Politics & Prose December 2006

Run, Barack, Run

Jack Beatty falls under the spell of a "political talent of a rare order"

In late September former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, billed as the "Un-Hillary" in a New York Times Magazine profile, was among the putative Democratic candidates to speak at Senator Tom Harkin’s annual "Steak Fry" held on the Warren County Fairgrounds in Indianola, Iowa. In October, Warner withdrew from the race. Two weekends ago Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, another likely Democratic contender for 2008, was one of two Democrats campaigning in New Hampshire. He nearly filled a living room in the small Upper Connecticut valley town of Cornish. On Saturday Bayh announced that he would not be running for president in ’08.

From the archives:

"The Natural" (September 2004)
Why is Barack Obama generating more excitement among Democrats than John Kerry? By Ryan Lizza

Warner said he was withdrawing from contention because he did not want his three young children to grow up in the White House nor be known for the rest of their lives as the "president’s daughters." No doubt he was being sincere. But his decision must also have been influenced by what he saw at the steak fry: Barack Obama in action, addressing a rapturous crowd to tumultuous applause, and then plunging into a sea of Iowans to shake hands, sign books, notebooks, and shirt-cuffs, pose in family pictures, and listen to the voices urging, "Run, Barack, run." Warner could not compete with that.

As for Evan Bayh, he was glimpsed Sunday morning sitting with two people in a Manchester coffee shop while Obama was drawing 900 to a book signing in Portsmouth. That afternoon, Obama spoke to 1,500 cheering Democrats in a Manchester hotel.Introducing the tall, lithe, handsome, deep-voiced, 45-year-old Obama to a crowd that had paid $25 a head to celebrate the party’s victories in the November elections, New Hampshire Governor John Lynch joked that the state Democratic committee had originally invited the Rolling Stones—but at the last minute decided that Obama would sell more tickets. "I have never seen anything like this in my 40 years of being active in politics," Jack Buckley, former mayor of Dover, gushed to the Boston Globe’s Scott Lehigh. "If I were Hillary, I would be more than a little concerned." Bayh was so concerned he quit the race.

Along with my wife, son, and some friends, I was part of that Manchester crowd. What we saw was political talent of a rare order. Presidential politics turn on personality, not "issues." Like an actor, a candidate must display qualities admired by the voters. The hardest quality to put across—and the most important—is authenticity. It’s impossible to define a priori, but you know authenticity when you see it. We saw it in Obama. In his ease with himself, the even timbre of his voice,his unhurried cadences, his graceful, un-theatrical gestures, and his avoidance of rhetoric (that age-old political device that Yeats described as “the will trying to do the work of the imagination”); and, notably, in his freedom from boasting and ritualized modesty—he knew who he was. His speech was a plea for a bipartisan, non-ideological, all-American politics of remedy. It delivered a shorthand version of the case developed at length in his new book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, a lucid meditation on the gap between our cheapened politics and grim challenges.

The two are related: Politics kill hope that the challenges can be met. Obama understands that hopelessness. A community organizer in a poor Chicago neighborhood whose people have endured "a generation of broken promises," he encountered it, well-defended by cynicism, when he first ran for the Illinois state legislature. But as he reminded the voters then and his readers now—there is "another tradition to politics, a tradition that stretched from the days of the country’s founding to the glory of the civil rights movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done.” He concedes that to believe in the possibilities of politics today takes "audacity of hope"—yes, and an almost willful blindness to the civic implications of our sound-bitten, swift-boated, dumbed-down, money-driven electioneering.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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