Monday, November 13, 2006
The Barack Obama Phenomenon: If the Democrats Were Smart, Theyd Nominate Him. If Voters Were Smart, Theyd Defeat Him.
Anyhow, Get it Over with: Hes a Fad Like the Hula Hoop; Nominate Him, Get the Fever Out of the Blood and Count on Him Scaring the U.S. with His Naivete. Limpid Eyes and Soft Words? Not in a President!
A reprint of my column with some updating in The Wanderer, the nations oldest national Catholic newspaper.
By Thomas F. Roeser
CHICAGOActor, composer and mordant wit Oscar Levant once said that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin. Not that this daughter of German Catholic immigrants was a spiritual phenomenon. It was that Levant couldnt get over her real bio from the hype. Here was a girl who started as a Hollywood kid dancer at age 12 with little observable parental guidance, then bit parts to adolescence when she became a big band singer with Les Brown and Bob Hope at 18through having had three husbands by age 30 to becoming the naïve, almost nun-like object of Rock Hudsons affection in Pillow Talk which earned her PhotoPlays designation as the most believable actress in America in her mid-30s! Get this: most believable! Then, at age 40 still everybodys grown-up, freckled-faced kid sister singing, with misty, milky eyes the philosophical Que Sera, Sera [What will be, will be]. Drumming at his piano with a martini standing by, Levant would say: I cant believe it.
I know how Levant felt about Doris Day but in a political venue. It takes some telling. I still visit for a client Illinois capitol which still smacks some of the hayseed town Lincoln knew. Some cab drivers still chew tobacco and roll down the window to spit. They speak southern. A car is called a core. A park a pork. They still talk about a legendary Democratic House Speaker and secretary of state named Paul Powell (they pronounce it Pol Pal in southern Illinois-ese) who was found dead in a hotel room with $600,000 stuffed in shoe-boxes in the closet and a legacy of 10,000 spectacular stories of deals.
Well, in our state capitol until recently could be found a lanky 6-foot-6-inch black man who was just another Chicago Democratic liberal, no better, no worse. Once in a while I would see him trade stories with the bored white, southern state troopers who have to run every visitor through a metal detector. He was a state senator with a name so odd that everybody figured he was at a dead end. In a state where voters with few exceptions had gravitated to familiar Anglo namesDaley, Ryan, Madigan, Strattonhis was Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., not exactly your catchy political tag. To the troopers and everybody else around the Capitol, he was always a reasonable guy who never ruffled anybodys fur. No governors or legislative leaders wondered how Obama felt about anything. The Chicago mayor certainly didnt. Nor did the media for a long time. They figured with that awful name, he was lucky to be in the legislature at all.
He was born forty-five years ago in Honolulu, Hawaii to Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. of Nyangoma-Kogelo, Kenya and Ann Dunham of Wichita, Kansas. His father got a scholarship to Harvard and skipped out, then went back to Kenya. He and Obamas mother divorced and she then married an Indonesian foreign student, moving to Jakarta with Obama when he was six. Lets say she liked exciting marriages and lands with strange sounding names.
It is no surprise that Barack Obama always wondered about father who abandoned him. But, and Obama never explains it, the missing black Dad has taken precedence in his dreams not so much for his white mother who stuck by him. He wrote a book, Dreams from My Father which describes what he calls a nearly race-oblivious childhood with a father black as pitch, my mother white as milk. In all this genealogical yearning, young Obama hasnt made much of his motherbut he obviously owes her everything: probably his looks which gives him a unique light tan coloring, flap ears women call cute and deep, unfathomable, limpid and soulful eyes like Bambi. In fact as he grew up, he became a black man with delicate, inoffensive courtly mien and a shy smile that your stereotypical well-off white liberal family from exurbia, desperately trying to be progressive, might not object to if he proposed to their blonde civil rights activist daughter from Smith. Thats pretty much the scenario of Guess Whos Coming to Dinner? isnt it?
