The Audacious Book Salon: Chapter One... and done
When I decided to read and review Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope, it was with a schizoid agenda.
As an Obama skeptic, I reckoned it might help justify my remaining a member of what Kos calls "a shrinking band of paranoid holdouts."
And, in the likely event that Obama will be my last best hope to keep Bush-hugger John McCain from the White House, it might help rally me onto the Obamawagon... with maybe a modicum of enthusiasm.
While the book is doing a prodigious job with the former, it's making the latter painfully difficult. So difficult that I'm not sure I want to keep on reading it.
In any case, I'm pulling the plug on my plan to review it in full, because I'm finding it seriously depressing, and because if I call bullshit on all of the bullshit, I'm going to get Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
Chapter One ("Republicans and Democrats") of my copy is now awash in red ink, as I trace Family Circus-style the circuitous path Obama takes to fashion himself into a self-styled superhero: Triangulator II.
- Politics used to be gentlemanly
- But there were problems, like racism and such (and everyone had to be a "gentleman")
- In the 60s, some of those problems came to a head, and things got better
- Still, the Baby Boomers are "arrested development" cases whose whiny entitlement is the cause of today's political stalemate
- It should be said that the Republicans have done some terrible things. So, maybe it's not a stalemate.
- ... But I'm sure the Democrats have been just as extreme (even if there aren't any relevant examples). And, besides, we're losers.
- Bill Clinton played the GOP to a draw. I'm going to succeed like he did. But differently. And more so. In some way.
Fuck! Exactly what I was afraid this was going to be: a masterpiece of equivalation.
Even though Obama seems fully aware that today's GOP is quite a lot different (i.e., ruthless, corrupt, authoritarian, incompetent, if not in so many words) than today's Democratic Party (well-meaning but hapless), the two-bickering-partisans narrative is so cheap, easy, and — most importantly — aggrandizing to his more-nonpartisan-than-thou "I'm the good Democrat" campaign, he just can't resist. God fucking dammit. This guy is the odds-on favorite to "represent me" in November. Fuck!
Lest I be accused of cutting and running without backing up this assessment, here are some snapshots of these stomach-churning twists and turns.
1. Politics used to be gentlemanly
P. 16: [When I got to D.C.] "The country was divided, and so Washington was divided, more divided politically politically than at any time since before World War II. (Apparently, we are more divided than during the Civil Rights and Vietnam rifts of the 1960s, and I guess we lack the pleasing unanimity of the HUAC era.)
P. 25: One of first things I noticed upon my arrival in Washington was the relative cordiality among the Senate's older members : the unfailing courtesy that governed every interaction between John Warner and Robert Byrd, or the genuine bond of friendship between Republican Ted Stevens and Democrat Daniel Inouye. It is commonly said that these men represent the last of a dying breed, men who not only love the Senate but who embody a less sharply partisan brand of politics. And in fact it is one of the the few things that conservatives and liberal commentators agree on, this idea of a time before the fall, a golden age in Washington when, regardless of which party was in power, civility reigned and government worked. (Damn you, Clinton and your blow job for ruining all that! The Republicans had so wanted that Beltway Eden to prosper.)
2. But there were problems, like racism and such (and everyone had to be a "gentleman")
P. 26: He [an unnamed Washington old-timer] had airbrushed out of the picture the images of the Southern Caucus denouncing proposed civil rights legislation from the floor of the Senate; the insidious power of McCarthyism; the numbing poverty that Bobby Kennedy would help highlight before his death; the absence of women and minorities in the halls of power.
3. In the 60s, some of those problems came to a head, and things got better
P. 27: Ultimately Lyndon Johnson chose the right side of this battle, but as a son of the South, he understood better than most the cost involved with that choice: upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he would tell aid Bill Moyers that with the stroke of the pen he had just delivered the South to the GOP for the foreseeable future. (My apologies for relaying Obama's racist claim that Johnson played an important role in the civil rights movement.)
4. Still, the Baby Boomers are "arrested development" cases whose whiny entitlement is the cause of today's political stalemate
P. 27: And then, with the walls of the status quo breached, every form of "outsider" came streaming through the gates: feminists, Latinos, hippies, Panthers, welfare moms, gays, all asserting their rights, all insisting on recognition, all demanding a seat at the table and a piece of the pie.
