Friday, December 15, 2006
Precarious Audacity: The Democratic Love Affair with Obama is Bound to Blow Over Soon with Disillusionment and a Fresh Realism.
While He Looks, Sounds Great at First Blush, He is Far Too Naïve for the Job. Thats Why its Best for Him to Run Now so Dems Can Scratch
That Itch and then Pick Someone Mature.
By Thomas F. Roeser
A column for The Wanderer, the oldest national Catholic weekly (with some updating).
CHICAGOThe official press announcement from the office of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) was bristling with importance. It followed immediately a huge reception of screaming, weeping exultant partisans in New Hampshire on Sunday, December 10, where he addressed the largest pre-presidential primary crowd in modern state history. There were 1,500 cheering people as enthusiastic as if they were witnessing John Lennon. At exactly that moment, the junior Illinois senators Washington office filed a low-key, terse heads-up to the national media.
It said that Obama would make an important announcement the following evening, on Monday, December 11, about an upcoming contest of great importance to the American people. Media savants nodded to themselves and did high-fives: here it is! The news ricocheted around the nation and was a bombshell here as with every pundit in the country. Political correspondents were called to the office of major newspapers and ordered to be prepared to write crisp commentaries on the entrance of the charismatic African American senator into the presidential race of 2008. Television networks stood by; Washington, D. C. staffs hustled to their offices. The office of Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-N.Y), the Illinois native who until the Obama fad was regarded as a sure-thing for the Democratic presidential nomination, tensed up. Her publicists got ready to issue good sport welcoming statements to Obama. All the while gritting their teeth in recognition of what could be the most dramatic contest for the Democratic nomination since 1960.
All Democratic presidential candidates and current and former presidents were standing by. President George W. Bush lifted his eyes from Baghdad. Former president Bill Clinton, intensely interested in his wifes presidential future hired a writer to contrive some ad-libs.
Add to them former Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), now considered a hopeless basket case after having maimed himself with a badly delivered joke misinterpreted as slurring military service; former U. S. Senator John Edwards, once regarded as the most potent alternative to Hillary Clinton; former vice president Al Gore, considered to be the major challenger to Hillary Clinton, worrying that he would lose his berth to Obama.
And on the Republican side Sen. John McCain, the front-runner for the GOP nomination who had had his own earlier run-in with Obama and had allowed his old Navy blow-torch temper embarrass him; Rudy Giuliani, running second to McCain for the nod felt suddenly depressed; Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, regarded by some as the conservative challenger to the nomination wondered if the charges against his Morman religions old strictures against blacks would be revived. Also, Rev. Jesse Jackson rehearsed a statement that said Obama would lead all blacks from Galilee to Jubilee. Rev. Al Sharpton had a plane reservation for Chicago to get some face-time on TV. All waited tensely.
Then on Monday night came news that seemed incredibleat first. Obama would appear onof all thingsthe sports TV network ESPN which ordinarily has a huge viewership. Political wise men and marketers nodded their heads. This was a new era and the fact that Obama would choose the hugely-watched sports network would be in deference to the enormous ratings sports has over regular news breaks. It was to be a new era dawning.
Then, with everybody fastened on ESPN, Obama appeared and in a serious mode. He began by saying in presidential tones that he recognized this is a contest about the future.
Journalists began to scribble and tape recorders whirred. This is a contest about the future. A contest between two very different philosophies. A contest that will ultimately be decided in Americas heartland, said Obama. In Chicago, theyre asking: Does the new guy have enough experience to lead us to victory? In St. Louis theyre wondering: are we facing a record thats really so formidable? Or is it all just a bunch of hype?
Journalists across the nation leaned forward, ready to link this announcement with the most dramatic ever made on television: John Kennedy at Fannueil Hall, Boston, announcing as the first Catholic to seek the presidency since Al Smith; the Lyndon Johnson decision not to run for president in 1968; Franklin Roosevelts announcement that he would seek an unprecedented third term in 1940.
Obamas voice was calm, measured.
So tonight Id like to put all doubts to rest. And tonight, after a lot of thought and a good deal of soul-searching, I would like to announce to my hometown of Chicago and all of America that Im ready
Pause. Then an undignified, un-presidential shout:
for the Bears to go all the way! Go Bears! And as he clapped a Bears cap on his head, he intoned in a resonant hum the V-signal that animated the three-dots-and-a-dash of Beethovens Fifth Symphony as used in World War II: da-da-da-DAH!