Obama has much more to him that a quiet deference to others. He lived with his white grandparents in Hawaii, went with them shelling out the tuition to Punahou, a highly-rated prep school like Phillips Exeter. They also paid for him to go to Occidental College in California, then to Columbia university in New York (I havent heard that he is preparing a book Dreams of My Mother and Her Parents but thats another story). There he majored in political science, specializing in international relations. After graduating, he worked a year at IBM and was a typically well-dressed, pressed business typebut he tired of its machine-made atmosphere. Cautiously, carefully, a trademark he has always respected, he decided to take a job with a thoroughly respectable community organization based not far from where a few years ago I used to tutor blacks and Mexicans: Erie House. His job: helping local churches organize job-training programs. Then, after a short time to resume-build, he landed a slot at Harvard Law School.
Once at Harvard, he moved with typical caution but, in a school where affirmative action ranks high, he spread his wings and got elected president of the Harvard Law Review: the first non-white to do so. He took a summer job as intern at Sidley & Austin, the blue-chip firm whose mentor, Newton Minow, still burns a vigil light in memory of the late Adlai Stevenson, an Illinois governor noted for two thingsan episode where state inspectors turned crooked and sold grade B horsemeat as prime filet and where state employees ran a counterfeiting ring to make bogus cigarette stamps, pocking the money and cheating the state of millions of dollars of revenue. But Stevenson was a soulful literary personage, writer and two-time presidential nominee. Minow, a multi-millionaire who never realized a Stevensonsonian Camelot, took Obama under his wing and in fact introduced him to another intern, a beautiful law student named Michelle Robinson who looks like your typical black fashion model in Vogue.
Being a languid man of light tan color (lets say if he looked or acted threatening to whitey like the late Paul Robeson hed be on his own) adopted by prestigious white liberals wasnt all there was to him: Obama had the brain-power to graduate magna cum laude in 1991 from Harvard. Then back to Chicago where he worked as a staffer in a voter registration project but doubling as a junior lawyer in a firm up to its neck in liberal Democratic politics: Miner, Barnhill & Galland, run by venerable lefty activist and sentimentalist Judd Miner who used to battle with the original Mayor Daley over civil rights issues. His connections from Harvard Law got him a hitch as a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He married the beautiful Michelle who by then also had good contacts at the U of Cso good she hitched on as a community relations officer at U of C hospitals. They moved to the fashionable if extravagantly liberal Hyde Park neighborhood where the University is based. His gilt-edged resume proceeded him in the neighborhood. He wrote the book which stated frankly he not only smoked pot and inhaled but did cocainewhich made him one with deep-thought intellectuals and endeared him to the white New York east side Maoist trade.
Then came a small glitch There was an opening in 1996 for somebody with local residency to run for the state Senate but the constituency had a lot of black and poor. Barack Obama was not very black oriented in politics in a neighborhood where deep black is often preferred. And he was not poor: aristocratic, well-educated and rather dreamy, using such words as epiphany and not given to talking much about smelling the meat a-cookin the Democratic machine prefers. For a time he had trouble relating as Barack Obama with constituents whose names were something like Charlie Chew and Emil Jones (chain-smoking, hefty, easily-perspiring Emil Jones, a state senator in an adjoining district, then the Democratic minority leader of the Illinois State Senate). In his new neighborhood, Democratic liberalism comes undiluted, straight from the bottle; Obama liked to stir political concoctions with vague nuance: that was the way he talks to adoring whites now. But he had to learn how to talk not Harvard or southern black gentility but South Side. He was a master at blurring distinctions. But let me tell you that blurring distinctions is not what the Democratic machine does on Chicagos South Side.
Here his old boss, the old liberal Jewish Judd Miner, tough as an old boot, applied venerable Jake Arvey old-school moxie from and cracked some heads. The order came from downtown that Obama was to go to the state Senate. And when there was some complaining, Senator Jones, the epitome of black working class that its adherents call pick and shovel said to his workers who kicked that Obama wasnt one of them: Yall shut up! This guy is ours! And you will take him, hear me? Jones was leader of the Senate Democrats and one of four top state officials who negotiate the budget with the governor (Catholic who, of course, is pro-abort) on the South Side. Now he is Senate President, the second African-American in Illinois history to hold the post.
Under Jones tutelage, Obama learned in his local speeches to speak South Side and added it to his repertoire along with southern gentility and university talk. He proved to be a good student; he talked in blunt declaratives; once in Springfield he could do all three. He could and can switch to all three voices. I have a local ABC talk show on politics and he wanted on. So one day I passed through the metal detector to find him lounging around and talking to the state troopers in terms they understand. He signaled me, came over and said with a winning smile: Say, Big Guy, when do I get on your show? And, of course, just like that he was on.