P. 29: ...excuses for violence in intellectual circles... spitting on vets....
P. 31. That Reagan's message found such a receptive audience spoke not only to his skills as a communicator; it also spoke to the failures of liberal government, during a period of economic stagnation, to give middle-class voters any sense that it was fighting for them. For the fact was that government at every level had become too cavalier about spending taxpayer money. Too often, bureaucracies were oblivious to the cost of their mandates. A lot of liberal rhetoric did seem to value rights and entitlements over duties and responsibilities.
...by promising to side with those who worked hard, obeyed the law, cared for their families, and loved their country, Reagan offered Americans a sense of a common purpose that liberals seemed no longer able to muster. And the more his critics carped, the more those critics played into the role he'd written for them—a band of out-of-touch, tax-and-spend, blame-America-first, politically correct elites. (We wouldn't want anyone playing into Reagan's framing, now would we?)
What I find remarkable is not that the political formula developed by Reagan worked at the time, but just how durable the narrative that he helped promote has proven to be....
The fury of the counter culture may have dissipated into consumerism, lifestyle choices, and musical preferences rather than political commitments, but the problems of race, war, poverty, and relations between the sexes did not go away.
And maybe it just has to do with the sheer size of the Baby Boom generation, a demographic force that exerts the same gravitational pull in politics that it exerts on everything else, from the market for Viagra to the number of cup holders automakers put in their cars. (For those who might see Obama fomenting generational warfare, fear not. He's [p. 29] "always felt a curious relationship to the sixties," which is no wonder. Who wouldn't be fascinated by the era that turned out millions of limp-dicked latté-loving limousine liberals?)
5. It should be said that the Republicans have done some terrible things. So, maybe it's not a stalemate.
P. 19: They [Obama's new colleagues, when he joined the Senate] told me about their fallen leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who had seen millions of dollars' worth of negative ads rain down on his head—full-page newspaper ads and television spots informing his neighbors day after day that he supported baby-killing and men in wedding gowns, a few even suggesting that he’d treated his first wife badly, despite the fact that she had traveled to South Dakota to help him get reelected. They recalled Max Cleland, the former Georgia incumbent, a triple-amputee war veteran who had lost his seat in the previous cycle after being accused of insufficient patriotism, of aiding and abetting Osama bin Laden.
And then there was the small matter of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth: the shocking efficiency with which a few well-placed ads and the chants of conservative media could transform a decorated Vietnam war hero into a weak-kneed appeaser.
6. ...But, I'm sure the Democrats have been just as extreme (even if there aren’t any relevant examples). And, besides, we're losers.
P. 16: Not only did we disagree, but we disagreed vehemently, with partisans on each side of the divide unrestrained in the vitriol they hurled at opponents.
P. 19: [Immediately after the Daschle/Cleland/Kerry comment, above] No doubt there were Republicans who felt similarly abused. And perhaps the newspaper editorials that appeared that first week of session were right; perhaps it was time to put the election behind us, for both parties to store away their animosities and ammunition and, for a year or two at least, get down to governing the country. (He goes on equivalate about "the escalating ferocity of Washington's political battles... Iran-Contra and Ollie North, the Bork nomination and Willie Horton, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, the Clinton election and the Gingrich Revolution, Whitewater and the Starr investigation, the government shutdown and impeachment, dangling chads and Bush v. Gore." It really makes you ashamed to be a Democrat when you see it laid out like that, how we've matched tit-for-tat the sins of selling weapons to our enemies to fund a secret war, running an $80 million campaign to destroy the presidency, vote fraud, and more.)
P. 23: Thoughtful Republicans shouldn’t be too sanguine, though, for if the Democrats have had trouble winning, it appears that the Republicans—having won elections on the basis of pledges that often defy reality (tax cuts without service cuts, privatization of Social Security with no change in benefits, war without sacrifice)—cannot govern.
And yet publicly it’s difficult to find much soul-searching or introspection on either side of the divide, or even the slightest admission of responsibility for the gridlock. What we hear instead, not only in campaigns but in editorial pages, on bookstands, or in the ever-expanding blog universe, are deflections of criticism and assignments of blame. Depending on your tastes, our condition is the natural result of radical conservatism or perverse liberalism, Tom DeLay or Nancy Pelosi, big oil or greedy trial lawyers, religious zealots or gay activists, Fox News or the New York Times. (Let's take stock of this. The "cannot win" Democrats are as bad as the lying, "cannot govern" Republicans. Today's Democrats are as extreme on the left as the Repubs are on the right. Tom Delay vs. Nancy Pelosi, oil execs vs. trial lawyers, religious obsessives vs. equal-rights gays, and Fox News vs. the New York Times are fair match-ups of disreputable, polarized extremists. And there's more, after saying "I won't deny my preference for the story of the Democrats," he equivalates once again by comparing the right and left as mirror-image conspiracy theorists, as if the Democrats are routinely as radical on the left as the folks who brought us the last seven years are on the right).
