“What do we do now?”
— Robert Redford as Bill McKay, in the 1972 film, The Candidate*
We still remember a messianic Barack Obama criss-crossing all 57 states promising “millions of new green jobs” and to “close Guantanamo.” Those pre-September 15, 2008, days were heady times, the apex of doctrinaire postmodern liberalism without the responsibility of governance. Most of us then had never really heard of a teleprompter and were mesmerized by someone who could look out at us with instant impromptu recall of fact after fact — and in such eloquent fashion.
Remember how, with 19th-century monument backdrops or faux Greek columns, Obama rattled off the most honey-tongued panaceas at hundreds of “hope and change,” “this is our moment” revival hours. He lifted millions in Rev. Wright cadences without the nuttiness — and with plenty of advice to paramedics to attend to the fainting and collapsed. But the message? It was not unlike an Ivy League graduate student with his hand perpetually up in the seminar room, blurting out answers to questions before the professor could ask them. (Obamania reminded me of a farmers’ market shopper who once asked me what a “raisin plant” was and then inquired whether they would grow in Santa Cruz.)
War on terror? Easy, just shut down Guantanamo, end renditions and tribunals, pull out of Iraq, and prune back predator drones and other anti-constitutional and unnecessary Bush transgressions. Hadn’t we seen Redacted or Rendition? Wanting something to end, and being the right sort to want something to end, surely were to be synonymous with something ending.
Financial panic? At some point all those Wall Street greedy types that had enriched both the McCain and (to a greater degree) the Obama campaigns would realize that they had already made enough money, and they could either hand over what they owed us, or be socialized and recreated into working at the ministry of investment. Only in Obamaworld do the Peter Orszags among us never go into government briefly in order to revolve out to work for Citibank in Robert Rubin, insider, zillions-to-be-made style.
Tension in the world? No problem: reset diplomacy, talk to Ahmadinejad, reach out to Putin, lean on Israel, charm Assad or Chavez, start talking about Islamophobia and Western neglect of the real positive contributions of Islam. Presto, terrorists are reminded that our president’s middle name is Hussein and they desist. Enemies realize Bush is gone, and that a secretary-general sort is the new president of a flipped America. Peace reigns. Obama wins the Nobel Prize. Now we can finally heal the planet, as we quit trying to steal Iraq’s oil and enrich Halliburton.
Health care? Bring back HillaryCare but this time with “smart” changes and a competent salesman. As Obama advised worried congressional Democrats, this time around they had Obama as point man, or, as he sometimes bragged, “Just give me the ball.” He envisioned himself (literally) as Lebron James soaring to dunk, his congressional lackeys the uncoordinated nerdy cheerboys who would share in his reflected glory.
Eco-change? What better point man that a hip Van Jones, a bit further on the edge than Barack Obama, to shake down corporations for cap and trade and a vast new technocracy staffed by Ivy League green overseers and “millions of new (federal) green jobs”? Remember, the ooh/aah quote from Valerie Jarret about Van: “We’ve been watching him for a long time.”
I’ll stop. You get the picture: the grad students were going to run the campus and so instead of offshore drilling we were going to get properly inflated tires.
Not being Bush
Millions in commerce, journalism, academia, and the arts not only supported, but invested their careers in this adolescent world of Obama, to such a degree that tens of millions of others felt that they had to buy a pet rock or feel they had missed out on a “first-class temperament.”
Obama, now the “god” who, to paraphrase Sappho, sent his enthralled into tingling ecstasy, was an almost perfect liberal receptacle: half black with the ability to metamorphosize in bearing and cadence depending on the audience, young, charismatic, suitably Ivy League certified, on the edge with his Chicago organizing, but not on the edge with his Harvard Law Review fides, a non-socialist with a voting record to the left of the Senate’s only declared socialist — and free of any accomplishment, with lacunae instead of a resume, the largely empty vessel into which liberals could pour all their own pet utopian nostrums that usually Americans ignore.
You can see how Obama won. Yes, we know that 2008 was an orphaned election without an incumbent. The novelty of our first black president won 96 percent of the black vote and appealed to millions of affluent whites, youth, and minorities. The September 15 meltdown destroyed the McCain lead. McCain himself campaigned as if he wished to lose nobly in Ajaxian style. The media decided it had to ensure this once-in-a-lifetime gift, and joined rather than monitored Obama.
But there was more than that. Behind all this was our occasional but inevitable rendezvous (about every 30 or so years?) with this guilty liberal creed that the very system that has enriched and freed our society in ways unheard of elsewhere or in civilization’s past — free market capitalism under the aegis of republican government — is in itself pathological. In short, America has for so long become so free and so wealthy, we have institutionalized this periodic indulgence to fret that we weren’t free or affluent at all, or at least everyone here wasn’t, or that our exceptionalism came only on the backs of others, or that it was unsustainable and doomed. We go from worrying that those with cell phones and SUVs are about to kill each other over Xboxes and big-screen TVs in Black Friday rush shopping sprees to sermons that these exploited have no money to pay the electric bill to power all the gadgetry up the next day.