I remember when he first came on, he was uniquely different from the usual run-of-the-mill Chicago Democratic politician. He decided to try his sweet southern style mixed with university nuance. The station carries Rush Limbaugh and has a big audience that is well to the right. The first time he was on my show, Obama tried out sweet southern. A guy would call up and assail the liberals for trying to take away my guns. Obama would listen to him and seemingly make an effort to reconcile, saying he sympathized but on the other hand--. In a sense he would parsebalancing his response so that there was equal weight on either side with a slight, very slight, indication as to where he was heading. On my show and on others, he began the reputation that clings to him now of a moderatewhere, in fact, theres nothing moderate about him. The guy who wanted to keep his guns soon found that out but to a wider audience, Obama was parsing and sounding pretty good. As is the case with all parsers, the definitive differences are blurred. And on that show Barack Obama was an ace Sweet Southern. But what few understood was that he could do blurry or specific lefty talkdepending on who wanted to hear what.
In Springfield, he was making headway but certainly not overnight. He had a big fan in Senate President Jones and a few media types but he still was regarded by many blacks as too intellectual to understand their needs. So he concentrated on the meat-and-potatoes that African Americans can appreciate. He touted them with simple declarative sentences. In the Democratic state Senate he was chairman of the Health and Human Services committee. He helped author an Earned Income Tax Credit to help the working poor, worked for legislation to cover residents who couldnt afford health insurance, helped pass laws on AIDS prevention and care programs.
Then, getting a modest share of media but nothing overwhelminghe decided to run for Congress. Moreover, he would take on one Congressman who makes every other African American palesociologically and politically: Bobby Rush. The idea of a equivocating, parsing black taking on Rush was titillating. Rush hasnt done much in Congress but he can run his mouth with short words, the more the better. In fact, Bobby Rush has gone through several lifetimes of changes. He was a Boy Scout, the son of a Republican woman precinct worker (believe it or not) in the ghetto, an army draftee, a recruit for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the Southand an AWOL soldier. Out of the brig and the army, he helped found the Illinois Black Panthers with its Power to the People slogan. He teamed up with one Fred Hampton, the Black Panthers chairman. The Panthers were regarded as such a threat to public safety that a Democratic states attorney, supposedly in sync with the extras-legals in John Mitchells Justice Department, conducted a raid for the express purpose of ridding the world of Hampton. Which succeeded with his cops training machine guns on Hamptons apartment door.
The outlaw cops then went looking for Rush, broke into his apartment but he wasnt there. They finally got Rush on a charge of illegal possession of firearms including machine guns and he served six months in prison. When he came out, he decided he would live longer by going into politics than running guns and preaching violence. Which he did and was elected alderman. Then he challenged an old time docile machine congressman Charlie Hayes who was in serious arrears with floating checks in the House disbursement office, and won.
In Congress Rush has been unproductive and lackadaisical. He ran a race for mayor against Richard M. Daley that went nowhere and sputtered like a wet fuse. It was understandable that Barack Obama saw himself as leader of a new black generationbut in Bobby Rushs district? He came on my show and announced for Congress, talking first in declaratives and then in vague intellectual terms. The campaign began with Obama getting what he expectedloads of earned media.
But then something happened. Pledging to introduce the latest gun control bill, he turned up missing from the legislature for two full months of the Senates winter session! Speculation ran rife: did Bobby take care of him? What happened to Obama? The time for introduction of his liberal dream of a gun-control bill came and no Obama. When he finally turned up, sheepish, he said he took his family on a vacation to Hawaii and while there his daughter got sick and so, gosh darn it, he had to stay in sunny Hawaii until she got better.
But Bobby Rush knew better. He said that Obama, a Hawaiian by birth, yearned for the sun and wanted to miss Chicagos brutal winter while the legislature was in session. That made sense to the voters. When Obama next appeared on my show, he didnt do well. He started out with intellectual talk about this epiphany and that epiphany but that didnt work. He switched gears and talked pork chop with short declaratives. That didnt work. He came across as a luxury-loving who loved warmer climes. Bobby Rush, the old Black Panther, knocked him out of the box 61% to 30%.
