August 4, 2010


The accidental president (Michael Gerson, 8/04/10, Washington Post)

If politics were literature, Bill Clinton would be Tom Buchanan in "The Great Gatsby," casually smashing lives around him while remaining untouched by the chaos he creates. Barack Obama is more like Macon Leary in "The Accidental Tourist," the author of tour guides who hates travel. "He was happiest with a regular scheme of things" - a cautious driver and committed flosser, systematic and steady, suspicious of unpredictable yearnings, displaying an "appalling calm" in times of crisis. "If you let yourself get angry you'll be ... consumed," Macon says. "You'll burn up. It's not productive." Only order and method are productive. He is attracted to the "virtuous delights of organizing a disorganized country."

Macon uses structure and rationality to avoid facing personal loss. Obama's emotional distance seems rooted in self-sufficiency - a stout fortress of self-confidence. But the effect is much the same. Obama leads a country without reflecting its passions - at least any he is willing to share. Events leave him apparently untouched. He doesn't need the crowd. Americans have always loved Obama more than he seems to care for us.

Reaction to this trait is one of the main dividing lines in American politics. Some view it as cold, cerebral and off-putting. Obama supporters still find his reserve refreshing, a welcome contrast to emotive and theatrical politicians. For me - constitutionally averse to hugging, back-slapping and other forms of politically motivated manhandling - Obama's manner has a certain appeal. It offers some of the pre-Oprah presidential dignity of Rutherford B. Hayes or James Garfield.

Actually, Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton share an important characteristic and share it with Ronald Reagan (among other leaders): the absent or virtually absent father [*]. This absence helps explain their ambition--the need to be tacitly approved of--but it did leave the three with some apparent emotional issues.

Perhaps to the current president's credit, he does not don a mask of false openness as his two peers did. While Ronald Reagan appears to have genuinely liked other people and to have disliked remarkably few, he was, nevertheless, so self-contained after growing up with an alcoholic father and dominant mother that he didn't have room in his emotional life for much more than Nancy, thus his unhappy relations with even his own kids. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, seems to have developed into almost a sociopath, able to fake emotions at Ron Brown's funeral one minute and yuck it up the next and acting the playful rogue in public while accosting or even, by various reports, raping women in private. At any rate, both men were rather different in one sphere of their lives than in the other.

Now it is certainly possible that we will one day discover that the cold and distant--even vacant--public persona that Mr. Obama presents is similarly hiding some much different private man, but, based on current evidence, it seems more likely that he is pretty much the cipher he presents as. After all, he has no religious beliefs, no political convictions, few if any friends, a wife who doesn't much respect him, and he spends every chance he gets on the golf course--essentially alone.

Rather than being reserved, the cardboard cut-out may be Mr. Obama in his entirety.

[* Compare and contrast with the two three recent presidents who were sons of powerful fathers--JFK and both Bushes--who basically competed with and ultimately topped their examples. All three were quite comfortable in their own skins and made friends easily. GHWB was a tad too upper class to ever be entirely at home with the hoi polloi, but the other two were comfortable in any milieu.]

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 4, 2010 6:00 AM
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