Friday, August 1, 2008


So this is part two of what I wrote about yesterday. I got carried away by the momentum of a rant, and I left out entirely the bit of an idea that had originally spurred me to write.

I'm definitely not sold on Barack Obama, and the chief reason is the capital punishment deal-breaker I mentioned yesterday. He's reluctant, he supported the moratorium in Illinois, he thinks it should be reserved for the "most heinous" crimes, but that's simply not enough. I'm over a decade into refusing to vote for candidates who support capital punishment, and it doesn't feel right to abandon that just because the Greens were lame-brained enough to nominate an utterly unacceptable candidate. The other day, it struck me that I could write in Sister Helen Prejean, or something. But what interests me most is one of the little eddying dynamics that McCain's line of attack may be generating. He's making Obama actually look more acceptable as a president than I'd previously found him. It's not going to overcome my big issue, but I suspect it might actually win Obama more votes than it loses him. Here's why I think that.

Obama does, indeed, have a problem with seeming too good to be true, and for that reason he sets off a lot of people's healthy skepticism. We've been through enough rounds of highly respected, highly accomplished, seemingly upstanding and virtuous public servants tumbling from their pedestals, especially in the past few years, that the arrival of someone with as many obvious plusses as Obama is bound to make people brace themselves, to snap into place as the first chapter of a depressingly familiar story. But McCain's charges against him, most of them venial, (and I almost wrote "niggling," before deciding that would be a really unfortunate choice of words) actually serve to give him a third dimension, to help him step off the page and into reality. They give him balance. And they give me this feeling of relief: if those are his downsides, I can live with them.

I've seen this kind of thing happen with the hiring of new faculty members. During the interview process, and for the first few days, new folks are on their best behavior; they guard against letting any trace of their character flaws slip out. But after the honeymoon's over, after the first impression is made, then they settle in and get broken in, and you start to see them at less than their best, and that's the phase at which I hold my breath: is this going to be a nightmare colleague, or is this going to be an occasionally annoying, once-in-a-while disorganized, on-certain-issues clueless, human being? Once I've seen most of the weaknesses they're carrying, almost all the time I wind up telling myself "This isn't so bad. This is a lovable person, flaws and all." On a handful of occasions, that's not been the case, and the person's downside is something I really can't live with: an explosive and violent temper, or a constant cycle of playing people against one another, or a deeply-rooted contempt for the students, etc. But that's uncommon.

I've heard about Obama that he's ambitious, and sometimes climbs over people to get to his next strategic foothold. True, I find that pretty unattractive, but I also find it pretty unattractive that surgeons, some of them, actually enjoy the sight of blood. I think that's downright creepy. If I knew it was true of someone who was in the room with me, I really think I'd find an excuse to get up and leave. But when I apply a coldly rational perspective to it, it becomes clear that this is not only a helpful trait for a surgeon, but is almost a necessity. I don't suppose they have to like blood, but they've got to be unbothered by it. And in the same way, out of the universe of all presidential candidates who will ever exist, I defy anyone to conceive of one who was free from ambition, one who didn't have to juggle an incredibly complicated, nationwide, web of relationships, and therefore to downplay closeness to some people when the larger objective demanded it. I don't like to think of friendships and working relationships being moved around a chessboard like that, but anyone who thinks they can explain to me how a person can go from anonymous to nominee to the Oval Office without doing it is welcome to try. I don't think it's possible.

I've heard that Obama's inexperienced, and I think he's already had the best answer to that: Rumsfeld and Cheney were two of the most experienced members of the Bush administration, having served at the top level of the executive branch as far back as the nineteen seventies, but the work product they left behind is not exactly anything to brag about.

I truly wonder if McCain wouldn't have been better off putting all, and I mean all, of his focus on answering the question, "What does a McCain presidency have to offer this country?" The fact that Obama was a pretty picture, but utterly two-dimensional, could have helped McCain out a lot, but only if he called as little attention as possible to it. Yesterday, I was listening to NPR in the evening, and they played a clip of Obama responding to the past couple of weeks of McCain attacks, and I thought his response was pitch-perfect: "That's the best you can do?" That's exactly how I feel. That's the best you can do? That's all you found? You put your best strategic heads together, and you came up with a comparison to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears? Wouldn't putting that airtime into your own strengths as a war hero, as a multi-decade leader in national security, as the one who wrote the textbook on crossing party lines and speaking painful truths to one's own party, have been a better investment?

Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre about the impossible hurdle that horror writers face: you can make the unseen terror more and more nightmarish, more and more blood-chilling, but sooner or later you have to throw the door open and show it, and then you lose every time, because the reader (or audience member) will say "That's scary all right, but imagine how scary it could have been." You throw open the door to show a ten foot tall cockroach, and the reader says "That's horrible, but what if it was a hundred feet tall?" I don't think the analogy applies perfectly to politics, because there are plenty of imputed horrors that do stick, and are deal-breakers, and that do sink a candidacy, but in this case I really think that's what's happening. The charges against Obama are irritating, if true, but on the scale of presidential failings that could doom a candidate, they're pretty piddly, and that may have something of a boomerang effect of making him less of an image, less of a carefully manicured brand, and more of a recognizable human being, complete with body odor and morning breath and the occasional bad mood. Those things aren't damning; they're the sharp details that transform a photograph into a presence.

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