Right now, in February, it’s difficult to envision John McCain defeating Barack Obama for the presidency this coming fall. (This is assuming, of course, that the Clinton machine will ultimately be unsuccessful in winning the nomination for Hillary, a bet I wouldn’t yet take.) An Obama victory is not a desirable outcome in my opinion—a crippling re-jiggering of the tax code, frightening foreign policy debacles and an expansion of entitlements spring to mind—but the pandemonium the middle-aged senator has stirred up across the country really is something to behold. One assumes the media backlash isn’t too far in the distance, since even MSNBC’s excitable and fickle Chris Matthews can’t go from now until November exclaiming, as he did on Feb. 12, that when the Illinois legislator speaks before a crowd a “thrill [goes] up my leg.”
I’ve experienced no such emotion, but from a cultural rather than political point of view, it’s all pretty fascinating. Last week, the day before the Maryland primary, two young friends—23 and 24—took the afternoon off for the privilege of seeing Obama at the 1st Mariner Arena in downtown Baltimore, waiting two-and-a-half hours for the candidate to arrive. The next day they described his 30-minute speech as an event that was almost as exhilarating, to put this in perspective, as seeing an impromptu Radiohead show at a local club. John, the younger of the pair, even brought along his wife and one-year-old daughter to the rally, despite the frigid weather and endless loop of Stevie Wonder songs and exhortations from hack city council members in preparation for the lead act.
Watching Obama’s performance the next day, I was reminded once again that the pundits and Boomers are all wet when they compare him to the Kennedy brothers more than 40 years ago. Never mind that the slain president in the spring of 1960 wasn’t JFK yet, and in any case this mistaken analogy simply diminishes Obama’s stage appeal. When he said in Baltimore and other tour spots that he’s a skinny but wiry and tough guy who’s waiting for the GOP to “bring it on”—and then for just three seconds shadow boxed for the crowd—it was a stunning bit. He’s a politician, sure; but he’s also an entertainer, blending the cadences and cool appeal of a young Ali, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, Bono, Marjoe, Martin Luther King Jr. and pre-U.S. David Beckham in one complete package.
Like a lot of skeptical observers, I don’t have a clue what’s behind his airy rhetoric and increasingly confident message of “change.” But when he commanded the audience to “respect” McCain as an American hero who should be honored for his “half century of service”—mixing the sweet and sour so effortlessly that he made Bill Clinton look like an amateur with all the charisma and go-for-the-jugular patter of Chris Dodd—it’s clear this guy’s an original. In the event Obama doesn’t win the presidency, he could make a bundle as a talk- show host or movie star.
My friends Pete and John tried, almost apologetically, to explain Obama’s appeal to young voters. “You have to understand,” Pete, a staunch Democrat who’s wired into the political minutiae of the day, “for people our age this is entirely new. We’ve never had a candidate to support who’s so inspiring.” But who has? As a teenager, Gene McCarthy made the sale to me, but he wasn’t in the same league as Obama (nor did he aspire to that celebrity status).
In the spring of ’76, Jerry Brown, the 38-year-old first-term governor of California made a late run against the oily Jimmy Carter, and I saw him speak twice in Maryland, along with his entourage of Linda Ronstadt, Ronnie Blakely and Keith Carradine. The very notion that someone under 40 had the audacity to run for president was intoxicating, yet his run was a soon-forgotten flash, and though his visionary (and sometimes goofy) ideas were memorable, his stage presence was not.
Conservative commentators, just coming to grips with the fact that Obama’s the likely nominee, have begun digging beyond what The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger calls “the insanely eloquent” quality of the phenom’s “Yes, we can!” rhetoric. Last week, addressing not only the adoring masses of Democrats but grudgingly admiring Republicans, Henninger wrote: “Unhinge yourself from the mesmerizing voice. What one hears is a message that is largely negative, illustrated with anecdotes of unremitting bleakness. Heavy with class warfare [his speeches] could have been delivered in 1968, or even 1928.”
Such an opinion is not unexpected and makes sense to someone like me. What’s far more interesting, however, is the divide between liberals who certainly agree that George Bush’s tenure was a disaster but snipe at each other about the Democratic candidates. James Wolcott, for example, vented on his Feb. 6 Vanity Fair blog that he voted for Clinton in the New York primary because he’s not a “narcissist” and doesn’t expect politicians to nourish him with “transcendence and self-certification.” Then the shiv comes out: “I don’t accept being lectured or morally browbeaten into voting for one candidate over another in order to prove my virtuous intent and appease Kurt Andersen’s peculiar, posturing racial anxieties.” A few days later, Wolcott strains credulity—at least by my reckoning—that Obama would be a weaker opponent for McCain because he’d be unable to counter the Republican bag of dirty tricks as well as Hillary could.
At The New Republic, graybeard Leon Wieseltier counters the Obama swoon expressed by younger journalists by saying, “My problem is that Obama’s declarations in matters of foreign policy and national security have a certain homeopathic quality. He seems averse to the hurtful, expensive, traditional, unedifying stuff.”
The Times’ Paul Krugman is of another species altogether, bitching about the “venom” aimed at Clinton by Obama supporters. He worries, ostensibly, that Democrats in this primary race are turning into Democrats. Frankly, I think Krugman fears an Obama presidency for the simple reason that after seven years of excoriating Bush and his “cronies,” he’d be forced to dial down the vitriol in his op-ed columns. He might, perish the thought, be forced to write about economics.
As someone who doesn’t care for Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or any number of nutty preachers who berate McCain for not being conservative enough—as opposed to Obama and Clinton—I find it refreshing that the Democratic intelligentsia is engaging in similar battle over purity. The uglier the better.
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