Belmont Club

The Return of the Sorcerer

Dylan Byers at Politico describes the spell that President Obama weaves over favored journalists when privately speaking with them off the record. Famously reticient on the record, Byers says Obama is nothing if not voluble off it, willing to shoot the breeze with any journalist he considers to be ‘smart’.

get him in an off-the-record setting with a small group of opinion columnists — the David Brooks and E.J. Dionne types — and he’ll talk for hours. …

“It’s not an accident who he invites: He reads the people that he thinks matter, and he really likes engaging those people,” said one reporter with knowledge of the meetings. “He reads people carefully — he has a columnist mentality — and he wants to win columnists over,” said another. …

The goal in these get-togethers, participants said, is two-fold: First, the president wants to convince the columnists that he’s right — about the debt ceiling, about health care, about Syria — and that his opponents are wrong. …

The second goal is more tactical: By meeting privately with the people who shape national opinion, the president ensures that his points of view will be represented in the media — even if those points of view aren’t directly attributable to him.

In return, the anointed pundits are duly flattered. They walk away feeling affirmed, in the belief that they are worthy of confidences, respected by the players, able to handle the hard questions of state.  They return to their desks ready to spread the fire.

Said a columnist who has attended multiple meetings, “When you can write your column with absolute surety, knowing that what you’re saying is a true reflection of what the President of the United States is thinking, how do you not do that?” …

Both reporters and columnists believe he prefers talking to people who are thinking about — and willing to be influenced on — grand concepts, rather than those who might pepper him with questions about day-to-day events and process. Indeed, in an effort to ween White House staff off their obsession with the “who’s up, who’s down” Washington culture, he has encouraged them to spend less time watching MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and more time watching ESPN’s “Sports Center.”

You have to be special to join the circle, one so high above the madding crowd that you are like the president, who as Valerie Jarrett puts it, was “bored to death his whole life … just too talented to do what ordinary people do.” The question that almost asks itself is how if such people are so smart, so comfortable with ‘grand concepts’ then how could they have gotten so many things wrong in the past 5 years.

Part of the answer may lie in what grand thinkers are consciously believe they are not. Vice President Joe Biden explained why nobody in the White House seemed to know the Obamacare website would not function. “Neither he and I are technology geeks, and we assumed that it was up and ready to run.”

“But the good news is although it’s not, and we apologize for that, we’re confident that by the end of November it will be and there will still be plenty of time for people to register and get online.

The President tried to get online, and my daughter tried to get online. I did not, because it was clear that I wasn’t getting online. …

Look, all I know is they talk about 50,000 lines of this and this, I don’t know the technical reasons. So I don’t know, I wish I could tell you, that’s why I became a lawyer.”

But just you wait and its going to be just fine. Buzzfeed has the details of a PR campaign designed to sell the world on signing up for Obamacare before Christmas.

Organizing for Action, the advocacy group closely aligned with President Obama’s agenda, launched a new campaign Friday, encouraging families to press loved ones to purchase health insurance during the holidays under the Affordable Care Act.

A new “Health Care for the Holidays” website debuted after midnight Eastern time, along with a YouTube video featuring a young man confronted by his parents at the dinner table over his lack of health insurance. “We have something really important to talk to you about,” his parents say in the video titled “Get ready to have the talk.”

The website offers tips on how to have a conversation with family members about health care and encourages visitors to “think about how you’ll bring it up” with relatives during the holidays.

Always be closing. Always be closing. Even if there is nothing to sell. Because the geeks will — you know — take care of it.

It will happen because, as Daniel Greenfield described it, “government is magic.”

Our technocracy is detached from competence. It’s not the technocracy of engineers, but of “thinkers” who read Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman and watch TED talks and savor the flavor of competence, without ever imbibing its substance.

These are the people who love Freakonomics, who enjoy all sorts of mental puzzles, who like to see an idea turned on its head, but who couldn’t fix a toaster.

The ObamaCare website is the natural spawn of that technocracy who love the idea of using modernity to make things faster and easier, but have no idea what anything costs or how it works.

