I have a small wish of my own in this season of public and private Utopias. It is that the emergence—or should I say ascendance?—of Barack Hussein Obama will allow the reentry into circulation of an old linguistic coinage. Exploited perhaps to greatest effect by James Baldwin, the word I have in mind is cat. Some of you will be old enough to remember it in real time, before the lugubrious and nerve-racking days when people never knew from one moment to the next what expression would put them in the wrong: the days of Negro and colored and black and African American and people of color. After all of this strenuous and heated and boring discourse, does not the very mien of our new president suggest something lithe and laid-back, agile but rested, cool but not too cool? A “cat” also, in jazz vernacular, can be a white person, just as Obama, in some non–Plessy v. Ferguson ways, can be. I think it might be rather nice to have a feline for president, even if only after enduring so many dogs. (Think, for one thing, of the kitten-like grace of those daughters.) The metaphor also puts us in mind of a useful cliché, which is that cats have nine lives—and an ability to land noiselessly and painlessly on their feet.
Toward the beginning of his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama displays the modesty that is one of his many engaging qualities, attributing his victory in his very first U.S. Senate race (all the way back in 2004) to “my almost spooky good fortune.” This understates matters to a huge degree. The front-runner in the original contest for the Democratic nomination in that race, a man named Blair Hull, who had spent $28.7 million of his own money, was hit by news reports that his second wife had sought a protection order during an ugly divorce some years before. Not only did his commanding lead in the polls evaporate, but he had already lost the advice and services of the gifted political consultant David Axelrod, who joined the Obama camp. Meanwhile, the Republican primary had resulted in a victory for the personable Jack Ryan, whose early campaign showed distinct promise. Ryan was also to be unhorsed by earlier divorce accusations from his former wife, the actress Jeri Ryan, who accused the GOP standard-bearer of forcing her to go to S&M clubs and have sex in public. (You know how that upsets the family-values constituency.) Obliged to find another candidate at short notice, the Illinois GOP made the appalling and condescending mistake of selecting Alan Keyes, a highly volatile and extremely right-wing black man who had run for office almost everywhere but Illinois, and who promptly decided to accuse Obama of being insufficiently African American because none of his ancestors had been slaves! In the course of the campaign, for good measure, Obama was chosen to give the keynote address at the Democratic convention, with, as he sweetly phrases it, “seventeen minutes of unfiltered, uninterrupted air-time on national television.”
Nor does this exhaust the story of his luck—the quality that, you will remember, was considered by Napoleon to be the most essential ingredient of good generalship. Hillary Clinton, when seeking an avenue back into national politics, might have tried to return by way of her native Illinois. But that eventuality was precluded by the offer, from a senior member of the Black Caucus, of an uncontested nomination in New York. John Edwards’s marital difficulties might have come to light a little earlier, but as it happened, he stayed in the 2008 race long enough to beat Clinton into third place in the Iowa caucuses, thus dealing a blow to her campaign from which it, and she, never entirely recovered. Finally, it was hard to avoid the suspicion, in the closing weeks of last October, that several of McCain’s advisers must at the very least have been subconsciously working for an Obama victory. On the right, where febrile talk of Obama’s “Marxism” is still to be heard, the rage and frustration reminds me of the way some on the left used to talk about Ronald Reagan in the age of “Teflon”: a politician seemingly immune from consequences and benefiting even from his own mistakes. (The locus classicus here would be the now-famous Philadelphia address on race and racism, which allowed Obama to turn the dross of his connection with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright into the gold of “the healing process.”)
Our new president’s charm is not merely superficial. It is compounded of two qualities that are distinctly rare in the political class: an apparently very deep internal equanimity, and an ability to employ irony at his own expense. Obama, one can tell, would not have been devastated if he had lost the contest for the White House. Nor was he ready to do or say absolutely anything to win it. In fact, I am convinced that he did not at first expect to win this time around (otherwise, as Jeremiah Wright himself once admitted, he would have taken his distance from that South Side church as a prophylactic measure rather than a reactive or improvised one).
