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Belmont Club

Competing Visions

November 4th, 2010 - 3:17 pm

Barack Obama and Sarah Palin represent two different types of politicians. But they differ in ways that go beyond style. The survey must start with who they are. Only then can they be compared. Tom Junod at Esquire sees Obama as a rock star — a rock star from whom the spirits have unaccountably departed. “Now his gift has all but deserted him, and all that prevents the story from becoming tragic is his own apparent refusal to be affected by it.”

The more obvious conclusion is that what made the story tragic was “his own apparent refusal to be affected by it,” his inability to reconcile himself with a descent from Olympus. But it pays to see what Junod thinks the magic was. Junod believes that the magic was “him”:

President Obama, after all, was elected by virtue of his personality, which provided not only contrast but novelty, and was grounded in his near-perfect pitch when addressing audiences large and small. Sure, he was cool and cerebral, but he was also confident, almost cocky, because he had the power to summon inspiring rhetoric on command, which meant that he had the power to summon us on command. Though many Americans didn’t know very much about him, there was one thing that was never in doubt when we saw and heard Obama on the stump: his ownership of his gift. By the way he carried himself, we could tell that he had always had it, and because he always had it, we could be sure that he always would have it. How could we resist a man who simply by opening his mouth could move mountains — and who had ascended all the way to the presidency by staking his political life on his own eloquence? How could we resist a man who seemed so sure that we could not resist him?

“He” was going to save America. “He” was going to make the seas fall. “He” was going to make such music, conjure harmonies so overwhelming that even America’s enemies would come, drawn like animals to Pan’s pipe at once bewitched and converted. The whole success of the Obama administration hinged around the power of the Him.

The problem was that the skies did not open and only a very few were drawn to what in the end sounded less like piping than tootling. Jonod ends his entire essay with an insight that seems to come too late for the text. Barack Obama the Messiah is dead and the only way Obama can amount to anything is to try to become a decent, competent president. “He’ll never be Barack Obama again, now that he’s been rejected, and the oils of anointment are off of him. But Barack Obama — President Obama — can still be great, even if he has to sing someone else’s song.”

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, never presented herself as anything much.  On the contrary, her chief claim to fame was that she was in some way very ordinary, a fact which horrified Richard Cohen, writing in the Washington Post, to no end:

The mind of the demagogue is a foreign country. It has a strange culture, enemies that only the natives can see, a passion about the ridiculous and a blowtorch kind of sincerity that incinerates logical thinking. On Sunday, the custodian of one such blowtorch was on Fox News. I am speaking, of course, of Sarah Palin. …

The fierce stupidity of this woman is hard to comprehend. It is the well from which she draws her political sustenance. … Katie Couric’s CBS, the network she thinks so unfairly skewered her by asking, for instance, what newspapers she reads. … The polls say she can’t win. I betcha Palin thinks she can’t lose.

Cohen thinks it is all about winning the presidency. Putting a Her in place of the Him. It never occurs to Cohen that Palin might think more in terms of helping her country “win” than in personally occupying the Oval Office. Cohen mocks the idea of serving one’s country. He wrote, “when Chris Wallace asked her about any presidential ambitions, she did not coyly say that she had not given the matter any thought. Instead, she said that if her party needed her, if her country needed her, if the need for her was truly great, then she would sacrifice her freedom of movement, the privacy she enjoys with her family – never mind their tabloid lifestyle and addiction to publicity – and give it all up and run for president.” Who in Washington’s cynical atmosphere could actually believe that?

It would be odious to compare Sarah Palin to George Washington but less of a stretch to liken Cohen to George III.  Both knew high places. Cohen can understand kings. And George III also had a problem understanding why a man might not want to be king. Ann Althouse remembers hearing this excerpt from Paul Johnson’s audio book on George Washington. The British monarch was astounded at news that Washington had resigned his commission:

In London, George III questioned the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington would do now he had won the war. “Oh,” said West, “they say he will return to his farm.” “If he does that,” said the king, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

What does it mean to be the “greatest man in the world” if does not mean to be a king?  To George III, kingship was something to be desired above all else, yet even he realized there might actually be something greater.  Sarah Palin may actually lack what it takes to be a successful president of the United States. She may not have what it takes to be a queen.  But she has in abundance what Barack Obama, who styles himself a “community organizer,” notably lacks. Palin has the ability to generate leaders other than herself. That quality was in evidence in the recent campaign when she successfully encouraged others, some of whom had never been in public life before, to throw their hats in the ring and run for office. And many of them won. Writing in the National Review, Palin found satisfaction in the achievements of others. That is the key attribute of a real “community organizer,” while the supposed Alinskyite, who is actually nothing like a classic organizer, was struggling with little apparent success to get beyond his “gift”; to get beyond himself. Palin wrote:

In the coming weeks there will also be a debate about the viability of particular candidates. Anyone with the courage to throw his or her hat in the ring and stand up and be counted always has my respect. Some of them were stronger candidates than others, but they all had the courage to be “in the arena.” The second lesson of this election is one a number of the candidates had to learn to their cost: Fight back the lies immediately and consistently. Some candidates assumed that, once they received their party’s nomination, the conservative message would automatically carry the day. Unfortunately, political contests aren’t always about truth and justice. Powerful vested interests will combine to keep bad candidates in place and good candidates out of office. Once they let themselves be defined as “unfit” (decorated war hero Joe Miller) or “heartless” (pro-life, international women’s rights champion Carly Fiorina), good candidates often find it virtually impossible to get their message across. The moral of their stories: You must be prepared to fight for your right to be heard.

“Anyone with the courage to throw his or her hat in the ring and stand up and be counted always has my respect.” But that would mean rivals. It would mean peers. It might even mean, God forbid, that someone else might be greater than yourself.  So you will never hear Barack Obama say anything like this, at least not in earnest. On the contrary, he demonstrated, in the last campaign, a serene willingness to sacrifice every other leader on the altar of the vision — not the modest ambitions, the secret dreams of the common herd, but the unutterable vision vouchsafed to him “through the red soil of Africa.” Sarah Palin may never be president; nor fit to be. But that is irrelevant. The real difference between the two competing visions is what question they answer to. For most Democrats the 2012 elections will be about re-electing Barack Obama. For most members of the Tea Party it will be about taking back America.

And while Palin might be never be the rockstar Obama is, her vision may be greater. Junod understood that fact at the last and quailed upon the brink.

Barack Obama’s gift was so musical that one has to resort to musical comparisons to explain what might be left now that it’s fled him. Dylan was never Dylan after the motorcycle accident any more than Elvis was Elvis after the Army: what they didn’t lose they had to wrestle with, and no longer was the electricity effortless. It will be the same way for the president; hell, it already is, and has been for much longer than we’d like to admit. He’ll never be Barack Obama again, now that he’s been rejected, and the oils of anointment are off of him. But Barack Obama — President Obama — can still be great, even if he has to sing someone else’s song.

Sing someone else’s song? Betcha he won’t.

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