Fixing a toaster’s a job for the geeks; beneath the men with the Grand Ideas. If they wanted to fix toasters they wouldn’t have become lawyers. And that inability is a feature, not a bug. Greenfield continues:

In some ways the America of a few generations ago was a far more modern place because it was a more competent place. For all our nice toys, we look like primitive savages compared to men who could build skyscrapers and fleets within a year… and build them well….

Those aren’t things we can do anymore. Not because the knowledge and skills don’t exist, but because the culture no longer allows it. We can’t do them for the same reason that Third World countries can’t do what we do. It’s not that the knowledge is inaccessible, but that the culture gets in the way. …

Competence is built on the unhappy understanding that things won’t work because you want them to, they won’t work if you go through the motions, they will only work if you understand how a thing works and then make it work by building it, by testing it and by expecting failure every step of the way and wrestling with the problem until you get it right.

That’s modernity. It isn’t glamorous. You can see it in black and white photos of men working on old planes. You can see it in the eyes of the astronauts who first went to the moon. You can read it in the workings of the men who built the longest suspension bridges, laid undersea cables and watched their world change. They were moderns and their time is done. …

Our own cargo culters invoke FDR and JFK, they talk about the New Deal and the Great Society, they make grand promises and roll out big programs, and then they wait for it all to work. They don’t understand themselves how or why it would work. But government is magic and the appearance of a thing is just as good as a real deal. … All you need to do is remember the great dreams of the past, listen to a few inspirational JFK speeches and then carve a computer out of wood and wait for free health care to arrive.

And it will, won’t it? Even conservatives are half convinced, borne along by the belief that if the NYT says it will, as does the Washington Post; that if enough money is printed then of course it will. With that many sorcerers chanting in unison magic will prevail.

Maybe that’s why President Obama hits it off so well with the great columnists of Washington. At these klatches, with the buzz of traffic and bustle of the grimy world held to a hum in the distance, the world lies spread before them malleable, fresh and new. And the great men can feel, even if lesser mortals cannot, that all that’s required to transform that dull universe into something extraordinary is the right phrase, the correct sales pitch, the perfect sound bite. Then the stars will vibrate to the idea and the multitudes will Get It. And so the search continues among the wordsmiths for the Spell, who believe in it with the conviction of zealots. Only try this. Try that. Try again. For they know the dictum: always be closing. Even if there is nothing to sell.

The Founders, in rejecting the spell of aristocracy, were in their way rejecting magic. They seemed to say ‘trust in no king, no great leader’ — and that the highest and best thing we could aspire to was to simply be ourselves and make things work. In place of sorcery they trusted in the sanctity of the ordinary, in the immanence of truth; that a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”, while not on Obama’s imagined level would neveretheless never perish from the earth. But magic would; for even if Greenfield fears the sorcerers will return, their day is done.

Their time is done because the wooden computer will not boot. Because the sums are in rebellion. Because reality, which is the real source of all true magic, was never consulted, let alone invoked. Lord Dunsany wrote memorably about the pangs of the old-time last magician, fleeing away from a world grown cold to spells toward his true home.

And there came upon him at last those mortal tremors that are about the end of all earthly journeys. He hastened then. And before the human destiny overtook him he saw one morning, clear where the dawn had been, luminous rock of the bastions and glittering rampart that rose up sheer from the frontier of the Country Beyond Moon’s Rising. This he saw though his eyes were dimming now with fatigue and his long sojourn on earth; yet if he saw dimly he heard with no degree of uncertainty the trumpets that rang out from those battlements to welcome him after his sojourn, and all that followed him gave back the greeting with such cries as once haunted valleys at certain times of the moon. Upon those battlements and by the opening gates were gathered the robed Masters that had trafficked with time and dwelt awhile on earth, and handed the mysteries on, and had walked round the back of the grave by the way that they knew, and were even beyond damnation. They raised their hands and blessed in.

And now for him, and the creatures that followed after, the gates were wide that led through the earthward rampart of the Country Beyond Moon’s Rising. He limped towards it with all his magical following. He went therein, and the Golden Age was over.

I’m sorry to see it go. But we need to make the website work and get the toaster to toast.

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