Should you desire to sample the combination of personal qualities I have just mentioned, read Obama’s account, in Dreams From My Father, of his exchanges with his black teenage friend Ray while at prep school in Hawaii:
Our rage at the white world needed no object, he seemed to be telling me, no independent confirmation; it could be switched on and off at our pleasure … We weren’t living in the Jim Crow South, I would remind him. We weren’t consigned to some heatless housing project in Harlem or the Bronx. We were in goddamned Hawaii. We said what we pleased; ate where we pleased: we sat at the front of the proverbial bus. None of our white friends … treated us any differently than they treated each other. They loved us, and we loved them back. Shit, seemed like half of ’em wanted to be black themselves … Well, that’s true, Ray would admit. Maybe we could afford to give the bad-assed nigger pose a rest. Save it for when we really needed it.
It’s this same catlike lightness and gentle raillery that I believe communicated itself subliminally to many white and brown and Jewish voters, and even to those like myself who detest the idea of voting with the epidermis. It certainly leaves a man like David Freddoso repeatedly punching the air. His book, which I hope he won’t mind if I describe as surprisingly good-tempered and measured (he did begin as a colleague of Ann Coulter’s at Human Events), has the fairly easy task of showing that Obama comes from a far more “left” milieu than any Democratic nominee before him. I believe I could prove this by my own unaided efforts: when Newsweek’s Jon Meacham asked both presidential candidates for a sample of their reading matter, he got back a fairly strong list from each. Obama gave John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle where someone else might have been content to put The Grapes of Wrath. Whereas the latter is about suffering and stoicism, the former is about how the field hands finally rebel, and how the “organizer” helps them to do so. I would have noticed this even had I not dined a few times in the Hyde Park district of Chicago, and briefly met William Ayers and known others of that set. And, though it is true that Obama has no memory of 1968 and the “Days of Rage,” if only because he was 7, the turning of Grant Park into a sort of “people’s park” on the night of his election brought a smile to more than one set of grizzled old cheeks, and contributed to the numinous and refulgent effect in which everything seemed briefly bathed. Forgotten was the association of the word Chicago with the terms machine and South Side, two cognates that are in point of fact just as relevant as the cynical Rahm Emanuel to the start of Obama’s trajectory.
Freddoso performs nobly by supplying a thesaurus of near-incredible citations of uncritical if not servile drool that, alas, I can confirm were indeed uttered by senior members of my profession. He is fair, if tight-lipped, in adding a number of testimonies from the right—thus anticipating the famous “Obamacon” defectors, from Peggy Noonan to Christopher Buckley, who were such a feature of the post-convention (i.e., post–Palin nomination) months of the campaign. But eventually he concedes, and bows to Obama’s sheer luck, and even succumbs somewhat to his charm, and avers several times that no, of course Obama’s not a Marxist or a terrorist sympathizer or anything of the sort. This more or less seems to license the conclusion that we have nothing to fear from Obama but Obama himself.
If you are looking for troubling flaws in the new hero, you will find them in the accounts of his editorship at the Harvard Law Review, where he won golden opinions for soliciting and publishing every view but his own. It may be true that, according to Freddoso, Obama dismissed the slogan “Yes we can” as “vapid and mindless” when it was first proposed to him, in 2004, but he liked it well enough in 2008, and then came the null emptiness of the phrase—the audacity of hope—that he annexed from a windy sermon by Jeremiah Wright. Or you may have already begun to have your fill of verbiage like this, taken from the best seller of that name:
No, what’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics—the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem.
No consensus on making tough decisions! This is not even trying to have things both ways; it’s more like having things no way. It puts me in mind of the utter fatuity of Obama’s speech in Berlin, where he attributed the fall of the wall to the power of “a world that stands as one”—a phrase that stands no test. Or even worse, in his scant pages dealing with Iraq (a country we would have abandoned in 2006 if he had had his way): “When battle-hardened Marine officers suggest we pull out and skeptical foreign correspondents suggest that we stay, there are …” (close your eyes and guess what’s coming) “no easy answers to be had.” To some questions, there may not even be any difficult answers. The very morning after the U.S. election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to redeploy and retarget Russian short-range missiles against Poland; as recently as 2005, Obama and his Senate colleague Dick Lugar had contentedly watched as Russian long-range missiles were being stood down. Something more than luck will be required here.
It was, I think, Lloyd George who said of Lord Derby that, like a cushion, he bore the imprint of whoever had last sat upon him. Though Obama, too, has the dubious gift of being many things to many people, the difficulty with him is almost the opposite: he treads so lightly and deftly that all the impressions he has so far made are alarmingly slight. Perhaps this is the predictable downside of being a cat.