The Decree of Ex-Future Fate

Which of these three pictures was photoshopped?

Only the first one. The second is the Time cover of Nov 24, 2008 and the third is Time cover of Feb 7, 2011. It must be interesting to be great in the future. Most people are judged by their past.

On February 17, 2008, amidst the widespread expectation that the man from Chicago would be a transcendent figure David Ignatius asked a pedestrian question, 'who is Barack Obama'?

"Why is the press going so easy on Barack Obama?" asks a prominent Democratic Party strategist, echoing a criticism frequently made by the Clinton campaign. It's a fair question, and now that Obama appears to be the front-runner in terms of his delegate count, he deserves a closer look, especially from people like me who have written positively about him.

The reason to look closely now, quite simply, is to avoid buyer's remorse later.

Obama is a phenomenon in American politics -- a candidate who has ignited an enthusiasm among young people that I haven't seen in decades. He promises a nation in which, as his supporters chant, "race doesn't matter." And for a world that is dangerously alienated from American leadership, he offers a new face that could dispel negative assumptions about America -- and in that sense boost the nation's standing and security.

But these are symbolic qualities. What Obama would actually do as president remains a mystery in too many areas.

Of himself, Obama wrote that people would soon find out. "I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them. Which perhaps indicates a second, more intimate theme to this book–namely, how I, or anybody in public office, can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loss, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments."

Two years into his Presidency, events have thrown up a picture onto that once-blank screen which may cast doubt on comparisons to Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan. Yet many wonder whether it is the hour that failed the man. Perhaps Barack Obama's setbacks have occurred because he was "too good".  The argument was that if Machiavellianism is required for greatness then Obama will never fit the bill. He may have been "too good" for the rough arena of history.

Machiavelli raised what Sartre later called "the problem of dirty hands," namely that, in order for politicians to do good, they can’t be good. They have to be willing to get their hands dirty. ... To apply it to the US, was Jimmy Carter too good to do good? Is Obama too good to do good? Is that just the reality of this world or is there a better way?

In this view, the saints are never represented on Rushmore. And if FDR or Reagan have earned a reputation for greatness, well it was the devil in them that provided the fire, and our fault really for requiring such modern Atillas to see us through our times. But inaction is a form of action. And we are found wanting not only for our excess, but for that which we failed to do.

There's no free lunch. The "good" in Jimmy Carter was paid for by the "bad" which descended upon millions of people. "Morality" has a price. Most saints are prepared to pay the price themselves.  Lesser men are content to let others pay it for them. Our fates are a contingent thing. We do not have them in advance.  In the sentence, "I could have been a contender," the saddest phrase is "could have been".

Our lives cannot at all events, be judged by ourselves. That is external to ourselves. Whether by God in heaven or the consensus of future historians, the blank canvas is filled in by another hand, and not always by Time Magazine.


"No Way In" print edition at Amazon

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