The most brilliant bit of promotion and hustle for any modern incipient presidential candidate. One which far exceeded the 12.7 million viewers of the previous weeks Monday Night Footballfor the Chicago Bears-St. Louis Rams tussle. Only hopeless old fogies dating to the early 20th century didnt like it. Kids, middle-agers, elders, blacks, whites, Hispanics, men, women, business-types, conservatives, liberals, radicals, reactionaries, feminists, racists, straights, gays, labor union beer drinkers, limousine liberal champagne sipperspeople of all ages--loved it. As did I. It was not triviality triumphant; it was political merchandising at its most brilliant apex.
And a wondrous joke deservedly pulled on the too-solemn political writers who take everything a candidate says as equivalent to the Ten Commandments. As a journalist who goes back a very long way (too long, in fact) I can say it ranks with the prime stunt in the pre-television era when super-dark horse candidate Wendell L. Willkie became the odds-on favorite for the Republican presidential nomination of 1940 by appearing on and stumping experts like Clifton Fadiman and Oscar Levant on the countrys top-rated radio entertainment program Information Please. Robert Taft and Tom Dewey were eclipsed after that. Roosevelts jest about my little dog Fala whose scotch blood was furious after Republican attacks in 1944. Harry Trumans radio imitation of commentator H. V. Kaltenborn pronouncing him defeated on election night 1948. The botched polling of the three-member Puerto Rican delegation at the Republican convention of 1952. The screamingly funny screwed up valedictory of Herbert Hoover at the GOP convention four years later.
Or John Kennedys appearance on live TV as the mystery guest on Whats My Line in 1960 and his dignified yet comic one-liners which caused viewers to regard him as a youthful composite of America.
Congratulations should go to the Illinois man who, assuredly, thought up and wrote the stunt: David Axelrod, a Democratic consultant who never had a presidential winner yet after twenty-plus years in the business.
Ronald Reagan, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt and the litany of presidential candidates going back to the birth of modern communications must have saluted this gimmick from their Valhalla.
Was the da-da-da-DAH! sung by the candidatefrom Beethovenoverkill? Not on your life. But other missteps by Obama including his own incredible naivete come close to being fatal. And when he fails to get the presidential nomination as he surely will despite this brilliant hype and falls back to being just another Senator among the 100, he might well console himself by cherishing his Chicago Bears announcement which stirred the teams juices to win 42 to 27 as it marched to a hoped-for Super Bowl victory. Race discrimination wont beat him. Youth wont beat him. Other factors will.
Great visuals are in place for him to be remembered enduringly as a losing primary candidate before the convention, however. Like Adlai Stevensons shoe with the hole in it; Al Gore having invented the Internet. Obama will be remembered appearing in the relaxed style of business casual appropriate for Gentlemans Quarterly: a jacket, collared shirt but no tie which given his thin, boyish face looks just right: dressy enough to show serious intention but without the old-man formality of a tie and business suit. His fans say it reflects the quality of being comfortable with himself. From now on, it will be in fashion to go open-throated shirt and tieless. Not said very often is the fact that the only other world figure to appear thus is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who may also have thumbed through GQ to capture the jacket-and-no-tie look.
While Obamas sartorial style has the refreshing quality of unconventional youth, his latest book, The Audacity of Hope called by detractors The Audacity of Hype or The Hope of Audacity is a disaster. The book which I read cursorily at Barnes & Noble in less than an hour, is not only the most ignorant book by a presidential candidate since Illinois Paul Simons which recommended slashing U. S. defense during the pre-primary jockeying of 1979-80 in the Cold War, it is the heady kid thoughts of a youth exultant that under campaign laws a Senator can fly in luxurious private jets donated by corporations for the parsimonious cost of just one regular first-class ticket. Until he discovered the down-side.
Whee! The book has all the depth of Action Comicsvapid, shallow, inexpert, embarrassingly naïvetotally shockingly unexpected from just a run-of-the-mill Harvard law grad and University of Chicago professor of law not to mention a Senator and incipient presidential candidate. In Audacity, Obama pinches himself for being able to ride in CEO luxury on private jets at such cheap cost. True, it is difficult to put up with the big business, big-labor escorts, lobbyists, who seek to ply him with requests for special interest favors. But, sigh, that is the burden of being a statesman. Then, he discovered that as the Democrats point-man on ethics, he was required to disdain such favors. This brings forth great sorrow; but he resolves to buck up.
The furor over Obama is because he is a living reincarnation of the seemingly innocent Bambi wide-eyed, very youthful at 45, not immediately discerning on the motivations of those who want to take him to the cleaners (but with an inward notion of how to cash in on his celebrity). What will kill him politically is that he is congenitally tempted to violate his Bambi image and cash in. It happened to better men.
