I want a hero: an uncommon want
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one.
Byron, Don Juan
For the last few weeks, I’ve left the blue-sheathed national edition of the New York Times out in the yard, where it’s tossed over the gate at 3 a.m. each morning, and gone straight to the paper’s website, because news printed nine or ten hours ago is too old to keep up with the fast-moving course of the Democratic nomination battle. As an Obama supporter, I tremble for him as one trembles for the changing fortunes of the hero of an intensely gripping picaresque novel. What does the latest poll say? Has his campaign, usually sure-footed, stumbled into some damaging foolishness? Has another skeleton been uncovered in his closet? Has his vanity got the better of him again, as when he delivered his smirking line, ‘You’re likeable enough, Hillary’? Are the cloyed gazettes finally tiring of him?
As recently as 29 February, those of us who were finding the suspense already unendurable were looking to 4 March to provide a swift dénouement. Then stuff happened – news of Professor Goolsbee’s clandestine visit to the Canadian Consulate, the ‘red phone’ TV ad, the start of the Antoin Rezko trial – and the Texas and Ohio primary results made clear that this book has at least a hundred pages yet to go.
This may not seem a very grown-up way of following an election, but it’s been forced on us by the apparent shortage of serious policy differences between the two remaining candidates. The questions of whether or not the future president should meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and whether people who fail to pony up for subsidised health insurance should have their wages docked at source, don’t inspire much impassioned conversation at the water-cooler. So we’re down to arguing over the character and style of Clinton and Obama, rather than – tut-tut! – ‘talking about the issues’. But in this case, character and style are issues because they supply the best available clues as to how each candidate might set about forming an administration and handle the business of government.
In Seattle, where I live, one of the most solid liberal-Democrat constituencies in the country, people have been so united in their loathing of the Bush administration and all its works that until now they had pretty much forgotten how to disagree. They have relearned fast. Friendships are strained, dinner parties wrecked, marital beds vacated for the spare room over the Obama v. Clinton question. Our lefty congressman, Jim McDermott, currently in his tenth term (last time around, he beat his Republican opponent by 79 per cent to 16), has wisely chosen not to endorse either candidate; and when he showed up at the local caucus on 9 February, it was to escort his wife there, not to participate himself.
Some women I know take the rise of Obama as a personal affront. They’ve seen him too often before – the cocky younger man, promoted over the head of the better qualified female. They circulate (‘I hope you’ll share this with every decent woman you know’) op-ed pieces by Gloria Steinem (‘Why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?’), and Erica Jong (‘If I have to watch another great American woman thrown in the dustbin of history to please the patriarchy, I’ll move to Canada’), along with a grand tirade by Robin Morgan, a reprise of her 1970 essay ‘Goodbye to All That’:
How dare anyone unilaterally decide when to turn the page on history, papering over real inequities and suffering constituencies in the promise of a feel-good campaign? How dare anyone claim to unify while dividing, or think that to rouse US youth from torpor it’s useful to triage the single largest demographic in this country’s history: the boomer generation – the majority of which is female?
Morgan’s piece ends with the resounding but opaque antithesis: ‘Me, I’m voting for Hillary not because she’s a woman – but because I am.’ Her furious italicisations fairly represent the tone of the quarrels at which I’ve been present: quarrels in which the word ‘bullshit!’ is freely deployed on both sides, by people whose use of the expletive is as surprising as if they’d suddenly broken into fluent Portuguese.
Two days before the Washington State caucuses, I picked up my 15-year-old from her high school, where she’s a freshman. She was full of what had happened at morning assembly. A senior (‘and he’s kind of popular’) had stood up to announce that Hillary Clinton would be speaking that evening on the Seattle waterfront, and ‘the whole school’ had erupted in catcalls, boos and hisses.
‘The whole school? Didn’t the girls stand up for her?’
‘It was everybody. I think the girls were loudest. Nobody’s ever hissed or booed at Community Meeting before. It was totally weird. Then another senior got up to say that Obama’s going to be at Key Arena tomorrow morning, and everyone was clapping and cheering. It was like the building was coming down.’
Next day, her French class had to be cancelled because half the school was playing truant at the Obama rally.
Age, gender, race and class have featured so prominently in the quarrel that they’ve sometimes seemed to define it as merely demographic warfare, and led the pundits to forecast the primary results by doing the simple arithmetic of counting up whites, blacks, browns, union members, college graduates, under-30s and over-65s. But again and again the pundits have got it wrong, suggesting that the real divisions between the Obamaites and the Clintonites are to be found elsewhere.
In a recent issue of the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, an Obama sceptic, complained that his positions on foreign policy and national security had ‘a certain homeopathic quality’, more calculated to appeal to his ‘legions of the blissful’ than to meet the needs of an ‘era of conflict, not an era of conciliation’. ‘I understand,’ he wrote, ‘that no one, except perhaps Lincoln, ever ran for the presidency on a tragic sense of life; but if it is possible to be too old in spirit, it is possible also to be too young.’
I think Wieseltier raises the right point, but gets it the wrong way round. For a tragic sense of life is exactly what has marked Obama’s candidacy from the beginning. His powerful memoir, Dreams from My Father, written in his early thirties, is shot through with that sense: its gravely intelligent, death-haunted tone, beautifully controlled throughout the book, is that of an old voice, not a young one – and the voice of the book is of a piece with the plangent, melancholy baritone to be heard on the campaign trail.
Those who hear only empty optimism in Obama aren’t listening. His routine stump speech is built on the premise that America has become estranged from its own essential character; a country unhinged from its constitution, feared and disliked across the globe, engaged in a dumb and unjust war, its tax system skewed to help the rich get richer and the poor grow poorer, its economy in ‘shambles’, its politics ‘broken’. ‘Lonely’ is a favourite word, as he conjures a people grown lonely in themselves and lonely as a nation in the larger society of the world. (Obama himself is clearly on intimate terms with loneliness: Dreams from My Father is the story of a born outsider negotiating a succession of social and cultural frontiers; it takes the form of a lifelong quest for family and community, and ends, like a Victorian novel, with a wedding.)
The light in Obama’s rhetoric – the chants of ‘Yes, we can’ or his woo-woo line, lifted from Maria Shriver’s endorsement speech, ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’ – is in direct proportion to the darkness, and he paints a blacker picture of America than any Democratic presidential candidate in living memory has dared to do. He courts his listeners, not as legions of the blissful, but as legions of the alienated, adrift in a country no longer recognisable as their own, and challenges them to emulate slaves in their struggle for emancipation, impoverished European immigrants seeking a new life on a far continent, and soldiers of the ‘greatest generation’ who volunteered to fight Fascism and Nazism. The extravagance of these similes is jarring – especially when they’re spoken by a writer as subtle and careful as Obama is on the printed page – but they serve to make the double point that America is in a desperate predicament and that only a great wave of communitarian action can salvage it.
By contrast, Clinton wields the domestic metaphor of the broom: ‘It did take a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush, and I think it might take a second one to clean up after the second Bush.’ It’s a deliberately pedestrian image, and it has defined her campaign. Stuff needs to be fixed around the house, but the damage is superficial, not structural. She has a phenomenal memory for detail, and, given half a chance, reels off long inventories of the chores that will have to be undertaken – the dripping faucet, the broken sash, the blocked toilet, the missing tiles on the roof, that awful carpet on the stairs. Clinton tends to bore journalists with these recitations, but her audiences seem to like them: after the visionary but catastrophic plans of the neoconservatives, the prospect of a return to common-sense practical housekeeping has undeniable charm. Swiping at Obama, she says: ‘I’m a doer, not a talker’ (a phrase with an interesting provenance – it goes back to the First Murderer in Richard III, by way of Bob Dole in his failed bid for the presidency in 1996). But it’s a line that unwittingly draws attention to the intellectual as well as the rhetorical limits of her candidacy.
‘We can get back on the path we were on,’ she promises, meaning the path from which we strayed in November 2000, as if the 1990s were a time of purpose, clarity and unswerving Democratic progress, as well as a period of largely coincidental economic prosperity. Memory’s a strange thing, and Hillary Clinton’s own most notable contributions to those years – the absurd mess of ‘Travelgate’ (widely held to be a factor in Vincent Foster’s suicide), her imperious management of her healthcare plan, whose ignominious defeat contributed to the Republican landslide in the mid-term elections of 1994, her invocation of a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ at the time of the Lewinsky allegations – say a lot about her intense personal involvement in projects, good and bad, but hardly speak well for her judgment or diplomatic talents. On the campaign trail now, she presents herself as ‘a fighter’, battle-hardened and combat-ready, prepared to take on the Republicans ‘from Day One’, thereby reminding everyone that, from January 1995 until January 2001, a state of war existed between the Clinton administration and the Republican-controlled Congress, and that, of the many memorable battles in which Hillary Clinton herself was directly engaged, it’s hard to name one she didn’t lose.
Politicians who receive mass adulation are a suspect breed, and it’s natural to feel pangs of disquiet at an Obama rally in full cry: the roaring thousands, the fainting women, the candidate pacing slowly back and forth, microphone in hand, speaking lines that have become as familiar as advertising jingles but are seized on by the audience with ecstatic shouts of ‘I love you, Obama!’, to which the candidate replies, with offhand cool – ‘I love you back.’ Lately, I’ve been listening to ancient audio recordings of Huey Long exciting crowds as big as these with his pitch of ‘Every Man a King,’ also to Father Coughlin, the anti-semitic ‘radio priest’ from Michigan, just to remind myself of the authentic sound of American demagoguery. But to see a true analogy for an Obama rally, one need only attend almost any large black church on a Sunday morning, and listen to the preacher, his sermon kept aloft by the continuous vocal participation of the congregants.
‘A-men!’ they shout; ‘That’s right!’; ‘Yes, sir!’; ‘Oh, my sweet lord!’; ‘Unh-hunh!’; ‘Yeah!’; ‘It’s all right!’; ‘Hallelujah!’ The antiphonal responses allow the preacher to pause for breath and thought, and, from my one experience in the pulpit of such a church, during a mayoral election in Memphis in 1979, when the Rev. Judge Otis Higgs invited me to speak on his behalf, I know first-hand how readily magniloquent phrases leap to the tongue when you’re urged on by several hundred people hallelujahing your every other sentence. Five minutes or so in that pulpit kept me high for days.
Yet Obama, brought up by his white mother as a secular humanist, was a stranger to black religion until he went to Chicago in 1984, to take up a job as a trainee community organiser. His boss prepped him at his interview in New York: ‘If poor and working-class people want to build real power, they have to have some sort of institutional base. With the unions in the shape they’re in, the churches are the only game in town.’ In Chicago, a black pastor extolled the church as ‘an example of segregation’s hidden blessings’:
… the way it forced the lawyer and the doctor to live and worship right next to the maid and the labourer. Like a great pumping heart, the church had circulated goods, information, values, and ideas back and forth and back again, between rich and poor, learned and unlearned, sinner and saved.
Always by necessity a chameleon, Obama picked up in Chicago the style and rhythms of the black charismatic preacher, just as he’d picked up vernacular Indonesian when he was a child in Jakarta. He can now instantly turn a basketball stadium, a high school gym or a university auditorium into the pumping heart of a black church, with uninitiated whites taking their cue from him (‘Yes, we can,’ he murmurs into the mike, to signal that a hallelujah would not be out of order) and from the blacks in the audience who’ve been doing this on Sundays all their lives. For the suburban white kids, it’s a novel transportation into an exuberant community of souls. No wonder the French class was a wash-out.
But his rallies, galling as they must be to the Clinton campaign, convey a misleading impression of his political skills. Better to eavesdrop on him, via unedited video on the internet, at dinner with four constituents in a DC restaurant or answering questions from the editorial board of a local newspaper. What strikes one first is his gravity and intentness as a listener and observer: a negative capability so unusual in a politician that, when one watches these clips, it’s hard to remember that he’s running for office and not chairing a seminar in a department of public policy. When his turn comes to speak, he is at first hesitant, a man of many ums and ers, but as he articulates his answer you realise that he has wholly assimilated the question, inspected it from a distance and seen around its corners, as well as having taken on board both the character and the motive of his questioner. The campaign trail is the last place where one expects to see an original intellect at work in real time, pausing to think, rephrase, acknowledge an implicit contradiction, in such even tones and with such warmth and sombre humour.
He’s an old hand at this. Early in Dreams from My Father, the boy, aged seven or eight, is playing a boisterous game with his Indonesian stepfather in the backyard of their Jakarta house, when Obama suddenly takes leave of his own skin and jumps inside the mind of his mother, watching from behind the window. For the next five pages, we see their situation through her eyes, with all her building dissatisfaction and anxiety at her bold new life as an expatriate. It’s the first of many such narrative leaps, as Obama experiments with the novelistic privilege of inhabiting other people’s points of view and endowing them with an eloquence that they almost certainly could not have summoned for themselves. Giving voice to other people, which he does with grace in his writing, with a sensitive ear for their speech and thought patterns, was also his job as a community organiser in Chicago, and it’s hard to think of anyone for whom the ideas of literary and political power seem so naturally entwined.
In Dreams from My Father, there’s an often repeated moment when Obama learns something important about the world, the adults around him, or his school and college contemporaries, but has to hug it to himself. Describing his first, dawning recognition of the subordinate roles handed out to blacks on television and in print, he explains why he couldn’t communicate the discovery to his mother: ‘I kept these observations to myself, deciding that either my mother didn’t see them or she was trying to protect me and that I shouldn’t expose her efforts as having failed.’ It’s the story of many writers – the solitary child who learns to keep such knowledge secret, and finds in that concealment hidden power.
Even when Obama’s at his most public, firing up an audience at a rally, one notices about him a detachment, a distinct aloofness, as if part of him remains a sceptical and laconic watcher in the wings, keeping his own counsel, as he appears to have been doing since infancy. In more intimate and less artificial circumstances, his capacity for empathy and his innate reserve work in consort. He’s hungry for the details of other people’s lives. He conducts each meeting with his trademark ambassadorial good manners, sussing out his companions and playing his own hand cautiously close to his chest (when he was a state senator in Illinois, he was a leading member of a cross-party poker school). In the heat of a fierce election, he could be mistaken for a writer doing research for a book.
Hillary Clinton, armed with a relentlessly detailed, bullet-pointed position paper for every human eventuality, is a classic technocrat and rationalist; Obama is that exotic political animal, a left-of-centre empiricist. The great strength of his writing is his determination to incorporate into the narrative what he calls ‘unwelcome details’, and you can see the same principle at work in the small print of his policy proposals. Abroad, he accepts the world as it is and, on that basis, is ready to parlay with Presidents Ahmadinejad, Assad and Castro, while Clinton requires the world to conform to her preconditions before she’ll talk directly to such dangerous types. At home, Obama refuses to compel every American to sign up to his healthcare plan (as Clinton would), on the grounds that penalising those who lack the wherewithal to do so will only compound their problems. Where Clinton promises to abolish the Bush education programme known as No Child Left Behind, he wants ‘to make some adjustments’ to it (like moving the standardised tests from late in the school year to the beginning, so that they are neutral measures of attainment, and don’t dictate the syllabus like an impending guillotine).
Clinton’s world is one of absolutes, with no exceptions to the rules; Obama’s is far messier and less amenable to the blunt machinery of government. During the last televised debate in Cleveland, Ohio, he won a big round of applause when he said, ‘A fundamental difference between us is how change comes about,’ meaning that for her it comes about by legislation from the top down, for him by inspiring and organising a shift in popular consciousness from the bottom up.
Traditionally, such empiricism has been associated with the political right, and such rationalism with the left. Michael Oakeshott liked to blame Rationalists (always spelled with a capital R) and their ‘politics of the book’ for every benighted socialist scheme from the Beveridge Report and the 1944 Education Act to the revival of Gaelic as the official language of Ireland; and his description of the Rationalist as someone who ‘reduces the tangle and variety of experience to a set of principles which he will then attack or defend only upon rational grounds’ rather nicely fits Clinton, with her dogmatic certainties and simplifications. Although their specific promises are so similar as to be often indistinguishable, Clinton always stresses the transformative power of government, while Obama’s speeches are littered with reminders that government has strict limits, as when, every time No Child Left Behind comes up, he segues into a riff on the importance of parenting. That’s why so many Republicans and independents have turned out to vote for him in the Democratic primaries: for a liberal, he speaks in a language that conservatives, to their surprise, instinctively recognise as their own: a language that comes partly straight from the living-room and the street and partly from the twin traditions of empiricism and realism. Clinton has lately tried to take Obama down by snapping out the line, ‘Get real!’; it generally falls flat because to most people’s ears he sounds more real than she does by an easy mile. He’s transparently at home in the ‘irksome diversity’ of American life, while she appears to be on temporary day-release from a DC think tank.
Henry James famously said that to be an American is a complex fate. Few living Americans have as fully embodied that complexity in their own lives as Obama has done, and none has written about it with such intelligent regard for its difficulties and rewards. His differences with Clinton aren’t ones of merely rhetorical positioning and presentation; they’re rooted in the temper of his mind. My hope is that, on the road to Pennsylvania and his next big showdown with Clinton on 22 April, he’ll articulate that temper more plainly than he’s done so far. He does it with small audiences. He does it brilliantly in his memoir. But many voters still know him by hearsay as a feel-good evangelist of hope and change – a false impression that Clinton does everything she can to foster and which may yet end his candidacy. Obama has been relying on speechwriters of late: this is one he has to write himself.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.