August 7, 2008


David Brooks calls Barack Obama a sojourner (Joan Walsh, 8/05/08, Salon)

As Brooks puts it: "Andrew Jackson was a backwoodsman. John Kennedy had his clan. Ronald Reagan was forever associated with the small-town virtues of Dixon and Jimmy Carter with Plains."

How silly is all of that? Reagan's Dixon roots ran through Hollywood and a career as an actor, as well as a union leader turned union foe, a liberal turned conservative; a divorced ladies man turned right-wing family values guy. Part of his appeal, in fact, was his synthetic identity, which he had in common with most Americans. John F. Kennedy was elected in spite of his "clan" affiliation, not because of it; he barely defeated Richard Nixon in 1960. Journalists played along, for a while, with the re-creation of Jimmy Carter, landed politician, as Jimmy Carter, humble peanut farmer, and then turned on him.

Likewise, Bill Clinton was an amalgam of social and cultural influences: an authentic son of working-class Arkansas who saw himself (like Obama, in Brooks' formula) as a baby-boom product of the American meritocracy. But the Beltway didn't really play along with that Clinton self-invention: He was always white trash; his Georgetown degree didn't make him part of Georgetown (and Clinton had a self-destructive streak that let him collude in his exclusion). Finally, George W. Bush is a complete political confection: a rich-kid Connecticut Yankee dressed up like a cowboy, who pretended to be an oilman and failed at every job he ever had (except maybe baseball boss), including this latest. And yet unlike Clinton and Carter, Bush is still blessed to have journalists playing along with his confection of tribe and place.

In short, Obama has a lot in common with every president Brooks mentions, and then some. (It's interesting to note that, like Obama, Clinton, Reagan and Richard Nixon had absent or unreliable alcoholic fathers.) But only Obama is a "sojourner" who doesn't know his place. Sorry, that probably wasn't fair. Let's just say we don't know his place.

Still, I'm letting myself answer Brooks' column, instead of ignoring it as I usually do, at least partly because I think he's put his finger on something, something I'd rather not take in. This McCain stuff? The nasty jokes and ads about him being "The One" or Paris Hilton or Chris Matthews' boy toy? The playing of the "playing the race card" card? I think it's working. It's too early to fret about polling, and yet the trends in recent polls seem ominous.

People knew exactly who Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were--as political figures, not as private men--because they told us exactly what they wanted to do as president. They were so wonkish you couldn't escape hearing about their plans for America. No one needed to know that Ron loved Nancy to the exclusion of even their children nor that Bill would get freaky with a lamppost in a pinch, so long as those things wouldn't/didn't impinge on their jobs. Mr. Clinton managed to get himself in trouble by first not acting on what he'd promised--reverting to Second Way Democrat for two years--and then by accosting staff in the Oval, breaking both ends of the bargain.

Similarly, and contrary to the Left's paranoia, folks don't much care what race Mr. Obama considers himself (anyone want to bet that the exit polls in November show at least 10% of voters don't realize he classifies himself as black?) nor whether he's Muslim, Black Nationalist, or Unitarian. What voters are interested in is what the guy who's asking for their vote plans to do with it. Senator Obama's answer, because he is a Second Way Democrat, has to be and is silence. If he told everyone what his political place is--the Northern liberal mainstream of the Democratic Party--the campaign would already be over.

Instead, it's left to the GOP to locate him--as it has previously Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry--and once it has done so he'll lose the election, as have his Northern liberal predecessors. This has already begun to occur which is why Ms Walsh can feel the worrying undertow in the polls. But riptide doesn't come until after his convention bounce and the Fall, when people start to pay a bit of attention.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 7, 2008 11:48 AM

It occurred to me the other day that Obama has no credible "professional references" on his job application. At least I cannot think of anyone who has endorsed Obama for the job of President and who is trustworthy, accomplished in his/her own right, and intimately familiar with Obama's knowledge, skills and abilities. Curious.

Posted by: ghostcat at August 7, 2008 12:53 PM

Why don't the Dems move their Convention to a week before Nov. to take advantage of the post-convention bounce?

Posted by: ic at August 7, 2008 1:13 PM

Bush was a failure as governor of Texas? How'd Saloon manage to dig up that scoop? Take "governor" off the resumes of Clinton and Carter and you don't come up with much for them, either.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 7, 2008 1:42 PM
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