Belmont Club

The moment

The New York Times sports section describes how passengers on Air Force One learned Chicago was out of the Olympic running.  The passengers had waged their bid in Copenhagen on the basis of information provided by an inner circle. This intelligence guided a payload of ultimate in Star Power: (Obama + Michelle) x Oprah to an unstoppable conclusion. How could it fail? President Obama had not even stayed for the vote; and somewhere over the wide wastes of the Atlantic an intermittent transmission sent them the news. Chicago was out; worse than that, it had not even made the cut. Their estimate had been wrong. The NYT sportswriting section tried to figure out how it happened.

Mr. Obama was in Copenhagen for just five hours and did not stay for the vote. He learned Chicago lost in the first round while watching a CNN transmission whose signal cut in and out as Air Force One passed over Cabot Strait between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

A sense of stunned bewilderment suffused Air Force One and the White House. Only after the defeat did many advisers ask questions about the byzantine politics of the Olympic committee. Valerie Jarrett, the president’s senior adviser and a Chicago booster who persuaded him to make the trip while at the United Nations last week, had repeatedly compared the contest to the Iowa caucuses.

But officials said the administration did not independently verify Chicago’s chances, relying instead on the Chicago 2016 committee assertions that the city had enough support to finish in the top two. Mr. Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Ms. Jarrett worked the phones in recent weeks without coming away with a sense of how behind Chicago really was.

After Chicago’s defeat the Monday morning quarterbacking began. It was, to no one’s surprise, Bush’s fault. The Los Angeles Times reported that “Chicago ‘never had a chance’ in 2016 Olympic host race”. Others pointed to Obama’s own speech as proof  that he was struggling to shake off the menacing legacy of the Bush years. Was it any wonder he failed, despite a valiant effort?

Though the President didn’t mention George W. Bush by name, it was clear he saw the Games as a vital strand of his strategy in rebuilding bridges with the rest of the world which under his predecessor had seen American relations abroad take a hammering.

“One of the most important legacies I would like to see Chicago leave in hosting the 2016 Games would be to show America at its best,” said the president, who flew in on Air Force One early Friday.

“That the USA is open to the world and to that end I have directed the full force of the White House and the State Department behind it. I want people to come away with the impression that America is an open and diverse society.

“Over the past few years the fundamental truth of the United States has been lost.

“The Olympic Games could restore it.”

Jesse Jackson and some Chicago officials put the blame square on what they described as residual anti-Americanism inherited from the Bush administration. The Chicago Sun-Times reports:

Some Chicago officials say anti-American resentment likely played a role in Chicago’s Olympic bid dying in the first round Friday. President Obama could not undo in one year the resentment against America that President Bush and others built up for years, they said.

“There must be” resentment against America, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, near the stage where he had hoped to give a victory speech in Daley Center Plaza. “The way we [refused to sign] the Kyoto Treaty, we misled the world into Iraq. The world had a very bad taste in its mouth about us. But there was such a turnaround after last November. The world now feels better about America and about Americans. That’s why I thought the president’s going was the deal-maker.”

The answer in their view is to redouble the message that America has changed. The Chicago Sun-Times quotes other sources as saying the President didn’t have enough time to set the record straight.  Perhaps if he gave a few more speeches and denounced America’s past more vigorously, then the world would come around.

State Rep. Susana Mendoza (D-Chicago) said she saw firsthand the resentment against America five years ago when she was in Rio de Janeiro. “I feel in my gut that this vote today was political and mean-spirited,” she said.

“I travel a lot. … I thought we had really turned a corner with the election of President Obama. People are so much more welcoming of Americans now. But this isn’t the people of those countries. This is the leaders still living with outdated impressions of Americans.”

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she was approached by a consul general at the plaza as they waited for word Friday. “He said … he was hearing that there wasn’t enough time for Barack Obama to dispel the old image. … But I don’t know if that’s it.”

The President emphasized the nobility of his failed quest. “You can play a great game and still not win”, he said. But there’s reason to think the NYT sports article got it right. The Chicago Team thought they had a chance, only they thought wrong. Video clips from the moment Chicago’s loss became clear suggest that contrary to these arguments, there were many who fully expected Chicago to be selected and could hardly believe their ears when it wasn’t.

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How could they have gotten it so wrong? What else are they getting wrong?

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