Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., visits with children at Eastside Community Ministry in Zanesville, Ohio, on Tuesday, July 1, 2008. Obama is announcing plans to expand President Bush's program steering federal social service dollars to religious groups. (AP Photo/Matthew Leasure, Zanesville Times Recorder)
NPR correspondent Robert Smith says he may have caused the confusion this week about what exactly happened during a Barack Obama campaign appearance in Zanesville, Ohio.
News reports after the July 1 visit by the presidential candidate suggested he declined to give a fistbump to a boy at the Eastside Community Ministry, saying, "If I start that . . . ."
But video of the encounter soon showed that the boy had asked Obama to sign his hand with a permanent market, and that Obama told the boy his mother wouldn't appreciate that.
Smith was standing nearby at the time, representing radio reporters in the press pool selected to cover the scene in the crowded classroom. The veteran reporter says he'd been making small jokes for several days about fistbumps, which became a topic of national conversation after Fox News said Obama and his wife exchanged a "terrorist fist jab" after he clinched the nomination.
Enter the candidate and the schoolboy. Smith says Obama moved through the room, shaking hands. "I'm supposed to be quiet at this point," Smith says. "But I turned to the other reporters and I say, 'I wonder if anyone's going to give him a fistbump.' . . . And about a minute later, we see this little kid come up to him with his fist out. And I'm like, 'Look! It's going to happen! He's going to get a fistbump!' "
The room was fairly loud, Smith says, so it was hard for everyone to hear exactly what Obama said. "I hear Obama say, 'I don't think so.' And then I hear him saying, 'Your mother wouldn't like it. It'll look like a smudge of dirt.' At that point I'm thinking, in my head, 'Oh, they must be talking about something else.' "
The reporters in the worst position for listening were the print ones, whose job is to write what's going on in the room and immediately e-mail their notes to the other reporters. "What probably happened is that I might have set up the idea of the fistbump — 'It looks like the kid's giving him a fistbump' — it's a little bit confusing what Barack said, it's a little hard to hear. And then, they write that it's a fistbump."
Web sites lit up with accounts of Obama saying refusing to bump fists. "All of sudden, it looks like Barack Obama is turning his back on the fistbump," Smith says. "He's no longer will to do that, and he's disappointing a kid, and all this stuff."
Smith says pool reporters spend much of their time dissecting the minutiae of campaign appearances. He says it's not surprising that a small moment would make big news. Sounding good-humored philosophical about the scrum of political reporting, Smith says, "If my joking aside about a fistbump in some way changed the course of this election and hence the American empire, then I am officially sorry."