Part of good judgment is knowing what words mean, when they apply and when they don't. If you know this, you can be precise in your agreement and disagreement. It's an essential skill in working with people over time, and in getting things right from the start.
In Tuesday's debate we saw how Barack Obama respects words, and how he uses good judgment. He was asked a question about accepting or rejecting Louis Farrakhan's "endorsement." In fact, Farrakhan did not say he endorsed Obama for President in the Democratic primaries or the general election. He observed, "This young man is the hope of the entire world that America will change and be better." But Obama let the word "endorse" go by, and explained that he had often denounced Farrakhan's positions and statements. He said that he can't stop anyone from saying anything, and that Farrakhan had offered no help to his campaign.
Then Hillary made a big to-do about rejecting an endorsement by a hate group, which sounds like it really might have been an endorsement, and insisted that Obama would send the wrong message by merely "denouncing" and not "rejecting."
Several commentators later said or wrote that Obama had been vague, or gotten himself in trouble at this point. Then he made his point and the distinction even clearer: "There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it." I don't see how he could have been clearer: he can't reject what hadn't been offered. And that all those commentators didn't understand this bothers me.
But then Obama made an immensely skillful move. Seeing that people might not get the distinction, and that this might require even further explanation, and that it wasn't worth it, he added, "But if the word 'reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."
This made the whole things seem silly, Clinton look petty in trying to find something to get him on, and it pulled the rug from under the commentators who couldn't figure out that very simple distinction.
As I say, that they couldn't figure it out bothers me. But it gives me great confidence that Obama understood it. Someday that kind of precision is going to be important for President Obama.
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