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Washington Diarist

Miracle Man

So far the rocket-burst of Barack Obama has verified that Hillary Clinton has no obvious claim on the presidency; and that liberals, after seven lean years, are happy to lose their heads; and that excitement is exciting. Obama is certainly rinsing American politics of its over-ideologized and over- professionalized (they often go together) lassitude; his campaign has all the ardor of an insurgency but none of the anger. In November it may even be an honor to vote for him. But his astounding rise imposes a certain obligation of skeptical calm. Change: fine. A new generation: fine. A new politics: fine. It is all fine, and it is all contentless. Inspiration without content is a prelude to alienation. Newness is the oldest pitch in American politics. And I am a little sick of hope. ("I do not believe in miracles," says Herodias in Wilde's play. "I have seen too many.") Also I have a queasy recollection of 1975 and the electrifying emergence of Jimmy Carter out of nowhere, in all his progressive pristinity, in a country made torpid by a war and an era of low politics. Why not the best? Skepticism is bad form in a bandwagoning moment. Yet I have a few doubts. I will gladly be persuaded out of them, but not until I record them.

For a start, he talks too much. This is not a quantitative objection, but a qualitative one. There was a revealing moment in the debate at St. Anselm's College, when Clinton unleashed what was supposed to be her rhetorical masterstroke: "Words are not actions." This provoked Obama to explain that words are actions: "The truth is actually words do inspire. Words do help people get involved... . Don't discount that power ..." Of course he is right. For too long the language of American politics has been dead and debased. The refulgence of Obama's oratory, with its passages of re-moralizing lyricism, is a political and even a cultural gain. Yet an argument about the centrality of eloquence for politics from Barack Obama makes me uneasy, in the way that an argument about the centrality of private-sector money for government from Michael Bloomberg makes me uneasy. I worry that it is most of what he has and most of what he knows. When, as in the debates, Obama cannot resort to his silken swelling sentences, he seems pretty conventional. The closer he comes to the stuff of policy, the swifter the magic is gone. Perhaps policy is just not magical. Still, he seems more prepared for the aria of politics than for the recitative of government.

This has something to do with "experience," the other moronic mantra of this race. Plainly experience is no promise of wisdom or success. We know this from, well, experience. But I must admit that when, at the St. Anselm's debate, Obama began a sentence with "As commander-in-chief I will ... " I shuddered. There were about ten years in my life as a citizen when I would not have so shuddered. They were the years--a second youth, historically speaking--between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the World Trade Center. Since I am once again a national security and foreign policy voter--nobody cares equally about everything--I am unenthusiastic about the prospect of electing a president from the Illinois state legislature. How, really, can Obama's years in the United States Senate be described as distinguished? There was no time, at least for that. And then there is the disjunction between his inexperience and his assuredness. Obama's popularity is owed in no small measure to the charisma of his confidence in himself. He has a redeemer's gait, and enters a hall like he has come to save it. This leaves me cold; and I was dismayed by his reference, in his concession speech in New Hampshire, to skeptics as cynics: a familiar feature of the righteousness of the candidate who beat him. But people believe in people who believe in themselves, and Obama's belief in himself is devout, innate, and of Seinfeldian proportions. I hope it is educable, though I dread the ordeal of yet another president's "education."

When Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as his running mate, a shul-mate remarked that it was a great day for the Jews in America that Gore had the courage to do so. I told him that, while I was tribally exhilarated by what Gore had done, he would not have picked Lieberman if the polling had ruled against it. It was a great day for the Jews in America, in other words, because courage was no longer needed. I hear a lot about Obama as a "post-racial" candidate, and I am not sure what this means. I understand that he is a hybridity idol, Kansas and Kenya and all that--"our first Benetton candidate," as a friend admiringly remarked. But Obama cannot make history as the first black candidate for president, or as the first black president, and be post-racial. Last week he was not post-racial: Iowa was post-racial, and so was New Hampshire, and so may our improving country continue to be. Obama is certainly not regarded post- racially by the post-racialists. "When an African American man is leading a juggernaut to the White House," a vibrating David Brooks asked, "do you want to be the one to stand up and say No?" Well, yes, if "no" needs to be said, and if we are in a place beyond race. This condescension is not Obama's fault; it is hard to balance one's elation at the possibility of such an American apotheosis with one's refusal to regard Obama as the representative of his race. We should vote for him because of "his face," Andrew Sullivan has hotly advised, which would effect "a re-branding of America." But a president is not a logo and America is not a brand. If the consideration of race, disguised as postracialism, has the effect of abrogating the discussion of Obama's fitness for what he seeks, then we will have mistaken a good feeling for a real change, which is a characteristic American error. All this adoring talk has the consequence of making Obama stand for little more than his own identity. But every identity, even the most exotic one, is narrow, until life widens it. Nobody is adequately equipped by their origins to manage human affairs. Watching the returns the other night, and looking for a senator with a widened identity, and a passion for security, and a scruple about torture, and a decency about immigrants, and a contempt for the drug companies, and an anxiety about the environment, and a talent for candor, I was rather stirred by the one from Arizona.

This article appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the magazine.