Blinded By The Light


Obama knows he’s hot stuff. His victory in the lead-off Iowa caucuses on 3 January 2008 was front-page news in more than 300 European newspapers, and in April, Britain’s august Financial Times headlined a lead editorial, "Democrats must choose Obama."

Yes, there is also a stubbornly virulent internet campaign among the deeply misinformed to warn Americans that Obama is Muslim, a Manchurian Candidate poised to replace Gideon Bibles at Motel 6 with the Koran. The racial bigots are having their say, as well. But the die was cast when prominent conservatives, of all people, threw in their lot with Obama.

Long disgusted with the mendacity, incompetence, and lack of frugality of fellow Republican George W Bush’s administration and uninspired by the 11 candidates for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, they recognised in Obama a moderate progressive and began to propel his candidacy.

Even among Republicans, wrote Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speechwriter, "there is a quiet pining" for an Obama presidency. Conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times, in a column headed "Run, Obama, Run," asserted the junior US senator for Illinois was the only genuine agent of change among the 21 candidates from both parties seeking the presidency. And for every racial slur in the blogosphere, there were 20 glowing Obama magazine cover stories like US Weekly’s "Barack Obama: Is He Really Just Like Us? (The Answer: He Really Is!)." In Atlantic Monthly, recovering Iraq-war cheerleader Andrew Sullivan argued that Obama’s face alone would restore America’s standing in the world.

"Obama," said former George W Bush Deputy Assistant Peter Wehner, "is among the most impressive political talents of our lifetime." Bush himself, reflecting on Obamania," called him "the Pope."

When the media gush became more than some could bear, the online news magazine Slate launched a "Messiah Watch" to report sightings of Obama turning water into wine and strolling the length of Lake Michigan. Time’s politics columnist, Joe Klein, a generally positive commentator on Obama, wrote "there’s something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism" of an Obama event. Obama himself was a bit creeped out during a July European tour when the German tabloid Bild published a tell-all account by a stealth reporter who monitored his daily gym ritual.

"I’m getting hot, and not from the workout," she wrote. "What a man." "Did she describe what my T-shirt smelled like?" Obama asked with some astonishment when informed of the detailed report. (Yes. Fabric softener with spring scent.) An urban legend flourished that supporters at an Obama rally had applauded him when he sneezed. It was true that at a Dallas event Obama excused himself midspeech to blow his nose and the crowd cheered. "When people go wild watching you blow your nose," Al Jazeera observed in February, "you know you’ve caught lightning in a bottle."

Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist who has been one of Obama’s most enthusiastic chroniclers, made note in an otherwise flattering June 2008 column of Obama’s "cockiness. His own tendency to preen and coast could be encouraged by recent events rocking [McCain’s] Straight Talk Express: McCain is so far proving an exceptionally clumsy candidate prone to accentuating everything that’s out-of-touch about his American vision."

"I can’t help it if I give a good speech," Obama said during the 2008 primary season when accused by Clinton of offering voters little more than ear candy. Usually given to an attractive self-deprecation, Obama does hold his head high in the manner of a Roman emperor, applauds his own speeches at their conclusion (actually a device for rousing his audiences, but easily mistaken for self-congratulation), and has a professorial aloofness that doesn’t lend itself to rope line empathy in the manner of a Bill Clinton. "I love you!" someone invariably screams at Obama during his events, leaving the candidate not much choice but to pause in his speeches to say, "I love you back!"

Yet there’s a stubborn streak in Obama that overrides expediency at critical moments when he might be better advised to act more safely. It seemed that he might denounce his long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright Jr — due to retire shortly, after having built Chicago’s Trinity United into one of America’s largest churches, with about 8000 parishioners — when a selective culling of Wright’s more intemperate remarks flooded the internet in the spring of 2008. As it happens, nothing Wright said in faulting US foreign policy, for instance, matched Dr King’s 1967 fulmination against the Vietnam War: "God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war," King said. "And we are criminals in that war. We have committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world."

In the only historic speech in the 2008 campaign, on 18 March, Obama repudiated Wright’s more egregious sermonising but refused to "disown" him. Obama then opened the Pandora’s box of racial grievances during an election cycle that everyone, especially Obama, was hoping would not be about race. While the continued anger of many African-Americans and other minorities is counterproductive, Obama allowed, "the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races."

