Questioning Obama’s love for America, 8 years later
When Rudy Giuliani and I broke the internet.
I’m Darren Samuelsohn, and you’re reading a bonus edition of love, journalism, a weekly newsletter that’s published Tuesdays around noon DC time that’s full of insights, interviews, ideas and inspiration from me, a veteran journalist who has been reporting and editing writers for 30+ years.
Are you new here? Please sign up to get love, journalism for free, and consider a paid subscription to help support my work and spread the journalism love. You can also listen to ‘The love, journalism Show’ podcast here. New episodes air on Saturday mornings.
It feels quaint now thinking back on the moment eight years ago today that Rudy Giuliani and I broke the internet. But when the former mayor of New York questioned the patriotism of the sitting president of the United States, it really made a stir.
Let’s rewind: On the night of Ash Wednesday in February 2015, Giuliani crashed a dinner of New York Republicans and conservative media bigwigs assembled to hear Scott Walker tout his own aspiring presidential campaign during a period when the sitting Wisconsin governor was seen as the early GOP front runner.
Walker had the VIP billing for the exclusive private event in an upstairs room at the 21 Club, a famous Prohibition-era speakeasy and kitschy restaurant in midtown Manhattan. As a reporter for Politico, I’d scored my own invite to the dinner to do some reporting for a long-form profile story I had cooking about Stephen Moore, a co-founder of the Club for Growth and one of the event’s co-hosts who at the time was trying to position himself for a job as a policy advisor to one of the Republican presidential candidates.
At a cocktail party before the dinner began, I rubbed shoulders and quizzed all kinds of important people who would become even more familiar to the world during the Donald Trump presidency. I chatted up David Malpass, the future World Bank president until just this past week and Grover Norquist, the Americans for Tax Reform president who became a leading cheerleader for Trump’s signature domestic tax overhaul.
Moore, who amid controversy four years later would withdraw his own Trump nomination for a position as a governor on the Federal Reserve Board, introduced me to his partners in arranging the dinner: Larry Kudlow, Trump’s future top White House economist, and Arthur Laffer, the Reagan-era economic policy icon whom Trump would bestow in 2019 with the presidential medal of freedom.
On that night, as the assembled guests — about 60 people — devoured their medium rare steaks and sipped their California cabernet, Walker delivered what sounded like a standard stump speech. His folksy 90-minute pitch weaved from calls for tax cuts and greater deregulation to how a dynasty presidential candidate like his rival Jeb Bush would be a loser. He expressed his repeated love and devotion to the Green Bay Packers.
Seated in a corner of the room away from the action, I filled up my notebook with colorful string that would find its way into my longer feature story. I had plenty of time to work on it and figured it’d be an early night when things took the most unexpected of turns.
“We’ve got some breaking news,” Kudlow said after spotting Giuliani entering the room. “A great pleasure. An unexpected pleasure. Somebody who knows something about growth, reform and safety. And the star of ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
We’d later learn that Giuliani had gotten a last-minute invitation from John Castimatidis, the billionaire supermarket mogul and local conservative radio host who was footing the bill for the dinner Moore and his partners had organized.
It’s important to note that at this point of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was still three months away from announcing his own White House run following the most famous escalator ride in American history at his namesake tower just four blocks north from the 21 Club.
As for the notion Giuliani would be Trump’s personal attorney amid a special counsel investigation into Russian interference that helped the president of the United States win the White House and then follow that up by triggering only the third Senate impeachment trial in US history for a president of the United States and then play a role in an insurrection at the US Capitol after the president of the United States lost his reelection bid, well, you get the picture.
There in New York that night, almost 14 years since 9/11 and Giuliani’s rise in the national parlance as “America’s mayor,” he started out by assuring everyone in the room he still had a “very open mind about who our candidate for president of the United States should be.”
Then he turned a bit philosophical.
“I’d like to get serious for just one minute. I believe our country is in crisis right now,” he said. “And I’m not sure we know. It’s a matter of money.”
“But it’s the second one that worries me more,” Giuliani continued, and when I go back and look at the transcript I’m not sure he’d really made a complete first point.
