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.

From the archives:

"Take Two" (November 2006)
How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player. By Joshua Green

In a recent Chicago Tribune interview, Obama said he had no interest in being cast as the "un-Hillary." Nevertheless, that is how he will be cast if, as seems more and more likely, he runs. The contrasts are all in Obama’s favor, it seems to me. Obama writes his own books; Hillary hired a ghostwriter to write her best-selling memoir but neglected to mention it in her acknowledgements. Her speeches are purees of her handler’s words and ideas, and sound it. If Hillary’s last name were Rodham, she would not be in the Senate, much less be considered presidential timber. ­­Her celebrity, like her name, is on loan from her husband. If Barack Obama were Joe Smith, he would be right where he is—indeed, cleft of his exotic name, he might make a stronger showing in the polls. He is a self-made political entrepreneur who has advanced on talent—his ease in communicating his ideas, his empathy not only for people in trouble but for those, like conservative evangelical Christians and Republican politicians, who disagree with him—and what Madison Avenue might call his "Q-rating," or un-analyzable likeability. While not an exciting speaker, Obama is an enthralling one. As she showed in her speech at the memorial service for Coretta Scott King, Hillary Clinton is a boring, flat-voiced, false-gesturing platform speaker. She shouts into the microphone; Obama talks into it. Her borrowed words inspire no trust – they remind us of her borrowed foundation – and her clenched personality inspires little affection. Money can’t buy her love, nor buzz protect her political glass jaw. The question for Democrats is, Who will break it first? Will it be one of her Democratic challengers—Obama, Joe Biden, John Edwards—or John McCain?

The knock on Obama is that, with only two years in the U.S. Senate, he lacks the experience to be president. Asked about that by the Tribune, he sensibly replied: "That experience question would be answered at the end of the campaign…. The test of leadership in my mind is not going to be what’s on a paper resumé." Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld "had the best resumé on paper of any foreign policy team, and the result has been what I consider to be one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in our history." Joe Biden had decades of experience in foreign policy, yet voted for that mistake. So did John Kerry, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton.

And Barack Obama? Addressing an antiwar rally in Chicago in the fall of 2002, the then-Illinois state Senator said he was not opposed to all war; his grandfather had "fought in Patton’s army," and "after witnessing the carnage and destruction" of September 11th he said he "would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such a tragedy from happening again." What he could not support was "a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics." Then came a moment of historic prescience:

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda.

On the foreign policy issue of our time, Barack Obama was right, and Hillary Clinton et. al. wrong. Asked by the Tribune editors how he thought the Republicans would run against him, he winningly sallied, "War hero against snot-nosed kid." But the kid was right, not the war hero John McCain—which is a sufficient defense against GOP condescension, and an irrefutable example of Obama’s sound judgment. That, more than experience, is what’s wanted in a president. And like charisma, you have it or you don’t. Barack Obama has both; Hillary Clinton (vide, her politically tin-eared plan for universal health insurance), neither. Run, Barack, run.