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From TR to BHO

Obama, The New Republic, and the presidents we've loved.

Not that my political history is so important. After all, no one in either the near or more remote environs of The New Republic required my enthusiasm for Barack Obama to kindle their own. As for my own enthusiasm--actually, it was at first a quizzical intrigue--it was sparked by the disciplined and thoughtful passion of my thirty-something children, first my film director (First Love, Last Rites; The Chateau; The Ex) son, soon thereafter my writer (Vanity Fair) daughter. Then a former student (not to be named) who is now a good friend of both mine and Obama's began to point, not at all so obliquely, to the senator's strengths ... and his vulnerabilities.

Obama was not yet a candidate, and I was waiting for Al Gore's nod to the huge public that awaited him. The nod never came, and the senator declared his intentions. The rest, of course, is history.

This was hardly my first enthusiasm for a candidate. I signed on with Eugene McCarthy in October 1967 before there was a campaign and before there was even a "dump Johnson" movement. A small group of us from Massachusetts met Gene for dinner at a restaurant in the Capitol, a dark and dreary dive. As with other groups that visited with McCarthy, he was not asking us to join him. We were the supplicants and he the chosen. Then, in the wake of McCarthy's strong showing in the New Hampshire primary and Robert Kennedy's decision that he would run for the presidency, Johnson decided to leave the White House rather than be pushed by the obvious tide. An unseemly "dump McCarthy" movement launched. RFK lost Oregon but won (not by much) California, on the night of which victory the first Palestinian terrorist in America shot three bullets into his body, and he was dead. McCarthy went to St. John's, a Catholic retreat in Minnesota, and meditated, brooding over whether the nastiness of his fight with Bobby might not have provoked the hatred that stoked the murder. For all intents and purposes, Gene stopped his campaign for the designation.

Amid the riots in Chicago's Grant Park, Hubert Humphrey (for the war, against the war) became the ungainly candidate of a party bloodied by Vietnam and in America, too. I wrote an article for The New Republic in the fall of 1968 urging readers not to vote for Humphrey. Richard Nixon was his opponent. I am still ashamed.

I stayed out of presidential politics for 20 years until a student and friend, Al Gore, campaigned for the Democratic nomination in 1988. It is (tragi)comic to recall who beat him out for the party's nomination. You recall--don't you?--Michael Dukakis, the smallest (and not by size) man to run for president in modern times. Gore went back to the Senate and, four years later, became the most salient vice president in our history.

So the election of Barack Obama has been for me the culmination of a journey--much interrupted, to be sure--over 40 years. Of course, The New Republic has been a companion in the journey. Or, rather, I have been a companion in its journey over the last 34 years. I acquired TNR, I told myself in 1974, to help reverse the utter conquest of the Democratic Party by McGovernism two years earlier. It was not simply George McGovern but large elements in the party that had embraced a macabre duo of attitudes in foreign policy. One was pure isolationism, articulated by McGovern himself in the mawkish whine, "Come home, America!" And the other was a certain naive sympathy with communist revolutions, as if they were basically "good at heart." What else would you expect from McGovern, a delegate to the Progressive Party (that is, Communist Party front) convention that put up Henry Wallace for president in 1948?

The New Republic came also to represent, under the editorships of both Michael Kinsley and Rick Hertzberg, what was dubbed "neoliberalism." If we objected to a certain insistent statism and distrust of private initiative in the economic policies of the post-New Deal and Fair Deal Democratic Party, we also insisted on the continuing relevance of equality as both a norm and practical aim of government. You cannot have a rich and deep society when many of its people do not share its fruit.

And on race, the great subtext of American history, a bleeding subtext, we remained, undaunted and unalloyed, a tribune of equal rights and integration. In this sense, I believed that Barack Obama is what he is, a black person of mixed race. "Mixed race," like "mixed ethnicity" or "mixed culture," is a common feature in the life of the nation and will soon become the dominant trait of its population. Individuals so constructed can choose which of their different sinews is most important to them, as the next president has clearly done. But Obama is not only integrated into the society; he is "also" (which somewhat degrades its significance) the first person to truly stand for an integrated American commonwealth.

That is reason enough for us to have been for him, for TNR actually to have been the very first national publication to devote a cover story to Barack Obama. The 5,000-word article was written by senior editor Noam Scheiber. It was called "Race Against History" and was published on May 31, 2004. How's that for foresight!

Many friends of this magazine--and even people who write for it occasionally--will be in the Obama administration. Such a circumstance is not new for The New Republic. TNR had an intimate relationship with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson but also with Theodore Roosevelt, who once complained that our criticism of him was the work of "three circumcised Jews and three anemic Christians."

The 1920s were an errand into the wilderness. Starting with the failure of the League of Nations until the Great Crash, TNR was on the political outs. Then, with the arrival of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, its proximity to, its intimacy with, the administration's leading figures was at once exhilarating and tense. FDR's chief troubleshooter, Tommy Corcoran, regularly complained of TNR's hostility in its pages to the New Deal. But the editors were loath to see in the president, in any president, a savior.

This challenge would not arise again for a decade and a half. In 1948, the editors wanted Harry S Truman replaced as the Democratic candidate. By whom? By Dwight David Eisenhower, that's whom. Ike was elected president as a Republican in 1952, and TNR was clearly in opposition. All of this changed in 1960, when John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in an extremely tight election, maybe even stolen for JFK. Shortly thereafter, Kennedy was photographed descending from an airplane carrying a copy of The New Republic. Again there was some affinity, close affinity, between the people around JFK and the folks at TNR. In the thousand days of the Kennedy presidency, the magazine was close to the administration and some of its goals but also critical of its hesitancy about civil rights. It also became increasingly perturbed by the administration's gradual and virtually unacknowledged slide into war in Indochina.

And now we come to the ascendancy of Barack Obama. When I first met him, he cited something that I had written. We immediately laughed about how well-prepared he was. Once again, we begin an administration as admirers of the president and as admirers of some of those closest to him. That is, we begin his administration as partisans of his essential purposes. These are, I believe:

1. to reconstruct the American social contract so that it enlarges the rewards to all as it allows for gains to those who invest wealth, energy, commitment, and imagination to any and all productive enterprise in the country;

2. to develop new rules insuring that what we call free enterprise should not be captive of secrecy, deceit, lust, and untested fashion;

3. to reestablish and expand American might, in concert with traditional democratic allies, so that it is intrinsically convincing and prudently used on behalf of and with decent societies endangered by aggression and subverted by either armed doctrine or terror;

4. to recognize that the international system is broken and simply unwilling 5. to transcend its degrading but pretentious addictions. The plight of Darfur and of the Congo are only the most up-to-date and prominent instances of this failure. (Let me be clear on this: I believe that many of Obama's people are deluded by the United Nations, which is the perfect expression of this collapse. )

Maybe I am over-interpreting Obama's words and intentions. But we will see soon enough. We will support Obama when we think him right and oppose him when we think him wrong. No president has come to power facing grimmer economic circumstances except Franklin Roosevelt. Just how grim, we do not yet know. I fear that the onrushing news will be horrific.So we must be tolerant. More than that: We may even have to be indulgent. Bush's motives in this situation are both unknown and suspect. Obama's are not.

This article originally ran in the December 3, 2008, issue of the magazine.