A mere symptom
Obama was a symptom of a hallowed American tradition. Usually in American political theater, those who shun reform to embrace apocalypse do pretty well. So George Bush transmogrified into the “worst” president in history, and Obama came to the rescue as part-Mandela, part-FDR, and no part an absolute novice without any accomplishment (other than brilliantly sizing up the rather guilty and rich world of liberal elites) to have handed to him what was usually to be earned. Bill Clinton’s step-in the other day was simply the reification of what condescending liberals are now thinking: “OK, our liberal trance with Obama is over; he got us in power, but is of course clueless; now how can we finesse it for the liberal varsity to take over?”
In those now long ago days before Climategate and one too many vein-bulging dressing-downs, Al Gore was apotheosized for convincing the planet both that it was probably doomed and that his own various books, films, and green companies could be part of the solution for the crises that he so brilliantly helped to inflate. Gore had taken a truth (man’s 21st-century lifestyle in theory could alter the atmosphere) and made out of it The Truth that we are doomed in just a few years without radical action of the sort he peddled. He was soon selling eco-penances to fund the stones on his own rising Gorethedral.
In that sense Gore was only following a long tradition of entrepreneurial alarmists who saw problems in the free enterprise culture of the West and turned those solvable challenges into impending Armageddon, in the process winning a lot of attention and money as a sort of hyper-prophet/fixer. We know the script of, say, a Rachel Carson (e.g., overuse of organophosphate pesticides has doomed the planet), Paul Ehrlich (Indian and Chinese poverty is proof that the planet is doomed by a “population bomb”) or a Michael Harrington (without a massive government war on poverty America is lost). They were only the snooty versions of the 1990s Tony Robbins videos.
Remember the Michael Moore shtick in the Cindy Sheehan era? He rose to the heights of liberal society (invited to sit next to Jimmy Carter at the 2004 Democratic convention) on the basis of being a useful idiot who could for the more respectable vicariously slander their president. That he had lamented bin Laden had chosen a blue state to murder 3000 Americans and that he rooted for insurgents in Iraq to defeat Americans (they, not us, were “Minutemen”) did not lessen his utility. We may see him now as a pathetic buffoon, but in 2004 he was an ascendant one, who understood that he had carved out a brilliant career as the unsightly smelly attack dog that nevertheless bloodies the adversary out in the street without the resulting hair and blood soiling the veranda porch.
So the “we are doomed without Obama” hysteria has finally gone the way of the torrential seas, the silent spring, the population bomb, the war on poverty, the geodesic dome, TM, the greening of America, and all the other periodic hysterias of the bored affluent liberal class, whose intellectual factories send in the raw product of challenges and problems and vomit out variously packaged “doom” on the other end of the assembly line.
What next? Where do you go after not wasting a crisis? After borrowing $3 trillion in 22 months, or having the president slurred with the f-word by his own liberal non-racist supporters, or investing in Putin, or starting a class war against those making over $250,00, or “healing” our way into the greatest racial tension in two decades, or turning a recession into an economic model, or teaching the world about mysterious unknown Islamic roots of the Western Enlightenment and Renaissance, or showcasing a Van Jones, or tit-for-tat whining about Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, or turning over the economy to a soon to scram Orszag, Romer or Summers under the tutelage of Timothy Geithner, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett?
Well, it is still very hard to screw up the United States in four years.
So I suppose that the American people will wake up, turn off the whining sirens, ignore Elmer Gantry and in the next decade climb out of the hole — until the next Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, or Barack Obama comes around to assure them they are doomed unless they realize that their freedom and opulence are really…
Well, just fill in the blanks…
* Consider: 1) a divisive and hate-filled eight years of demonizing the Bush administration as Nazis deserving of commensurate punishment (recall Knopf’s Bush-snuff novel Checkpoint, the Toronto Film Festival prize going to the “docudrama” about killing Bush, and the Bush as brownshirt/Nazi motif from everyone from John Glenn, to Al Gore); 2) the greatest liberal setback in 72 years; 3) a messianic 2008 campaign whose dénouement was worry that Bush might subvert the Constitution in his lame duck last months and not leave; and then conclude that 4) we are now to renounce labels like “racist” from the left and “socialist” from the right (note the false moral equivalence, as if there is a senatorial counterpart to Bernie Sanders from the “Racist party” or a European mainstream party is called the “Democratic Racist Party”).
We always get these quite admirable warnings that political discourse has hit a new low, that a new center of civility is needed — after a 1980-like or 2010-like election. We rarely get them in periods like 2004 when “any means necessary” is the creed to stop a Bush-Hitler or hear warnings to George Soros or Jimmy Carter to cool the hate-filled rhetoric.
When David Frum admirably calls for restraint, I am reminded that not long ago in the glory days of the Obama administration, Frum thought it necessary to counter Rush Limbaugh’s influence by invoking his one-time bout of drug dependency and weight (e.g., “his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history, Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence”). Juxtapose all that with “No Labels” and there comes disbelief at the present campaign against ad hominem invective that hampers political discourse. (By Frum’s earlier standard, Gov. Chistie’s waistline or President Obama’s confessionals about habitual use of marijuana and occasional “blow” are fair political discourse).