Politics & Media
Nov 03, 2008, 04:22AM

Let Us Now Praise the Sober Obama Voter

The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier Tamps Down the Hyperbole

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In the past several weeks I’ve had the patience to read about 50 rapturous editorial and op-ed endorsements for Barack Obama, many of which are predicting, with minor caveats, a restoration of sanity, international respect, competence and accountability for the United States. I’ve no quarrel with the embrace of Obama in most of the media, for not only will his victory tomorrow finally prove that this country has the collective wisdom to elect someone other than a white man, but his astonishing—there’s really no other word—two-year campaign for president has demonstrated that he’s not only a person who can excite Americans but is also a remarkable politician. That’s no guarantee of success once he’s in office, but as a lukewarm McCain supporter it leaves me less nervous than a return of the Clintons to the White House.

Nevertheless, the Obama worship from besotted editors and journalists is really something to behold, a deluge of puppy-love rhetoric that will be fascinating to re-visit a year from now. The New Republic’s endorsement of the Democratic nominee is typical of the inflated expectations that might, at least in private, make Obama blush. The editorial begins with three sentences that might’ve been crafted by Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters/consultants more than two decades ago. “The past eight years have been like watching a TV makeover show in reverse. We entered the Bush era a ravishing beauty attracting envious stares. We leave it a gum-smacking sad sack with split ends and an empty social calendar.”

I suspect the term “gum-smacking” is an ill-disguised slur at those who don’t have the pedigree and education of TNR’s editors, but let that slide—there’s been plenty of absurd debate, on both sides, about “intellectualism” and “anti-intellectualism,” and no one engaged in this shouting match stands tall. No, what galls me about the above words is the notion that, prior to President Bush’s election (or “selection” if you prefer) in 2000, the United States was beloved throughout the world, without a hint of corruption, predatory business practices or cronyism. The United States attracted so many “envious stares” that terrorists first struck the World Trade Center in 1993, a job that was mostly botched, so much so that President Clinton didn’t find it necessary to even visit the site. Reading on, you’d think that the deterioration of the country’s aging infrastructure—bridges, levees, highways, mass transit systems—suddenly accelerated the moment Bush was sworn into office in January of 2001.

Another common theme in the Obama endorsements is the hyperbolic assessment of Bush’s tenure in office. It’s fairly clear by now that Bush won’t enjoy a posthumous bump in his reputation like Harry Truman (vilified when he left office in 1953), given his utter detachment from the job after his administration’s reckless and cavalier response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. More than anything else, that humanitarian and political blunder symbolized Bush’s second term; he probably wishes he hadn’t run for reelection in 2004. Nevertheless, what does one make of The New Yorker’s pronouncement in its own Obama endorsement that “The Presidency of George W. Bush is the worst since Reconstruction”?

I’d argue that Jimmy Carter falls below the Bush level, but even The New Yorker’s David Remnick and Hendrik Hertzberg, presumably the authors of the editorial, might look at that grand statement and think it was over the top. There have been plenty of lousy presidents since Reconstruction, for heaven’s sake, with Herbert Hoover springing to mind right away. And is it possible that Bush has supplanted Richard Nixon in the Democratic pantheon for failed and polarizing chief executives? Perhaps dying does soften the memory—you’ll recall that Bill Clinton, who worked for McGovern in ’72, was fulsome in his very charitable eulogy at Nixon’s funeral—but as someone who lived through the Nixon presidency (and celebrated on the day of his resignation) I thought his record of actual crimes, bigotry and screwing up the economy would remain the benchmark for treachery and defiling the Constitution.

So it was a relief to read Leon Wieseltier’s “Washington Diarist” column in that same issue of The New Republic in which the longtime literary editor of that magazine explained his reluctant decision to cast a vote for Obama. Wieseltier finds Obama “too cool” and says that the candidate’s “passionlessness spooks me.” He also doesn’t brush aside Obama’s association with onetime terrorist William Ayers like most of his fellow Obama supporters. “I must say that the Ayers affair rankles me, because I would not shake the man’s dirty hand; and the fact that Obama was eight years old at the time of the Weather Underground is no more pertinent to his moral and historical awareness than the fact that he was six years old at the time of the King assassination.” And another dig: “[Obama] reveres reason, although he often confuses it with conversation.”

Yet John McCain, whom Wieseltier once admired—most recently for his advocacy of the “surge” in Iraq—has forfeited this TNR columnist’s vote, and I have to admit he makes a fairly convincing case, although not quite strong enough for me. First, it’s hard to argue with Wieseltier’s contention that when the Arizonan chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, “he told the United States of America to go fuck itself.” Once again, I wonder how McCain would’ve fared had he tapped South Dakota’s Sen. John Thune, a respected conservative who wouldn’t have inspired the avalanche of ridicule that’s befallen the Alaska governor, whose self-delusion is so acute she believes she has a future in national GOP politics. The fiscal crisis that dominated the front pages in October certainly sealed McCain’s fate—and his inept response to it just confirmed he has zero interest in economics—and so Thune probably wouldn’t have made a difference. At the least, however, the GOP campaign would have had more dignity.

Second, Wieseltier eliminates McCain for what can only be described as a euphemism for his age. “[McCain] is abstracted, dispersed, out of focus, Stockdalesque, mentally undone. Often he sounds simply unintelligent.” I happen to think McCain would make a fine president, but his campaign has been simply awful, so it’s not hard to understand the rationale of people like Wieseltier, who is voting for Obama without real enthusiasm, but as the better of two flawed candidates.

And, unlike his TNR colleagues, at least this Baby Boomer has no illusions that with some rolling up of the sleeves, bipartisan consensus, less class warfare, and a world that will supposedly rejoice at the election results, the United States will be a substantially different country

  • It's a relief to read a balanced commentary on all this.

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  • I agree that you can't blame Bush for every bad event that happened during his presidency. After all, the 9/11 attacks happened during his first year in office, and I'm pretty sure al Qaeda wasn't doing it as a reaction to the 2000 election. However, I will admit that I find it a refreshing change of pace from Bush's first term, when it seemed like everything that went wrong was immediately blamed on Clinton. The truth is that people should be attacking presidents for not doing enough to solve the problems or for promoting the wrong solutions during their term in office. Let the historians debate which president is at fault for what. I'm sure Herbert Hoover blamed Calvin Coolidge for the Great Depression, but we eventually got to the bottom of that one.

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  • Yes, all Presidents are flawed and we can certainly debate their relative inclination towards cronyism. And certainly the conversation a year from now will be fascinating. Having said that, despite the fact that I consider myself a sober Democrat, I have never before been moved to donate--not once, not twice, but three times to a Presidential campaign. Call it sobriety mixed with downright anger for the past eight years...

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  • Great article. I think the combination of Sarah Palin and what SNL termed "the reverse maverick" doomed McCain. That is when he really started to look like Bush. I agree Thune would not have made a difference. Do you think he would have gotten more Hillary supporters with Lieberman? Surely Lieberman would have stopped McCain from some of his economy mistakes. Even though I think Lieberman is slimy, he has been McCain's best "body man"

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  • Good article. I applaud you for being a die-hard Republican who has kept his head. Someone has suggested that your guys will have to go into rebuilding mode. The pendulum now appears to swing left, but it will swing back.

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