by Victor Davis Hanson
All of you readers have had this odd experience. Just remember a bit. Someone you know, even know well, whom you thought was reasonably conservative, if perhaps at least a centrist, who would have welcomed a McCain “moderate” campaign, rather than a hard-core conservative candidacy, suddenly, without warning in a conversation, perhaps over the phone, confesses that he was voting for Obama!
And he was not just voting for Obama, but doing so in almost teen-aged hysterical fashion. I’m not talking of a Colin Powell phenomenon, but someone who had no political interests or career concerns, or need for psychological remissions of sins, someone whose entire political philosophy was seemingly antithetical to Obamism.
It made no sense, you thought, given that the apostate’s previous protestations about being conservative, but not a Bush conservative, would have led naturally to an affinity for McCain. After that you had the weird feeling, perhaps as you remember in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that anyone at anytime could wake up and almost zombie like not seem like he was before, but apparently docile, happy, and eager to join an entirely new centrally-guided paradigm that would prove for us new automatons to be in our best interests.
This occurred to me on at least ten occasions, with long-time friends, some familiar pundits, and a few in government no less. So I came to appreciate the power of the Obama rhetoric. And there was power too in the desire for change after eight years, and an understandable yearning for our first African-American President.
I was writing a TMS column today on Obama’s soaring rhetoric and the impossible expectations that he imprisoned himself in, and began thinking back on the last two years. What explains his near miraculous rise, when pros had almost coronated Hillary and assured us she would trounce Giuliani?
I suppose Barack Obama made the nation giddy when he proclaimed there were no red and blue states, just Americans. He promised to unite us across political, racial, and religious lines. And for the age of cynicism there was something admirable to returning to the age of belief. For some in one fell swoop they were given exemption for all racial sins and now could continue to live as before — but relieved of white guilt. So we overlooked the racialist sermonizing from Michelle Obama, Barack’s occasional promises for reparations in deed not mere word, and the odd things that a Joseph Lowery said on Inauguration Day that were acceptable for a Civil Rights veteran but would have sent a white professor, journalist, or politician into the Don Imus stocks for a week or two.
Of course, during the campaign, some of us — dismissed as old and in the way, hoped and changed away white guys — suspected Obamania in part was a result of mere political rhetoric of the Huey Long or JFK sort. We remembered instead that his pastor Rev. Wright’s venom was not evidence of indiscretion but proof of clear serial hatred. We read carefully his platform and saw at best Carterism and at worse some half-baked European socialism that we now see imploding in Greece, Italy, or Spain.
Obama’s career in Chicago politics was all too familiar in such a landscape — friends acquired like convicted felon Tony Rezko and rival election candidates dropping out through law suits, or mysteriously being forced off the ballot due to leaks about their divorces. Only the genius of David Mamet could write its Chicago script.
And for all the talk of bipartisanship, candidate Obama had the most partisan record in the U.S. Senate, and serially trashed right-wingers like Sean Hannety (and by extension his audience of 10 million) during the campaign. In fairness, I think he proved the nastier gutter fight than ambivalent Hamlet-like John McCain, who seemed at times he wished to lose nobly than sandbag the nation’s historic chance for a gifted African-American healer.
But then Obama was elected and as President promised, as most Presidents do, to bring us together. He met with conservative pundits, reappointed Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and brought in scores of Clinton centrists to manage his administration. Bravo to all that.
Yet the old Obama is starting to appear as most of you astute readers knew he would. Not a word from him about what can, without hyperbole, be called a dishonest Charlie Rangel, a reprehensible Chris Dodd, and the inexplicable Barney Frank who goes barking from one mortgage/banking ethical lapse to another, confident that no Democrat will dare take him on (he enjoys the exemption accorded to the proverbial raving but glib street-corner prophet who accosts you, flips you off on the street, and shouts in your ear and in public all the way to the car before trying to mount the hood and grab the windshield wipers).
Obama loftily talked about a new ethics law outlawing lobbyists, even as he tried to get an exemption for Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn. The problems that surrounded Treasury-Secretary designate Timothy Geithner, or the “troubles” with Attorney General Eric Holder, and Gov. Bill Richardson border on old-style greed, careerism and conflict of interest — in other words, the normal sort of controversies that a politician routinely overcomes if he’s not a saint.