Not many people, black or white, took Obama seriously for a long time after that. He was ambitious, still called me up to get on my show but he was only one of many who wanted to get ahead. A few years passed. Then Republican U. S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald quarreled with his partyHouse Speaker Dennis Hastert and the new state chairman Judy Baar Topinka. Abruptly, Fitzgerald decided he would never get reelected with all those strikes against him so he announced he wouldnt run again. With Fitzgerald out, there was a great flurry of interest in the Democratic side. The odds makers saw Dan Hynes, a pro-abort Irish Catholic state comptroller and legatee of one of the hallowed old Democratic names, as in the lead. Then there was one Blair Hull, who sold his trading firm to Goldman-Sachs for $531 million, who vowed to spend as much as it took to get the nomination. There were a few others including a token Hispanic and, yes, Barack Obama. But the media knew him from the contest with Bobby Rush so nobody was excited.
As the race began, it appeared that Blair Hull would make good on his ability to buy everyonea hallowed Illinois tradition. But then his wife went public, sought a divorce and charged he was a violent man with an ungovernable temper who gave her a few whacks. He said he gave her the few whacks to make her stop kicking him. Young Dan Hynes came across as magnetic as a lead nail. In the TV debates that left the tall, courtly, deferential-appearing Barack Obama. Everybody gave him a second look. The same with the editorial boards. He came off as a statesman. He charmed the country club Tribune by moderate sweet-talk; the more militant Sun-Times with modified anger and some declaratives. Everybody in the Democratic party and the liberal media suddenly wept for the old days of civil rights. The pork chop unromantic black contingent that votes strictly pigment were mustered by Senate President Emil Jones. Obama won the nomination.
On the Republican side, a minor sex scandal torpedoed a multi-millionaire leading candidate. He withdrew which left the GOP high and dry. The GOP, eying Obama, decided to pick a black for its candidate and imported none other than Alan Keyes from Maryland. Theyre still trying to find the guy who came up with the idea of Keyesand nobody will own up to it. Keyes, a Harvard Ph.D, was all that he has ever beena stirring orator, a gifted rhetorician, a brilliant polemicistbut he was the worlds most erratic campaigner. Designed for big hall shouting orations rather than the cooler TV medium, he blew out the TV-radio fuses in other races for the Senatein Maryland. He lost to Paul Sarbanes 62% to 38% and Barbara Mikulski 71% to 29%. In between times, he blasted Hillary Clinton as a carpetbagger for moving to New York to run for the Senate. Now he was moving to Illinois from Maryland overnight to set up residence and he tried mightily until the sweat rolled down his forehead to conjugate the distinction.
Moreover, he left his political prudence at home. Talking at a news conference about home safety, illustrated by a owner who defended his suburban house with a gun, he veered into the subject of Israel and said he espoused the same rights here as they had therethat everybody should own machine guns if they wanted to. Wheeling around in other conferences, he blasted Dick Cheneys daughter as an immoral hedonist because she was a lesbian and then was insulted publicly by his own daughter who said she too is a lesbian. He swung wildly, attacking two key journalists who are, in fact, conservative and his supporters.
All the while, Democratic nominee Obama cruised in the stratosphere and was picked to deliver the keynote to the Democratic National Convention. Here Obama had to convince an audience he wasnt just a recycled Jesse Jackson, Sr. who could project an image of revival from Galilee to Jubilee. He scored. It was a keynote that was notable for saying very little that was different. But suddenly as a huge chunk of America tuned in, it saw a tall, angular Sidney Poitier type with a soft, safe-sounding clichés that didnt frighten anybody. He said things that were banal, starved for intellectual nutrition, but still rather uplifting. How about this quote? My parents shared an improbable love and an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or `blessed, believing in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. Really stirs your blood, what? But he became a black that everybody wanted to see triumph.
Another: The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. But Ive got news for them. We worship an awesome God in the blue states and we dont like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. Theyre patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people, all pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all defending the United States of America.
These are bland statements enough to cause a Rotary club to dose rather than a stirring Democratic keynote. But Democrats and most of America was thrilled and since that time believe they have detected a rare commodity: a black Democrat who doesnt talk in heroic couplets.