Over the next few months, Obama showed a political cunning FDR would have admired. Reverend Wright, failing to realise his good fortune in not being disowned entirely, popped up at the National Press Club to deliver an updated fiery condemnation of most things American, exhibiting the traits not of an angry truth-teller but a nut. Obama promptly disowned him after all. For good measure, he dumped Wright’s Trinity United church — Obama’s place of worship for two decades — within 24 hours of an unflattering pantomime of Hillary Clinton at the Chicago church by a visiting white pastor.

In a single week in June, Obama supported a compromise bill on warrantless wiretaps loathed by left-wing liberals. He reacted to one Supreme Court decision that struck down Louisiana’s practice of condemning sex offenders to death row by reasserting his support of capital punishment when the crime is particularly "heinous." In lauding another Supreme Court decision striking down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns, he allied himself with the National Rifle Association, agreeing the measure violated Americans’ Second Amendment rights.

As a frontrunner not eager to give the underdog free time on the airwaves, Obama rejected McCain’s offer of a series of televised town-hall debates. And he opted out of the public campaign-financing system to which McCain had committed himself — and the spending restrictions that go with it. McCain cried foul over Obama’s earlier and purposely vague suggestion that he, too, would restrict himself to public funds if his opponent did so. What changed in the meantime was Obama’s unprecedented ability to generate donations from small-dollar contributors among his burgeoning population of internet-based supporters, to whom he could return time and again before they hit their federally mandated donation ceilings. As a result, Obama would go into the general election with the same daunting financial advantage he had wielded over Hillary Clinton in the primaries, outspending her in some states by a three-to-one margin. All this left David Brooks, house conservative columnist at the New York Times, breathless with disgust and admiration.

"On the one hand," Brooks wrote, "Obama did sell out the primary cause of his professional life, all for a tiny political advantage. If he’ll sell that out, what won’t he sell out? On the other hand, global affairs ain’t beanbag. If we’re going to have a president who is going to go toe to toe with the likes of Vladimir Putin, maybe it is better that he should have a ruthlessly opportunistic Fast Eddie Obama lurking inside.

"All I know for sure is that this guy is no liberal goo-goo. Republicans keep calling him naive. But naive is the last word I’d use to describe Barack Obama. He’s the most effectively political creature we’ve seen in decades."

On securing the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama did not run to the political centre in pursuit of moderate and independent voters to embellish the base of the left-of-centre grassroots supporters he had created. He didn’t do so because, while Obama is a progressive as defined by concern for social justice, he already is a centrist and in no way anti-war, anti-capitalism, or anti-establishment.

However, all this didn’t stop Reverend Jesse Jackson, twice a US presidential candidate in the 1980s, from complaining in July that Obama’s admonition to black audiences to brush up on their parenting skills was "not useful". As a reminder of why the strident Jackson had not been electable, the ordained minister, in an off-air moment during a Fox News interview, complained that Obama was "talking down to black people — I want to cut his nuts off," for which he promptly apologised, obscuring whatever point he might have had. Obama was nonplussed, telling Meet the Press in July that Jackson had campaigned on the same issues of black responsibilities in his own presidential bids. "And today, when fathers are absent from half of African-American households, that’s a problem you can’t be silent about," Obama said.

Tom Hayden joined that backlash among self-identified pure progressives, detecting loopholes in Obama’s vow to end US military involvement in Iraq. Hayden, whose promising career as a 1960s anti-war activist peaked with a stint as a California state legislator, parsed this July Obama statement on Iraq: "I’ve always said that the pace of our withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability" — two conditions, Hayden argued, that could justify leaving American troops in combat indefinitely. "And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies" — another loophole, according to Hayden, for allowing American involvement in the Iraq war to drag on.

Obama had begun his campaign for the White House with the repeated warning that "I will disappoint some people". And when the left announced its disappointment once Obama was the Democratic nominee, Obama disputed "this whole notion that I am shifting to the centre," adding that "the people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me."

This is an edited extract from An American Story: The Speeches of Barack Obama by David Olive (c) 2008 by David Olive All Rights Reserved. (Published by ECW Press Ltd).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.