For all the talk of bipartisanship, Obama like Lord Xerxes on his throne nevertheless has got down and dirty and trashed Rush Limbaugh (and by extension his 20 million listeners) and boasted to the Republican opposition. “I won. I am the President” — in braggadocio that exceeded the “decider” George Bush’s. I suspect if the Blago tapes are ever released in their entirety Rahm Emanuel will sound more like Nixon to Halderman than earnestly discussing the rising oceans with St. Obama.
The problem with all this is not that Obama’s trying to wheel and deal and talk out of both sides of his mouth like Bill Clinton and others, but, far worse, is starting to appear ridiculous like Jimmy Carter, divinely talking down to us as mere mortals as he acts like a mere mortal.
So what for others might be written off as the usual hypocrisy and small-mildness — No More Lobbyists in Government — Just One More in Mine! / I’m Zeus on Olympos above mortal cares — but Sean and Rush really piss me off and I want to get even with both! /I’m a radical egalitarian, but please appoint Caroline Kennedy who endorsed me but otherwise seems dyslexic — proves toxic even if it comes out as hexameter verse from St. Obama. The wages of prophethood are heavy, and those who walk on water, and proclaimVero Possumus! can endure no mortal sin. Will the media that was made to look foolish with tingling legs and tearing cheeks get fooled twice, as Obama the Saint and Obama the Chicago Politician begin to bifurcate?
You readers remember that sometime around mid 2007, Obama made a Faustian bargain. Without much national name, without a legislative record in Illinois or the U.S. Senate, but with quite a lot of Chicago baggage, Obama gambled on the hope and change new persona (soon to be followed with the soaring FDR/MLK/JFK prose, Latinate seal, Greek architraves, Victory Column /Sermon on the Mount speeches, Father Abraham’s arrival to DC by slow-moving rail car (after flying back to Illinois by jet)). For much of the campaign, he either hoped that Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers, Rev. Wright, Father Pfleger and the other assorted Dailey/Blago baggage would not surface, or, if it did, he could hope and change them all away. And he did — brilliantly. And now they are history and those who dredge them up little more cranky sore-losing has-beens.
But as President, no matter how historic a candidacy (more astounding than any in American history), no matter how calm in the face of continuous pressure, no matter how brilliant in prepared and set oratory, one can’t get away with that disconnect forever. There is a reason why a plodding Ike and blunt Harry Truman were greater Presidents than even JFK — and why in 2-3 years even George Bush will begin to seem in retrospect honest, sober, and straight-talking rather than word-mangling.
As a novice politician without an Arkansas, or Plains, or Crawford mafia, even, or rather especially, Obama, had to import the hardest of the hard core Clintonistas — Emanuel, Podesta, Panetta, Hillary herself — and he had to pay off some overdue IOU’s to the left with symbolic gestures and appointments (more rhetoric and symbolism and task forces to come on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, Gay Marriage, Cap and Trade, Kyoto redux, etc.).
Again, the backtracking on the issues, the tough centrist appointments, and the seeming continuance of a Bush (III?) foreign policy, once demonized now quietly embraced, are fine for Bill Clinton, Al Gore or Harry Reid, but in aggregate ever so insidiously they become finally problematic for the redeemer. As stated, even the Left-wing media won’t like looking foolish twice. And even the smug Europeans will turn on those who prod them to be reasonable and honest after serenading them with prose set to Mozart. Yes, he can halt the messiah act and we will forgive him for not being a messiah — or continue it in lieu of honest governance and I assure you in time evenNewsweek and NPR will turn on him, in fear that they are not merely gullible, but looking ridiculous.
So even now, Obama need not play any longer the hypocrite and can recover if he mans up to the past hypnosis of the campaign, cools the Lincoln talk, reads about Nemesis, and admits that he is a mere mortal, an inexperienced one at that, matches his deeds with honest words, and seeks to govern in human rather than divine fashion from on high. That way a William Lynn or Timothy Geithner are just political landmines that one steps over rather than proof that the Wizard turns out to be a little man with levers and dials behind the curtain.
Americans can and will forgive almost anything other than hypocrisy.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson