Cool Cat

Our new president has a feline’s legendary nimbleness and luck—but there are downsides to being a cat.
Jim Young/Reuters/Corbis

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.”)

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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