform and finance reform. That wasn’t probably in my interest or his for that matter, because the truth was both Democrats or Republicans sor [sic] of like the status quo and I was new to the Senate and it didn’t necessarily engender a lot of popularity when I started saying … we’re going to eliminate meals and gifts from corporate lobbyists … When I opposed the initial decision to go to war in Iraq, that was not a popular view at the time and I was just starting my campaign for the United States Senate and … people who advised me … you could end up losing the election as a consequence.

JMcC:  You know, by a strange coincidence I was not elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate this year. I don’t know why. … Climate change, out-of-control spending, torture. … on a large number of issues … I’ve put my country first and I’ve reached across the aisle. But … when I was first a member of Congress … and President Reagan … wanted to send troops to Beirut for a peacekeeping mission. My knowledge and my background told me that a few hundred marines in a situation like that could not successfully carry out any kind of peacekeeping mission and I thought they were going into harm’s way. Tragically, as many of you recall, there was a bombing in the marine barracks and well over 100 brave marines gave their lives. But it was tough, that vote, because I went against the president I believe [sic] in and the party that believed that maybe I was disloyal very early in my political career. 

Between The Lines: In his scant three years as a U.S. Senator, Obama has voted with his party 97 percent of the time. Obama can never hope to be as credible on this point as McCain.   

RW:  What’s the most significant position you held ten years ago that you no longer hold today, that you flipped on … because you actually see it differently?  

BO:  Welfare reform … I was much more concerned ten years ago when President Clinton initially signed the bill that this could have disastrous results. … It worked better than I think a lot of people anticipated and … one of the things I am absolutely convinced of is that we have to have work as a center piece [sic] of any social policy.

JMcC: Offshore drilling. We’ve got to drill now and we’ve got to drill here and we’ve got to become independent on foreign oil … This is a national security issue … we’re sending $700 billions [sic] of dollars a year to countries that don’t like us very much … some of that money is ended up [sic] in the hands of terrorist organizations … we cannot allow this greatest transfer of wealth in history and our national security to continue to be threatened.  

Between The Lines: McCain seizes upon this question to turn one of his weaknesses – and biggest political miscalculations – into a strength. By attributing his change of heart to national security, he blunts criticisms of political opportunism since national security is the central issue of his campaign.   

RW: What’s the most gut-wrenching decision you’ve even had to make and what was the process you used to make it? 

BO: The opposition to the war in Iraq was as tough a decision that I’ve had to make, not only because there were political consequences but also because Saddam Hussein was a bad person and there was no doubt that he met [sic; the transcript should read “meant”] American ill. But I was firmly convinced at the time that we did not have strong evidence o weapons of mass destruction and … do we know how the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds are going to get along in a post-Saddam situation? What’s our assessment as to how this will affect the battle against terrorist [sic] like Al-Qaeda? Have we finished the job in Afghanistan? … And now as the war went forward, very difficult about how long do you keep funding the war if you strongly believe that it’s not [sic] America’s national interest … at the same time you don’t want to have troops who are out there without the equipment they need.  

JMcC:  It was long ago and far away in a prison camp in North Vietnam. My father was a high-ranking admiral. The Vietnamese … said … I could leave prison early and we had a code of conduct that said you only leave by order of capture. … I was in rather bad physical shape … I said no … and the interrogator said go back to your cell, it’s going to be very rough on you now. And it was. But not only the toughest decision I ever made, but I’m most happy about that decision than any decision I’ve ever made in my life. … It took a lot of prayer.  

Between The Lines: From opposing Reagan’s peacekeeping mission in Beirut to sizing up Putin as an unreformed KGB goon, McCain has been very clear-eyed about foreign policy matters. But doesn’t he wish he had Obama’s 20-20 hindsight? When the Iraq War Resolution came up for a vote in Congress in October 2002 Obama was chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee – as an IL state senator. Yet, he somehow knew what was in the classified intelligence reports on Saddam’s bioweapons capabilities. When Obama began his Senate run in 2004, he was reflexively anti-war, like all liberals. His assertion that this was gut-wrenching decision – or even a reasoned judgment – is beyond laughable.  

