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Dick Cheney's child

Rewriting the Story of O
Yes We Should

[There was just criticism last week that my piece on Obama following the first day of the convention was too critical. There was also criticism that it was not critical enough. To me, the rest of the convention, and Obama's acceptance speech in particular, were transformative. So were McCain's reactions. Those who still think Obama shouldn't be elected, especially when the alternative is as blastingly clear, should think about the motives for their resistance. The next two months are no longer about refining and honing the candidate we want, but about defeating the disaster we don't want. We have the best candidate for the job in two generations. To quote his best line, which applies to us as much as to the opposition, “enough.” I've re-written and expanded my earlier piece accordingly.]

Should the Democrats lose this election, as only history suggests they still could, they’ll look back and wonder how, in a year that should see Republicans defeated by the greatest landslide since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1936, a powerful, brilliant, history-making candidate surrounded by talent in excess could not defeat an old, confused, demon-ridden 70s rerun with a cast of bandits and a last-minute hail Mary for back-up.

A few reasons for defeat sounded barely credible before the Democratic National Convention in Denver. They no longer did after it. Barack Obama’s tendency to think the Story of O the most seductive part of him was replaced by moral clarity on economic fairness and prosecutorial clarity on the criminality of four more Bush years in assisted-living mode. Fears about his wife, his faith, his patriotism or his judgment now stand out for the fabrications they were all along. If his meteoric rise through Illinois politics made him seem too much like a politician, it did so only to people who accuse him of not having enough experience to be one.


There was Hillary Clinton, too. Joe Biden is a fine vice-presidential pick, but Clinton might have been better. She has Biden’s qualities (experience, toughness, guile). John McCain survived five years in the Hanoi Hilton. Clinton survived two decades of a nation’s misogyny packaged and poisoned especially for her. She’s a war veteran, though unlike McCain, anger isn’t her co-pilot. And she had those 18 million votes. Had, though, seemed like the proper tense. You could sense the Great Migration going Obama’s way all week. Sarah Palin, that wildly experienced talk-show-styled governess, is the IV drip the McCain campaign needed to stay on its feet, oily though the drip is, but it is not the sort of reassuring pick the country can take to the poll knowing that the oldest and most febrile man ever shuffle his way into the White House has the kind of replacement we need when his time is up. She is not the reason to give McCain a second look. She is adding to the pile-up of reasons why a McCain presidency would enshrine the wreckage of the last eight years.

There was the impression that Obama was little more than a great speaker. It was one of those “narratives” the McCain campaign manufactured, Swiftboat style, to make a great quality it catastrophically lacks look like a catastrophic liability. If a decorated war hero like John Kerry could be made to look like a coward compared to George Bush and Dick Cheney’s silver-spooned Vietnam-dodging, Obama’s charisma could be made to seem like a blight. That’s like saying that Martin Luther King’s great speeches, which — unlike Obama’s — never once carried the burden of policy expectations, failed for being too impressive. But abstraction isn’t the problem of the Obama campaign. Ideas that panic the reactionary agenda are, at least to the reactionaries. George Will last Thursday spend the first 110 words of his column complaining about Obama’s “continuous eloquence,” which he finds “vague enough for any time and place,” only to spend the next 634 words demolishing one specific Obama proposal after another. So which is it?

For all that, it’s not why Obama could still lose the election. He’d lose it himself if he yields to the fear that his approaching blackness would appear too threatening in America’s rear-view mirrors. As Mitt Romney put it, “John McCain is going to make sure that America stays America,” amplifying the alert that Obama is not one of us. Or as a McCain television commercial put it, “John McCain, the American president Americans have been waiting for.” This from the man who didn’t stop referring to Asians as “gooks,” which is no different than referring to blacks as niggers or Iraqis as ragheads, until it added to the stumbles of his 2000 presidential run.

Democrats in their convention made a conscious effort, excruciating in its transparency, not once to mention Obama’s unwhiteness. They feared stoking the fires beneath the two branding irons — Obama’s color and perceived Islamic foreignness — that kept him tied with McCain in August, as opposed to carrying every state but Utah. The experience thing is another anti-uppity narrative. The last two presidents, both of whom served eight years each, had no more experience in foreign policy going in than your average tourist. One of them still has no idea that the world isn’t an extended precinct of the Texas highway patrol. McCain-the-expert, for his part, confuses Sudan and Somalia, seems unaware that Czechoslovakia broke up 20 years ago or that Vladimir Putin is no longer president of Russia. He thinks al-Qaida gets its training from Iran ( Iran and al-Qaida are enemies). To show his “independence” from the party, he claimed he voted against Ronald Reagan’s plan to send Marines to Beirut in 1983 though Marines had been there a year already. And that’s just the last few weeks’ tally of dodders. But it’s not his experience he’s relying on, but his skin’s spotty translucence, so familiar to the elderly vote that decides these elections.

We’re still at heart a racist nation, and the 2008 vote will be a referendum on the extent to which we are. That doesn’t preclude a miracle, especially in a nation that’s pulled off more than its share. But in the end, that’s what it’ll take to make sure that, Romney’s hopes aside, America does not stay the America it’s been.

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