Running with special interests almost did-in John McCain which led him to the overkill corrective of collaborating on the McCain-Feingold act that put the 1st amendment in a straitjacket. That was to purge himself of corruptive stain of being a Keating Five wheeler-dealer who bummed free corporate jet rides and got favors in return for trying to save a near-bankrupt savings and loan. Even so, McCain is a vastly more prepared candidate for the presidency since he learned the lesson. Obama says hes learned his lessonbut no: he hasnt. He still often goes private jet paying one first class ticket. He still gets caught taking personal favors that he should avoid. He knows better but he cant help it.
Is he either dumbly naïve or--as some journalists are beginning to ask-- is he the reverse of the Bambi he pretends to be? Everybody knows the story of the Disney tear-jerker. A baby deer is born and as we watch he experiences everything for the first time: butterflies and flowers, his first sight of snow and the forest fire. But as Chicago journalists now ask: this is a different kind of Bambi. This Bambi Obama looks innocent with beguiling soft brown eyes and a gentleness of a fawn but he has adjusted all too well to Chicagos steamy political jungle. Theres no simple life for him. Hes susceptible to grandiose living quarters and privileges, made possible by his two big book sales, yesbut also because of the great good fortune that came to his lawyer wife and the freebie gestures of new-found rascal friends.
Then theres Mrs. Obama. A statuesquely beautiful black woman, she loves the social limelight, standing next to her angular, beaming husband in evening clothes as the TV lights almost blind them as they walk into social gatherings of mega-multi-millionaires. He loves it too. But we begin with her.
Michelle Obama had had a modest income as a lawyer before her husband was elected to the Senate and became a national figure. She worked as a community organizer and a junior attorney through the sufferance of Newton Minow, an old liberal warhorse blue-chip lawyer of the old Democratic establishment. Then she worked as an assistant planner for Mayor Richard Daley. But as her husbands career flourished, she got a good paying job at the University of Chicago hospitals, in the Hyde Park area of Chicago where they live. Her beginning salary there when he was just another state senator was about $50,000. But better things were to come along with his political success.
When her husband got elected to the U. S. Senate, her income rose to $121,910 with the hospitals in 2004 and she was put in charge of the institutions community relations. And the next year, 2005, she was made vice president for external affairsbasically the same job with a fancier titleand received a massive salary hike to $316,962, tripling her income. The hospitals depend to a great extent on state and federal grants. Its president explained to the media that the value it placed in Mrs. Obama came naturally and was not related to her husbands election. Sure. Okay, her stunning salary hike, while suspicious, does not register a scandal on the Chicago political Richter scale where many aldermen and city hall patrons cant lie straight in bed. The next piece of coincidence does.
As the Obamas income expanded, the Senator and his wife determined to buy a luxurious mansion in the Hyde Park area. And I mean a luxurious mansion. Where Paul Douglas, the last Hyde Parker to go to the Senate, lived in a modest house he did on a professors salary and a bare apartment in Washington, where, to give him his due, Dick Durbin lives in a bachelor apartment in Washington which he shares with two other lawmakers, that doesnt go with the Obamas.
Fair enough. With income in the millions from the book sales and their two hefty incomes, one might suppose that they need not have to take advantage of old-style politics such as have enlivened the biographies of other Chicago political typesespecially when Barack Obama is touted as the new wave of reformer, eager to break with the corruption of our present day. A more disciplined man would be careful to keep his nose clean. Not so with the Obamas. It turns out that the Obamas property in the pricey South Side neighborhood adjoins that of one Antoin (Tony) Rezko, a close fixer friend of Governor Blagojevich. Rezko was indicted for siphoning kickbacks from firms wishing to do business with the state of Illinois. Earlier, Rezko and his companies contributed a total of $19,500 to Obamas prior state campaigns (in Illinois corporate contributions to state campaigns are legal). In addition, Rezko held a fund-raiser in 2003 for Obamas U. S. Senate campaign. Let us say the Rezkos and Obamas are well acquainted.
Rezko pleaded not-guilty on the kickbacks and must be regarded as innocent until incorrigible federal attorney Patrick Fitzgerald calls him to trial. But here the heavy taint of scandal could not will but could reach Obama because Obama bought his house in 2005 for about $300,000 less than the asking price. On that same day, Rezkos wife purchased the adjoining lot, paying the full $625,000 asking price. The same day. Which prompted the Chicago Tribune to wonder if Mrs. Rezko didnt subsidize Obamas purchase of his $1million-plus home while at the same time providing a park-like preserve which has no access from a public street. The U. S. attorney has said nothing but--.
When first asked about the deal, Obama said he dotted every i and crossed all the ts. Then a few days later he admitted the deal may look improper. It was a mistake to have been engaged with him at all in this or any other personal business dealing that would allow him, or anyone else, to believe that he had done me a favor. For that reason, I consider this a mistake on my part and I now regret it. There is a noticeable lag between Obamas scathing criticism of corruption in other countries (such as in Africa where he charmed international media on his klieg-lighted tour there) and his benign toleration of Rezko in Chicago and his failure to comment on corruption in Chicago and Illinois where federales are sifting through files in Mayor Daleys and Governor Blagojevichs offices. From our champion of ethics: not a peep.
To his supposed rescue has come none other than that rogue donkey of Democratic politics, Fr.Andrew Greeley. Greeley has a weekly column in the Chicago Sun-Times and to switch the focus away from Rezko the waspish priest wrote an attempt to help Obama. Far from helping him, it got Obama in danger and Greeley into trouble. Greeley wrote that there are so many racists in this nationand in the Republican partythat get this crazy white supremacists will fall over one another in their attempts to derail the campaign Greeley then wentas he often does when inflamedbeyond the pale.
He wrote: If he decides to run, the senator is a very brave man. He should invest in flak jackets and helmetsemotional and physical.
That was the first hint of mention of a possible assassination attempt. The story was not only intemperate; it was an unintentional message of harm that any sober commentator and newspaper wants to avoid. It only underscored the truism in Chicago that when you have Andy Greeley on your side, watch out, as Joseph Cardinal Bernardin discovered too late.
Be that as it may, for now, Obama captivates primary state crowds where he exhorts Democrats to pick someone not from the baby boomer generation, one who is a break from the Vietnam-era politician, who reflects the shifting ethnic and racial makeup of the countrysomeone who has vision and magic. But his Bambi stylewhether its naivete and accident-prone involvements with Chicago hoods and fixers--can be easily capitalized on in a primary campaign. In the last state campaign, he endorsed a Greek banker who has funded mob figures. When this came out, Obama didnt drop the guy like a hot potato. He stuck with him.
Some journalists assure me that with this great hype will come a fall. I think so, toobut to save the party from itself, Obama has to run so that it can learn a lesson from this foolishness. But no one should expect cunning old Vietnam-era pol Hilary Clinton to go after Obama personally if they run against each other in the primaries. She will be a pleasant, harmless little lady candidate. No one can afford to assail a black Bambi in a Democratic party where African Americans are its largest, most temperamental and most loyal bloc. But insinuations in politics have been known to float up from nowhere. The biggest one McCain has to face is one that began in 2000: a cruel one that as result of five years of solitary in the Hanoi Hilton, hes half nuts.
With the disclosure of stories putting his judgment and maturity in doubt, Barack Obama will face his first big test in the primary debates. There he cant get away with saying some states are blue, some states and red but all states are American: Rotary Club pap. So far he has not had the sophistication to handle a real first-class forensic debate on the issuesespecially when his gaffes on U. S. defense and the domestic budget and his implacable animosity against tax cuts is leaked. When he debated Alan Keyes, he lost spectacularly but no one cared since Keyes emotional balance was doubted, too, at the time. But intellectual maturity is only one thing.
Like all other Democratic national candidates, hes appalling on traditional moral issues but hes got one to get overnot bothersome to Democratic red-hots but independents and those Republicans who with misty eyes may be tempted to vote for him to allay fancied guilt for the fact that some whites owned slaves. He has tried to woo a kind of evangelical liberal constituency who care more for pollution and peace than unborn life. It hasnt gone all that well. There he faces a big test. Already pro-life church groups and traditionalist organizations have been filled inon an issue all but unanswerable: on Obamas steadfast opposition to the Illinois Born Alive bill where he refused to admit any help be given in form of nutrition or pain-relievers to babies writhing in pain from botched abortions. No, Hillary Clinton wont raise those concerns. She will be discreetly silent. But the issue will be raised by other, non-candidatorial types.
When that occurs whether it comes from a journalists question ala Bernie Shaw who asked Dukakis if he would favor capital punishment if his wife were raped Obama, facing the question on his opposition to saving children born alive from botched abortions standing next to Hillary on the platform while she looks demurely at him will have to answer the questions alone, on a platform somewhere, perhaps in pro-life Iowa, before the TV cameras and without David Axelrod by his side. Theres no good way for him to reconcile himself to the center.
By trying to reconcile his stridently leftist views far exceeding those of even Hillary or John Edwardsanyone that is unless Al Gore himself Barack Obama he risks alienating his fan club which loves him for the Lefty he is.
As he tries to respond at that future time, while Hilary Clinton waits for his answer with her plastic sweet smile, the nation will once again hear the opening strain Beethovens Fifth which he made so famous in extolling the Chicago Bears. By all odds it will signal the rolling down of the curtain on what up to now has been an exciting preliminary. But it will be the deadly drum roll for Bambi, meaning back to the Senate for more preparation before you try again for the major leagues.