McCain’s answer is so heroic, so inspirational. It is almost beyond comprehension a human being – weak and flawed as we all are – can find the courage to choose to endure additional years of torture because his personal honor and love of country demanded it. All the manly virtues rolled up into one package.   

RW:  At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?  

BO:   Whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity … is above my pay grade. … I am pro-choice. … I believe in Roe v. Wade and come to that conclusion not because I’m pro-abortion, but because … I don’t think women make these decisions casually.  

RW: Have you ever voted to limit or reduce abortions? 

BO: I am in favor … of limits on late term abortions if there is an exception for the mother’s health.  

JMcC: At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record in Congress … And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That is my commitment to you. 

RW: OK. We don’t have to go longer on that one. 

Between The Lines: Obama often referenced bible passages in his answers – perhaps subtly to underscore the fact that he is not Muslim - but this line of questioning showed that he only talks the talk. In addition, Obama was less than forthright in answering Warren’s follow-up question, considering that he has pledged to sign (second item) the Freedom of Choice Act, which would nullify state and federal laws that restrict abortion in any way. American Values president Gary Bauer thinks Obama’s chances of capturing the evangelical vote “ended” at Saddleback Church, because he revealed himself to be an abortion “radical” and that this forum could be “one of the defining moments of the campaign” (video). In contrast, McCain used personal testimony to illustrate his core beliefs, and gave unequivocal answers to questions such as these. Whereas the crowd sat in stone cold silence throughout Obama’s answer, the folks went wild over McCain’s.  

RW:  Does evil exist, and if it does do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it or do we defeat it?

BO: Evil does exist … we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who have viciously abused their children … One of the things that I strongly believe is that … we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That’s G-d’s task. But we can be soldiers in that process and we can confront it when we see it. Now the one think [sic] that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil … recognizing that … just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.   

JMcC: Defeat it. … If I’m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of Hell, I will get Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice. … No one should be allowed to take thousands of … innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century – radical Islamic extremists. Not long ago in Baghdad, al-Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and by remote control detonated those vests. If that isn’t evil, you have to tell me what is.  

Between The Lines: McCain knows evil when he sees it – and unflinchingly calls it by its name. Obama was wishy-washy and retreated into moral relativism. As Edmund Burke noted, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” – but after stating that evil should be confronted, Obama doubled-back and conceded the fight against evil is futile and best left to G-d. Worse, in his worldview, every single action we take in fighting evil had better be morally correct, else we will be as evil as an enemy who blows up hapless dupes by remote control.   

RW: Which existing Supreme Court Justice would you not have nominated? 

BO: I would not have nominated Clarence Thomas. … I don’t think he was a strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation.  

JMcC: With all due respect, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, Justice Souter and Justice Stevens. 

RW: Why? 

JMcC: The president of the United States has incredible responsibility in nominating people to the United States Supreme Court. They are lifetime positions … there will be two maybe three vacancies. This nomination should be based on the criteria of proven record of strictly adhering to the Constitution … and not legislating from the bench. Some of the worst damage has been done by legislating from the bench. 

Between The Lines: So applying Obama’s reasoning on Thomas, as the presumptive Dem nominee has not completed even a single term in the Senate and has no foreign policy or military experience whatsoever, he is not strong enough to be elevated to the office of president and CIC. Well, he gets no argument from The Stiletto there!  

RW:  Taxes. This is a real simple question. Define rich. Is it $50,000, $100,000, $200,000?   

BO:  If you are making $150,000 a year or less as a family then you are middle class or you may be poor. … I would argue that if you are making more than $250,000 then you … are doing well. … If we believe in good schools, if we believe in good roads, if we want to make sure kids can go to college, if we don’t want to leave a mountain of debt for the next generation, then we’ve got to pay for these things. They don’t come free. And it is irresponsible … intergenerationally for us to … spend $10 billion a month [sic] on a war and not having a way to pay for it. That I think is unacceptable.