“We’re giving away Western civilization. We need an American president who understands the value of Western civilization to the humanization of this world. It’s being attacked. People are being killed for it. That’s why Jews are being killed. That’s why Christians are being killed. There is a movement that wants to destroy Western civilization. And the president doesn’t understand that.”
Giuliani then said that back in 2007 and 2008, when he had been an early presidential front runner in the Republican nomination fight to succeed President George W. Bush, many in his party thought, “Hillary would have been better than Barack Obama.”
“True, she’d be a little bit better,” he continued. “Right now, Hillary Clinton would be a disaster. We need a man in the White House who has the courage to reverse everything Barack Obama has done.”
The room broke into applause.
Giuliani then listed some of those things he thought needing undoing: tax and health care policy, to start. All the other Obama regulations needed to be cut in half too, he added.
Next: “We need an American president who realizes this is the greatest country in the history of the world. If the world needs a policeman, it better be the USA, not Russia, China or Iran. We need a president who understands that like Ronald Reagan.”
He was building up to the money quote, which is what journalists call it when someone says something that is so good that it needs to go at the very top of a story. This was it:
“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country. And, with all our flaws, we’re the most exceptional country in the world. And I’m looking for a presidential candidate who can express that, do that, and carry it out.”
I looked around the room when Giuliani said it, thinking that his comment was the kind of thing that would make waves when I reported it. Silence. A few glasses clinked.
He kept going for a few minutes before bringing his remarks back to the featured guest and the upcoming nomination battle that he predicted would end with the GOP circling behind whomever the party’s voters picked to face the Democrats in November 2016.
“And if it’s you, Scott, I’ll endorse you. And if it’s somebody else, I’ll support somebody else,” Giuliani concluded. “But so far, you’ve shown an extraordinary amount of tenacity and ability, and I thought last night on Megyn Kelly you handled yourself brilliantly.”
After the dinner wrapped, I followed Giuliani downstairs to ask him about his comments and to make sure I’d heard him right.
A few days earlier, Obama had enraged conservatives when he said during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC that “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” during the Crusades and Spanish Inquisition.
Amid the uproar, Obama had insisted his remarks were a restatement of history designed to make a larger point about Islam and terrorism. But his critics on the right seized upon the president’s comments as another telltale sign Obama wasn’t himself a Christian. Dr. Benjamin Carson, who spoke at the prayer breakfast with an introduction from then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, used the moment to catapult himself into the national GOP political conversation and later on a job in the Trump Cabinet.
Giuliani explained to me that the president’s prayer breakfast comments were on his mind as he doubled down about why he was questioning Obama’s patriotism. “What country has left so many young men and women dead abroad to save other countries without taking land?” he said.
“This is not the colonial empire that somehow he has in his hand. I’ve never felt that from him,” he added. “I felt that from [George] W. [Bush]. I felt that from [Bill] Clinton. I felt that from every American president, including ones I disagreed with, including [Jimmy] Carter. I don’t feel that from President Obama.”
The ex-mayor was totally in his element as he stood there talking to me in the lobby of the restaurant, an antiquated hangout famous for its cheesy decorations of football helmets and race cars hanging from the ceiling. A certain subset of celebrities loved the place, including Trump, who amid his presidential transition some 20 months later would bring Mitt Romney to the restaurant for a candlelight dinner while trying unsuccessfully to court the future Utah GOP senator into being his secretary of state.
I took down a couple more of Giuliani’s quotes before heading back upstairs to make arrangements to stay connected to Moore for my profile story, and to collect contact information to follow up with Kudlow and Laffer. Outside on West 52nd Street, I asked Walker for a comment about what Giuliani had said but the governor ignored me as he got into his waiting black town car.
Back in my hotel room, I quickly checked Google to see if there were any hits around search terms like “Giuliani,” “America,” “love” or “Obama.” Nothing. I kept my article tight at less than 600 words. I emailed the White House asking for a comment and rounded out my story with a recent quote from then-spokesman Josh Earnest pushing back on the criticism over the president’s prayer breakfast comments. My story published at 11:29 pm.
