Try a Little Tenderness
February 22, 2008
Barack Obama's biggest draw is not his eloquence. When you watch an Obama speech, you lean forward and listen and think, That's good. He's compelling, I like the way he speaks. And afterward all the commentators call him "impossibly eloquent" and say "he gave me thrills and chills." But, in fact, when you go on the Internet and get a transcript of the speech and print it out and read it--that is, when you remove Mr. Obama from the words and take them on their own--you see the speech wasn't all that interesting, and was in fact high-class boilerplate. (This was not true of John F. Kennedy's speeches, for instance, which could be read seriously as part of the literature of modern American politics, or Martin Luther King's work, which was powerful absent his voice.)
Mr. Obama is magnetic, interacts with the audience, leads a refrain: "Yes, we can." It's good, and compared with Hillary Clinton and John McCain, neither of whom seems really to enjoy giving speeches, it comes across as better than it is. But is it eloquence? No. Eloquence is deep thought expressed in clear words. With Mr. Obama the deep thought part is missing. What is present are sentiments.
Our country can be greater, it holds unachieved promise, our leaders have not led us well. "We struggle with our doubts, our fears, our cynicism." Fair enough and true enough, but he doesn't dig down to explain how to become a greater nation, what specific path to take--more power to the state, for instance, or more power to the individual. He doesn't unpack his thoughts, as they say. He asserts and keeps on walking.
So his draw is not literal eloquence but a reputation for eloquence that may, in time, become the real thing.
But his big draw is this. In a country that has throughout most of our lifetimes been tormented by, buffeted by, the question of race, a country that has endured real pain and paid in blood and treasure to work its way through and out of the mess, that for all that struggle we yielded this: a brilliant and accomplished young black man with a consensus temperament, a thoughtful and peaceful person who wishes to lead. That is his draw: "We made that." "It ended well."
People would love to be able to support that guy.
His job, in a way, is to let them, in part by not being just another operative, plaything or grievance-monger of the left-liberal establishment and left-liberal thinking. By standing, in fact, for real change.
Right now Mr. Obama is in an awkward moment. Each day he tries to nail down his party's leftist base, and take it from Mrs. Clinton. At the same time his victories have led the country as a whole to start seeing him as the probable Democratic nominee. They're looking at him in a new way, and wondering: Is he standard, old time and party line, or is he something new? Is he just a turning of the page, or is he the beginning of a new and helpful chapter?
Mr. Obama did not really have a good week, in spite of winning a primary and a caucus, and both resoundingly. I don't refer to charges that he'd plagiarized words from a Deval Patrick speech. He borrowed an argument that was in itself obvious--words matter--and used words in the public sphere. In any case Mrs. Clinton has lifted so many phrases and approaches from Mr. Obama, and other candidates, that her accusation was like the neighborhood kleptomaniac running through the street crying, "Thief! Thief!"
His problem was, is, his wife's words, not his, the speech in which she said that for the first time in her adult life she is proud of her country, because Obama is winning. She later repeated it, then tried to explain it, saying of course she loves her country. But damage was done. Why? Because her statement focused attention on what I suspect are some basic and elementary questions that were starting to bubble out there anyway.
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Here are a few of them.
Are the Obamas, at bottom, snobs? Do they understand America? Are they of it? Did anyone at their Ivy League universities school them in why one should love America? Do they confuse patriotism with nationalism, or nativism? Are they more inspired by abstractions like "international justice" than by old visions of America as the city on a hill, which is how John Winthrop saw it, and Ronald Reagan and JFK spoke of it?
Have they been, throughout their adulthood, so pampered and praised--so raised in the liberal cocoon--that they are essentially unaware of what and how normal Americans think? And are they, in this, like those cosseted yuppies, the Clintons?
Why is all this actually not a distraction but a real issue? Because Americans have common sense and are bottom line. They think like this. If the president and his first lady are not loyal first to America and its interests, who will be? The president of France? But it's his job to love France, and protect its interests. If America's leaders don't love America tenderly, who will?
And there is a context. So many Americans right now fear they are losing their country, that the old America is slipping away and being replaced by something worse, something formless and hollowed out. They can see we are giving up our sovereignty, that our leaders will not control our borders, that we don't teach the young the old-fashioned love of America, that the government has taken to itself such power, and made things so complex, and at the end of the day when they count up sales tax, property tax, state tax, federal tax they are paying a lot of money to lose the place they loved.
And if you feel you're losing America, you really don't want a couple in the White House whose rope of affection to the country seems lightly held, casual, provisional. America is backing Barack at the moment, so America is good. When it becomes angry with President Barack, will that mean America is bad?
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Michelle Obama seems keenly aware of her struggles, of what it took to rise so high as a black woman in a white country. Fair enough. But I have wondered if it is hard for young African-Americans of her generation, having been drilled in America's sad racial history, having been told about it every day of their lives, to fully apprehend the struggles of others. I wonder if she knows that some people look at her and think "Man, she got it all." Intelligent, strong, tall, beautiful, Princeton, Harvard, black at a time when America was trying to make up for its sins and be helpful, and from a working-class family with two functioning parents who made sure she got to school.
That's the great divide in modern America, whether or not you had a functioning family, and she apparently came from the privileged part of that divide. A lot of white working-class Americans didn't come up with those things. Some of them were raised by a TV and a microwave and love our country anyway, every day.
Does Mrs. Obama know this? I don't know. If she does, love and gratitude for the place that tries to give everyone an equal shot would seem to be in order.