JMcC: I don’t want to take money from the rich. I want everybody to get rich. I don’t believe in class warfare or redistribution of the wealth. … If you’re just talking about income, how about $5 million … But seriously … the point that I am trying to make here … and I’m sure that comment will be distorted … the point is that we want to keep people’s taxes low and increase revenues. … It was not taxes that mattered in America in the last several years. It was spending. … We spent money in a way that mortgaged our kids’ futures. … The Congress is supposed to be careful stewards of your tax dollars. So what did they just do in the middle of an energy crisis … went on vacation for five weeks. … Two things they never miss, a pay raise and a vacation. … We should not and cannot raise taxes in tough economic times. So it doesn’t matter really what my definition of rich is because I don’t want to raise anybody’s taxes.  

Between The Lines: Obama’s figure on Iraq war spending comes from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, which describes itself as a “non-profit, non-partisan research organization dedicated to enhancing international peace and security in the 21st century.” According to Wikipedia, “The Center aims to seeks to reduce and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons as a tool of U.S. national security policy, halt the spread of all weapons of mass destruction, stop the deployment of a national missile defense system, and redirect national security spending to better address the genuine threats facing the United States.” The Stiletto could not find an explanation of “genuine threats” on the Center’s Web site, but this group appears to want the U.S. to be utterly defenseless against its enemies.  

The Stiletto is also rather alarmed at Obama’s definition of “rich.” As a childless single woman who lives in an extremely high cost-of-living city and has only her own income to rely on – out of which she must set aside money for healthcare and retirement – The Stiletto is very disturbed at the thought that she would be considered “rich” by Obama. She much prefers McCain’s definition of “rich” because it’s a target for her to shoot for without worrying about taxes eating away at her upward mobility and economic freedom.  

RW: What’s worth dying for? What’s worth having sacrifice of American lives for?  

BO:  Well, obviously, American freedom, American lives, American national interests. … We also have forged alliances with countries, NATO being a prime example, where we have pledged to act militarily for the common defense that is in our national interest and that is something I think we have to abide by. 

JMcC: Our national security. … Wars have started in obscure places that have enveloped us. We must also temper that with the ability to effectively and beneficially cause the outcome that we want. … there’s tyranny and tragedy throughout the world and we can’t right every wrong … so there could be conflicts that we can’t settle. The most precious asset we have is American blood and throughout our history Americans have gone to all four corners of the world and shed that blood in defense of someone else’s freedom. No other nation on earth as done that.  

Between The Lines:  Compare McCain’s answer here with Obama’s earlier answer that “just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.” McCain believes the inherent goodness and generosity of the American people assures that on the whole our intentions and actions will be good, whereas Obama appears to subscribe to his wife’s view of this country and its people as “mean.”    

RW: What would be the criteria that you would commit troops to end the genocide … what’s going on in Darfur or could happen in Georgia or anywhere else – a mass killing? 

BO: I don’t think that there is a hard and fast line at which you say, OK, we are going in. I think it’s always a judgment call. … The basic principle has to be that if we have it within our power to prevent mass killing and genocide and we can work in concert with the international community to prevent it then we should act. … I think the international component is very critical.  

JMcC: Our obligation is to stop genocide wherever we can. … The question is how can we effectively stop it and obviously we’ve got to do more and we’ve got to try to marshal the forces all over the world to join us. I think one of the things we ought to explore more carefully is supplying the logistics and equipment and the aid. And the African countries step forward with the personnel to enforce a genuine cease fire.  

Between The Lines: As with so many of the answers the two presumptive candidates gave, Obama speaks in generalities while McCain gets down to brass tacks. 

The Stiletto’s Take: While Obama was smooth and relaxed, he seemed incapable of saying what he means – or meaning what he says. Obama was often hesitant, kept second-guessing himself and had a habit of refining his responses in real time so as to please more of the viewers more of the time. McCain was resolute, self-assured and plainspoken.         

When you compare Obama’s answers to Warren’s questions with McCain’s, there is a stark difference between the two candidates: nuance v. clarity, dithering v. decisiveness, waffling v. certitude. Obama remains as opaque as ever. And McCain is the mensch we always knew he was.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog, chosen an Official Honoree in the Political Blogs category by the judges of the 12th Annual Webby Awards (the Oscars of the online universe) along with CNN Political Ticker, Swampland (Time magazine) and The Caucus (The New York Times).

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