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.