I slept on edge that night and woke up early the next morning with my Twitter mentions throttling my phone. I had never had a story go viral before.
Amazingly, Giuliani was already in the Fox & Friends studio spinning as the sun was coming up: “Well, first of all, I’m not questioning his patriotism. He’s a patriot, I’m sure.”
My piece was going everywhere, from the New York Times and CNN to news outlets in Saudi Arabia and Australia. A columnist in Israel offered some context that Giuliani’s remark was the kind of thing that gets said there all the time. Many of the GOP aspirants fielded a question seeking their opinions too. "I can't get into his head — or, for that matter, his soul — about what he thinks about this country,” Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and future Trump energy secretary, said. Whoopi Goldberg weighed in on the View.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz swung back later Thursday morning, telling reporters that Giuliani “test-drove this line of attack during his fleeting 2007 run for the presidency.”
Giuliani continued to spin it his way too.
“Some people thought it was racist — I thought that was a joke, since he was brought up by a white mother, a white grandfather, went to white schools, and most of this he learned from white people,” he told the New York Times the next morning after my story published. “This isn’t racism. This is socialism or possibly anti-colonialism.”
"My blunt language suggesting that the president doesn't love America notwithstanding, I didn't intend to question President Obama's motives or the content of his heart," Giuliani wrote.
The Politico editors sent along attaboys as the piece kept on going into the mainstream, from People Magazine to Comedy Central. “Since when does Giuliani get to declare who loves the country?” asked host Larry Wilmore, the host of The Nightly Show. “Who put him in charge of country love?”
Somehow, things got even crazier.
About 10 days later, Saturday Night Live used the quote as the premise for a stem winder of a cold opening where one of the show’s actors donned a Giuliani costume and tried to explain his remarks to a faux Fox host who grinned widely and declared his remarks weren’t a problem because “you warned us that what you were about to say would be horrible.”
“So,” she said, “it’s fine.”
That SNL skit got even weirder when the Giuliani actor walked off the set and started doing a voice over as if he was Michael Keaton’s character from the Oscar-nominated hit movie from the time, Birdman. I’ve wondered since then if that’s the moment when America crossed the line into a permanent state of weird.
Personally, I would often joke as everything unfolded around the Giuliani-Obama story that it was a career capstone worthy of a mic-drop early retirement. In terms of loving journalism, there’s nothing quite like the feeling that something you’ve done has entered the zeitgeist, even if as a reporter no one remembers your name as the one responsible for the thing.
Over the last eight years, I’ve also thought about Giuliani’s remarks with an eye toward understanding what made them break through during a political era that was already really loud and full of partisan echo chambers. Calling into question the patriotism of a sitting president isn’t stuff that normally happens in American politics, though I know that throughout history some pretty divisive things have been said about political opponents.
The Giuliani story took another unexpected turn a few weeks after it broke that further cemented its place in history when Obama addressed the topic head on during one of the most famous of his presidential speeches to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights marches.
“Fellow marchers, so much has changed in 50 years,” Obama said from the Edmund Pettus Brudge. “We have endured war and we’ve fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives. We take for granted conveniences that our parents could have scarcely imagined. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship; that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.
“That’s what it means to love America,” the president added. “That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.”
As we now know, Obama couldn’t stop what came next.
Like his other fellow GOP rivals, Walker’s White House campaign imploded later on in 2015 as Trump surged and never looked back. Some of the campaign obituaries for Walker even mentioned prominently how he’d struggled to address questions from reporters about Obama’s patriotism and follow ups asking whether he thought the president was really a Christian.
The Trump factor, of course, changed everything. Thanks to 2016, you could brag about your masculinity and demean your opponents with the kinds of nicknames typically thrown around on the playground while caring little whether there’s any policy substance behind what you’re saying.
What’s perhaps most fascinating to me about the night Giuliani and I broke the internet is the question of whether the same kind of story could ever break through again. I’m skeptical.
love, journalism is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.