Doris Day, the sweet freckled faced girl next door, really swore like a longshoreman. And she despised Que Sera Sera--but when she sang it her blue eyes became like saucers. To national audiences, Obama is as bland as warm milk and a butter cookie. But with new handlers, his inner voice is the seldom used declarative voice. Even with a slight voting record of only two years in office, he .is a stringent pro-abort, a soft-spoken but firmly declarative opponent of the federal marriage amendment. He voted against confirming John Roberts as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, against confirming Sam Alito as Justice. There is scarcely an issue before the Senate that he is not aligned with the liberals on. He voted against making the Bush tax cuts permanent, campaigned against making the death tax cuts permanent, has turned his campaign over to word-smiths like David Axelrod, his shrewd consultant and sidekick of Rep. Rahm Emanuel. Together they ghost-think his campaign while Obama goes in the stratosphere trying to blur boundaries. To the outside and to independents and even Republicans as well as to mushy liberal Time magazine, he is a blooming idealistic youth of sweet reason. Axelrod and Emanuel chortle and give themselves high-fives over that deception.
And when needed, the Axelrod-Emanuel team has him say the words that pay the liberal bills. Estate tax cuts were designed for Paris Hilton. On Iraq he sides with those advising withdrawal: in essence, there is nothing about Obama that isnt Emanuel-Axelrod kosher, complete 100% social and economic liberalism, but it is wrapped in a beautiful package of pleasantness and minimum polarity. All the while, their Destinys Tot candidate is rolling in big dough with handsome sales for two books and rock star souvenirs not to mention that the University of Chicago hospitals have decided to promote his wife to a vice presidency and a $300,000 per annum salary for community relationsread: political influence with her pillow-mate.
Both Axelrod and Emanuel understand that the Senate is a terrible place from which to run for the presidency. John Kerrys plightwhere he voted for continuation of the war before he voted against itwhich caused him to be laughed out of town does not just pertain to Kerry. The longer one is in the Senate, the more he can be pictured as a trimmer. For that reason, it was astute for a young John F. Kennedy, a backbencher in the Senate, to run for president before the natural contradictions of lengthy voting records caught up with him. Therefore, Barack Obama would be wisefrom his standpoint, to run for president in 2008. The Democratic party is tiring of Hillary Clinton, has seen John Kerry who botched the 2004 election threaten to botch this one in 2006 with his ridiculous unintended slur to troops in Iraq.
Thats why with slender record and a vague mist of personality, managed all the while by hard lefties Axelrod and Emanuel, Barack Obama may well end up in 2008 with the nomination. They have to move quick. Already their creation has started to melt like a snow-cone in July and must be put in the deep freeze before he turns to mush. Obama is the last politician who should be tainted with any semblance of an ethics violation: thats why Harry Reid named him the point man for the Democrats on ethics questions in the Senate. But as it must to all frail political humans, Barack Obama has good contacts and likes to use them. The Chicago Tribune reported not long ago that Obama has been a longtime friend of Tony Rezko the indicted fund-raiser for Rod Blagojevich. So good a friend that Obama bought a mansion in the Kenwood area of Chicago for $300,000 less than the asking price. On the same day, Rezkos wife bought the adjoining lot, shelling out the full $625,000 asking price. The question is whether Rezkos wife subsidized Obamas purchase of the mansion and also paid for an abutting private preserve that adds to the estates aura. Prepped by Axelrod and Emanuel, Obama became the misty-eyed visionary once again, blaming himself and saying he could kick himself for this dumb idea. Dumb, huh?
The once-again return to the Doris Day demeanor can work for the long-run. But the so-called innocent association of Destinys Tot with a notorious fixer is starting to cause some people to understand the real Barack Obama. Like Doris Day he is no wide-eyed innocent either in business terms or in political ideology. In ideology he is a hard neo-Fabian socialist with a romantic demeanor who can turn wistful and dream for reconciliation with the world. He wants to buy the world a Coke and have us pay for it. But let Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton issue the thunderous threats. Thats not Obamas thing. He looks like an earnest young man, speaking from the heart. But Ive known him just about the whole distance. Hes deceptive like Doris Day. All thats missing is for him to croon Que sera, sera! whatever will be, will be. And watch the guilt-ridden white liberals stand up and applaud.
But itll take more than just the usual Emanuel-Axelrod spin to cause the Tony Rezko deal to die. The issue will not be determinative in `08 but will be there. But by all means let him run and get the fever out of our blood so a better man can win after Obamas naivete is discovered.