7. Bill Clinton played the GOP to a draw. I'm going to succeed like he did. But differently. And more so. In some way.
P. 35: Clintonism could be made to embody the very traits of sixties liberalism that had helped spur the conservative movement....
Clinton may have fought that [conservative] movement to a draw, but the movement would come out stronger for it.
As the chapter draws to a close, Obama's see-sawing equivalation becomes positively dizzying. One moment he's observing that (p. 38)"I know very few elected Democrats who neatly fit the liberal caricature," only to suddenly reverse course by wagging a finger at New Deal / Great Society dead-enders bent on "achieving ratings of 100 percent from the liberal interest groups."
He momentarily disses Democratic "centrists," but then immediately turns and characterizes the Dems as "the party of reaction." What kind of reaction? The kind that Ronnie warned us about:
P. 39: In reaction to a war that is ill-conceived, we appear suspicious of all military action. In reaction to those who proclaim the market can cure all ills, we resist efforts to use market principles to tackle pressing problems. In reaction to religious overreach, we equate tolerance with secularism and forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with a larger meaning. We lose elections and hope for the courts to foil Republican plans. We lose the courts and wait for a White House scandal.
I don't think Maureen Dowd, with a Hillary nutcracker in hand and Al Gore's milk dripping from her curled lip, could have done a better job unmanning the Democratic Party.
And could Pat Robertson have done a better job equating religion with morality and of pissing on Jefferson's concept of a secular government as a means to religious freedom?
Obama just as nimbly shames us from being sickos who want the kind of health care that every other modern nation has:
P. 40: I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. For it is the predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face. It is what keeps us locked in "either/or" thinking: the notion that we can only have big government or no government; the assumption that we must either tolerate 46 million uninsured or embrace "socialized medicine."
Now, somehow you might have gotten the idea that there was a sea change in America, where the narrow and disputed losses in 2000 and 2004 and the disastrous governance of double-millennial America had prepared us to turn away from the legacy of Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush and Bush. But you'd be wrong. Why, I'm not sure. But he gave me his word that it was the case, and that's good enough for me with old Barry.
Well, the good news is that, if Obama is right, and Americans share his semi-phobia for a progressive agenda, this book should serve a stiff antidote for those who would defame him as a "liberal."
And if you're worried whether post-partisan Obama is tough enough to weather the final roughneck leg of the campaign (in case framing the Clintons as racists who want to destroy the party isn't sufficient proof of his political acumen), there's good news on this front, as well:
P. 17: I don't claim to be a passive bystander in all this. I understood politics as a full-contact sport, and minded neither the sharp elbows nor the occasional blind-side hit.
Obama refers to his "fluke" of a Senate campaign that went easily... after his top Democratic rival "spent $28 million, mostly on a barrage of positive ads, only to flame out in the final weeks due to an unflattering divorce file that the press got unsealed."
The New York Times offers some background on the circumstances of that "unsealing":
Axelrod is known for operating in this gray area, part idealist, part hired muscle. It is difficult to discuss Axelrod in certain circles in Chicago without the matter of the Blair Hull divorce papers coming up. As the 2004 Senate primary neared, it was clear that it was a contest between two people: the millionaire liberal, Hull, who was leading in the polls, and Obama, who had built an impressive grass-roots campaign. About a month before the vote, The Chicago Tribune revealed, near the bottom of a long profile of Hull, that during a divorce proceeding, Hull’s second wife filed for an order of protection. In the following few days, the matter erupted into a full-fledged scandal that ended up destroying the Hull campaign and handing Obama an easy primary victory. The Tribune reporter who wrote the original piece later acknowledged in print that the Obama camp had “worked aggressively behind the scenes” to push the story. But there are those in Chicago who believe that Axelrod had an even more significant role — that he leaked the initial story.
I don't know about you, but for the first time ever, I'm naming my Unity Pony "Proud." Not proud to be a Baby Boomer liberal, mind you, but proud nonetheless.