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Washington Diarist; Audacities

What I want to share with the group this morning is that I am in thefourth or fifth stage of working through my feelings about BarackObama. In the beginning, I was exhilarated by the appearance ofsomebody to challenge, and torment, Her Royal Highness, whosedazzling intergalactic celebrity blinds many people to the factthat she may be the most plodding and expedient politician inAmerica. I was troubled by the extent of Obama's own reliance onthe machinery of celebrity, and wondered how it was that in his fewyears in the Senate he found time to write a big book but almost nolegislation. (The Hart building is not Yaddo.) But he was plainly aformidable individual, a living mind. And I confess that I plan tobe moved to tears on the day that I vote for a black man for thepresidency of this stained and stirring country. I was historicallytitillated even by his middle name, and resented the mildly uglywhispers of Clinton's supporters that a man called Hussein cannotget elected. Where is their faith in America? Anyway, Clinton isthe one who, in her long march through the institutions,market-tested every one of her own names.

So I started paying attention, and reading the books, and watchingthe tapes. I wanted to be very glad. But skepticism is sedulouslyarriving, like daylight savings time. For a start, I hold Obama'ssuavity against him. (He is the Billy Eckstine of Americanpolitics.) Since I am myself not unsuave, I know how much itaccomplishes with how little. Charm is not a political virtue.Eloquence is another matter: Obama's deployment of the language isdownright musical in this rhetorically impoverished age. HillaryClinton's English is the diction of communiques. But his lyricismis too smooth, too swift, too immune to anxiety or surprise. He isnot only thoughtful, he is pre-thoughtful. This is not an era ofeasy questions, but Obama makes them all look easy. Or worse, hefinds their complexity toasty, an occasion for the display of histalent for suasion. In this respect he reminds me not so much ofBill Clinton, whose facility was at least riddled with theparticulars of policy, but of Mario Cuomo. Maybe Obama is the newCuomo, but without the infirm will.

Obama dislikes polarization. I like it. I think it is one of themarks of an engaged citizenry. Obviously it can also become a kindof democratic decadence; but often polarization is simply your namefor my refusal to assent to your opinion. I do not expect Obama,for the sake of putting an end to polarization, to support a surgeor a tax cut. His failure to do so is an expression of principle,which is always sharp. As an antidote to polarization, he seems tobe proposing what used to be called, when Bill Clinton did it sowell, triangulation: he is running another end-of-ideologycampaign. The problem is that he has not yet justified hisend-of-ideology ideology with any real wonkery. Obama is perfectlycorrect to deplore the effects of doctrinal purity on government,but then he must illustrate his more dialectical understanding withthe details of some significant neither-right-nor-left plans andprograms. Otherwise it is just uplift.

Obama is also reviving another old Clinton homily, the one against"cynicism. " Hillary Clinton used to preach this one often in herpoliticsof-meaning days. In the Clintons' view, their critics werenot only wrong, they were also bad. "Cynicism" is not an argument,it is an aspersion. Its subject is not ideas but motives. Yet it isentirely possible to have the right ideas and the wrong motives,and the wrong ideas and the right motives. The conservativeantipathy to government, which is one of Obama's illustrations ofcontemporary cynicism, is not at all cynical, even if it is falseand dangerous. Moreover, I do not see how America can suffer frompolarization and cynicism at the same time. Polarization representsan intensity of involvement, a hyperengagement. Whatever elseGeorge W. Bush has done, he has politicized America.

And then there is Obama's decision to run on his life--or, as weprefer to say, on his journey. Where is the American without his orher journey? The metaphor of travel is facilitated, I suppose, bytechnology that promises to abolish space and time (remember "wheredo you want to go today?"), but mainly it is a means ofself-dramatization, of exoticizing even the most banal existence.Obama's books are both autobiographies. Two autobiographies!Whatever his vision of America, and I have no doubt about itsfundamental decency, he has been mainly recommending himself. Morespecifically, Obama has been promoting the multiplicity of hisorigins as a qualification for leadership. This strikes me aslittle more than identity politics, but with a cunning refinement:instead of being representative of one thing, he is representativeof all things. He is typical of everybody, the most racinatedAmerican of all. In America, you can be heroic for being typical.But I do not see how your grandfather can make you a hero. Andthere is something unsavory about the new rage for genealogy:insofar as it aims to supply a biological foundation for identity,it is race science for a pluralist society. I am less interested inObama's roots than in his branches. The genealogy of a democrat isas irrelevant to a liberal order as the genealogy of an aristocrat.The formative influences are much less important than what theyformed. And it is narcissism to vote for a candidate because he islike yourself, or one of your own. I would not vote for a hero ofthe Jewish partisans from my mother's own town if he were notobsessed with the injustices of the health care system in thiscountry.

But what if a health care plan is all a candidate has? Until thefall of the Soviet Union, I voted in general elections on foreignpolicy grounds. There was an enemy to fear and to fight. Then, fora bizarrely lucky decade, I permitted myself a fuller calculationat the polls. Now I am a bit of a security simpleton again. Obama'sopposition to the Iraq war seems to have been principled, andsomewhat prescient. But the foreign policy inclinations presentedby the candidate are vague and platitudinous and sanguine about thereasonableness of the world. The ghost of Cyrus Vance seems to beconsulting for the campaign. So I continue to regard the phenomwith some misgivings. Nobody ever charmed anybody out of a nuclearweapon.

By Leon Wieseltier