August 21, 2008


Explaining the riddle: The man who has called himself “a blank screen” is about to take centre-stage (The Economist, 8/21/08)

Who is Barack Obama? The best clues to that riddle can be gleaned from his two volumes of autobiography. He spent the first half of his life in search of a stable identity. He looked “black”. But he was the son of a white mother from Kansas and an African, rather than an African-American, father from Kenya. He spent four years in Indonesia, where he attended local schools (including a Muslim one) and ate local delicacies such as dog, grasshopper and snake, on which his stepfather fed him. He eventually ended up living with his white grandparents in Hawaii.

The young Obama flirted with the “blackness” of the inner-city, growing an Afro, skimping on school work and experimenting with marijuana and a little cocaine. But he eventually pulled himself together and joined the American meritocracy, attending Occidental College, Columbia University and, later, Harvard Law School.

Mr Obama found the answer to his search for identity in black Chicago. He started his career as a “community organiser” on Chicago’s South Side, the largest black community in the country. He joined one of the city’s most prominent black churches, Trinity United, and abandoned his youthful agnosticism in favour of Christianity (Trinity’s Afrocentric bent, with its African visitors and women dressed in African robes, may have particularly appealed to the son of an African). He married a black woman with deep roots on the South Side, and had his two daughters baptised at Trinity.

The rootless cosmopolitan now had roots for the first time in his life. [...]

Mr Obama promises to dethrone the lobbyists and reach out to people of goodwill, of whatever persuasion, who want to take back control of their country.

The problem with this argument is that Mr Obama has never pursued a serious reform agenda in any job he has held. He eased his way into his first job in politics, as a state senator in Illinois, by using a “petitions guru” to challenge the signatures his rival, Alice Palmer, had obtained to qualify for the ballot, an extraordinary move for a man who had made his name trying to get poor people to vote. He had a see-no-evil attitude to the Chicago political machine, one of the most corrupt in the country. (John Kass, a columnist on the Chicago Tribune, described his record as that of a man who “won’t make no waves and won’t back no losers”.) He had a disturbingly close relationship with Tony Rezko, a Chicago property magnate who made his career doing favours for politicians who could open doors to real-estate contracts, and who is now in prison. Mr Rezko contributed $250,000 to Mr Obama over his career, and bought a lot next to his house.

This go-along-to-get-along attitude continued once Mr Obama had made it to the Senate in Washington. He supported the farm bill and the override of the president’s veto, despite the fact that the bill sprayed money at agri-business and raised barriers against farmers in the developing world. A raft of pork projects, including Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere”, received his support. He used his star power to raise money for his political action committee, Hope Fund, and then disbursed nearly $300,000 to Democrats who might be useful in his election bid. The man who promises to reform America’s political system is the first presidential candidate ever to reject public funds for the general election.

If a political campaign can be thought of as a narrative, whose bright idea was it for the Democrats to run Blankman?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2008 1:02 PM
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