June 2010


From the chrysalis

By Don Watson
Barack Obama takes one last look in the mirror, before going out to take oath, January 20, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Barack Obama takes one last look in the mirror, before going out to take oath, January 20, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

The young waitress in the restaurant said Obama scared her. She just didn’t like him. It was scary what would happen if he won, she said. The guys in the kitchen had told her his father was a terrorist. And a Muslim. Three hours later, in the south-eastern Ohio hall from which they had run their campaign, the local Democrats watched the television as the new president-elect gave his victory speech. The genius of it was the genius of his whole campaign, and perhaps the genius of the man: standing before the multitudes brimming with euphoria he was, as he had been since the campaign began, the least euphoric. One could have sworn he was actually thinking as he spoke, and that he was really speaking and not just messaging. And in his echoing of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, it was as if he believed it when he said the bonds of affection are stronger than our rivalries and that we shall overcome. “We have never been just a collection of red states and blue states,” he said. “We are, and always will be, the United States of America.” They cheered in Kenya, apparently.

It was a bad night for neo-cons, neo-liberals and neo-Hobbesians, the last being those wiseacres in and around the now-crumbled Bush administration who had been inclined to justify the “muscular unilateralism” of recent American policy by reference to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. The neo-Hobbesians maintained that, being a good country and by far the most powerful in a dangerous and disordered world, the United States should be Leviathan – the “sovereign governor” “to keep them all in awe”, as Hobbes put it.

Neo-Hobbesians should no more be confused with Hobbesians than neo-cons with conservatives, or neo-liberals with the liberals who had just voted for Barack Obama. Not only liberals but also conservative voters who had listened to Obama and studied his voting record might easily have concluded that he was more truly their man than any ‘neo’ variety of their creed. As for any Hobbesians, their man was up on the stage urging individual and collective security through co-operation, and staying more or less in tune with the Puritans, the republic’s founding fathers, Lincoln, and the likes of George C Marshall and George Kennan, who set up those very serviceable postwar international institutions. On that night at least, Leviathan was the president-elect and the “common power” the people had invested in him. “Yes we can,” he said over and over, and the 125,000 people before him responded as if he were the precentor and they his devout parishioners. They would overcome their base fears and prejudice, their “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” side. Now, as so often before, the US would overcome itself. “Americans are from Mars” the neo-Hobbesians had said. But tonight they were from Venus. A great firework had gone up and bathed the world in their incandescent optimism. By the night of the next day, however, according to some citizens, there was nowhere in all of Appalachian Ohio that a soul could buy ammunition.

The popular vote, as Elias Canetti said, is the Civil War continued by other means: “They fight on, but in a form of warfare which has renounced killing.” In some countries the truth of his observation is easily missed, but not in the US. The Civil War washes across the mental landscape of generation after generation. It comes not only in the imperishable words of the semi-divine Lincoln to which every president is joined, but in the line that joins Stephen Douglas to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It is there in the politics of anger and denial – in the stubbornly unresolved matter of race. Though it can hardly have been on Obama’s mind in Grant Park that night, the Civil War lurked everywhere. It was Chicago, after all, the city to which hundreds of thousands of black Americans migrated after the failure of Reconstruction condemned them to lives of poverty, powerlessness and cruelty in the South. Lincoln was in Grant Park with Obama, and so was Martin Luther King – in their deeds, their words and their cadences. We saw Jesse Jackson weeping – for the “martyrs … who made this day happen”. “I could see Dr King putting on his shoes in Selma, getting ready for the march,” he said. And beside the president-elect stood three descendants of slaves: Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama would soon be living in the White House, where, before the Civil War, 12 presidents had been served by the black men and women they owned. Hundreds of slaves worked in the antebellum White House. Then there was Ann Nixon Cooper, the 106-year-old woman from Atlanta whose life Obama used to illustrate the heroic possibilities of American history. Cooper, who, Obama announced, had that day “touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote”, was descended from slaves.

The Jim Crow South is no more. The demographic terrain is much changed. But race still skulks about American life, invisible only to those who don’t want to see. For every dozen measures of progress there are a half-dozen signs that nothing much has changed. Virginia elected a black governor 20 years ago. Chicago elected a black mayor in 1983. And in Mississippi, where 36% of the population is African American, not a single black person has been elected to a statewide office in the century and a half since Reconstruction. In Atlanta, as in Chicago and elsewhere, there is a substantial black middle class and there are black students and black professors in Ivy League universities that were all but closed to them only a generation ago. And the number of black men in American prisons is more than five times what it was in 1980. Many more are in prison than in college. More than 40% of prisoners in the US (which has more prisoners than any other country in the world) are drawn from the 13% of the population that is African American. Black Americans are more likely to be unemployed, uneducated and unhealthy. They are more likely to have HIV–AIDS, and more likely to die young.

Statistics like these describe failures that no individual or collective effort since Reconstruction had the power to rectify. Should he win another term, it is conceivable, but by no means certain, that Obama will make the first genuine effort for more than 40 years; and, in so doing, satisfy the millions of older Democrats in whom he kindled excitement they hadn’t felt since Bobby Kennedy made his run in 1968. Whatever he does about them in the future, for the young Barack Obama it was not the tangible consequences of those problems that he had to negotiate, but the shadows they cast. This is the central thread of the story David Remnick tells in The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (Picador, 672pp; $39.99).

It is no proof against cranks making up their own versions and ignoramuses believing them, but so much has been written about Obama’s story – including his own two well-judged bestsellers on the subject – that one comes to The Bridge wondering if the world really needs another 600 pages about him. It does, although 500 might have done just as well. David Remnick wants to show us how Obama the politician came to be. Now, Obama has had his share of luck – or more than his share, as Hillary Clinton and John McCain believe. Still, while they never admit such a thing, it’s doubtful if there ever was a successful politician who did not get a crucial break or two. Obama might be “the luckiest bastard in the world”, as one of his advisers said; he is also a consummate political whiz. By the time we reach that moment on the platform in Grant Park, we feel rather as if we’ve watched in real-time the incubation, and emergence from a chrysalis, of a brilliantly adapted insect.

Great politicians are rare and Obama would be worth studying even if he were not the first black president of the US; in some minds he is the first of a post-racial US. How are these people formed? Why are they attracted to power at an age when most of us recoil from it? Is it the contest that they can’t resist or their own reflections? Whence their power of persuasion? The fine measurements of character and interest? The adroit judgement of consequences, and consequences upon consequences? How do they live with so much betrayal?

Though Remnick is not much concerned with psychoanalysing his subject, as the detail he has gathered from family, friends, colleagues and rivals accumulates, we begin to see the world as Obama sees it: as a young man with an absent Kenyan father and only sometimes present white Kansan mother; as a studious and thoughtful, if laid-back and occasionally dope-smoking Barry Obama at the well-heeled liberal arts college, Occidental, then Columbia, then Harvard; as a social organiser in Chicago’s all-black South Side; and, then, as a politician – first in the Illinois Senate, then in Washington and finally in the mesmerising run for the White House.

Childhood circumstances such as Obama’s commonly explain personal failure. Looked at now, they seem to have set him up to be the president. Barack Obama Snr had come to the US on a scholarship and returned to Kenya full of promise that he never fulfilled. The son became the cool, ascetic opposite of his raging failure of a father. His mother set an example of study, empathic cosmopolitan understanding and social idealism. The rest of his parenting, provided by her mother and father in Hawaii, must have been what some psychologists call “good enough”.

Confusing as his young life was, it was not particularly hard – certainly not in the way that Lincoln’s was hard. On the other hand, Obama has never presented himself as a victim or felt obliged, as Bill Clinton’s apologists sometimes have, to use his childhood as an excuse for questionable adult behaviour. Taking responsibility for himself is part of being Obama. Whatever the shortcomings of his youthful biography and whatever the presumptions behind it – Remnick describes it as “a mixture of verifiable fact, recollection, re-creation, invention and artful shaping” – Dreams from My Father helped Obama to resolve the complex matter of his identity and to liquidate the demons of his childhood. Doing so framed his view of politics, shaped his rhetoric and deepened his understanding of individuals and society. It also meant that at a freakishly early age he had the first essential of an American political career: a personal narrative. And, when it later sold millions, he had the second essential of such a career: a lot of money.

Again with hindsight, Obama’s educational progress seems to run with unlikely smoothness, all the way to his being elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, an event that made international news and thrilled his fellow black students. By then the character the world saw step onto that stage in November 2008 had already taken shape. He was cool, mature and firm in his opinions, but, as Lincoln was, “careful not to give serious offense to popular prejudice”. He had developed the ability to listen to all points of view, to recognise sound argument as opposed to ideology or emotion, to reject any forms of behaviour or reasoning that stood in the way of learning. And Obama, as his teachers said, always wanted to learn. Studying the history of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement generated understandable rage in other black students, but not in Obama, not visibly at least. In the “… rage, drugs, disaffection and racial fury”, he saw only a “trap”:

Following this maddening logic, the only thing you could choose as your own was withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage, until being black meant only the knowledge of your own powerlessness, of your own defeat. And the final irony: Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.

The “preternatural calm” that one of his law professors noted still irritates ideologues of all types; yet it has never dulled the effect of an Obama speech. At the end of his year as president of the Review, he gave the traditional address to the almost all-white audience at the Harvard Club. He was yet to hone his great gift for speeches, but when he finished up that night the mostly black waiters in their starched white uniforms put down their trays and applauded, and one of the oldest among them walked up the aisle and shook Obama’s hand.

After Harvard, Obama turned down a clerkship in the Court of Appeals and moved to Chicago where, he said in a letter to a friend, “the most pertinent division … is that between the black tribe and the white tribe”. Elsewhere he observed that the best black organisers were the crack dealers. He worked as a community organiser among the black tribe for a fraction of the money any legal firm in the country would have paid him. He soon came to believe that organising could not be merely “instrumental”. Calling in the power – an alderman for instance – was not enough. They needed power of their own. They needed to recast the way they thought about themselves. Obama organised Project Vote. “It’s a Power Thing”, the posters said. At the end of the campaign, Chicago’s majority-black wards had more registered voters than the majority-white wards. The media and the party heavyweights took notice. Jesse Jackson, who had once made the point that in 1980 Ronald Reagan took the South – and the White House – “by the measure of our non-participation”, must have noticed too.

Obama also taught in the law faculty of the University of Chicago. Cool he was, but not so cool that he could not soon find ways to impress middle-class white intellectuals, messianic black Christians and influential Jews all on the same day. Two years before he arrived, the unthinkable had happened: a black man, Harold Washington, had been elected mayor. This meant, among other things, that no future white candidate could ignore black Chicago; and a black man who worked on the South Side was now not far from the heart of politics. If he was also capable of working the North Side with its white liberals and its riches, he was dealing in power.

“All art is a revolt against man’s fate”, or so André Malraux believed. On odd occasions among exceptional practitioners, politics imitates art: it flies in the face of presumptions; communes with the dead while overturning their conceits; sees truth and practises conjuring; subsumes narcissism in the higher calling. And as the muse comes sometimes to artists, it comes occasionally to politicians. In both cases it comes only to the very gifted: they have to earn its attendance, be somewhere close to where it lives. When it comes, the waters part and every obstacle becomes a stepping stone, sheer cliffs reveal their footholds, every rival is seized by madness or trips inexplicably on some mundane thing, and defeat points towards an even greater victory. For Obama the muse came in Chicago.

Chicago is Democrat. Of 50 aldermen, just one is Republican: “no less a one-party political city than Beijing,” Remnick says. You don’t just walk in and plant your flag, one old stager told Obama. He had done just that 50 years earlier and got the brush-off at Democratic headquarters: “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent,” they told him. But Obama planted his flag in Chicago, and he found his wife, his church, his best mentors and his vocation there. If American politics equals money plus organisation, there was no better place to practise it. The 2008 victory was built on a brilliant grassroots organisation, the rudiments of which Obama learned in Chicago. The pragmatism to which he was very early inclined was honed in Chicago; his understanding of power was completed in Chicago, where power is a byword. He came to realise that, great as some of them had been, the power of charismatic leaders is never enough because it fades and leaves its followers powerless again. And he learned from listening to the black nationalists that, while they are right to stress pride, self-reliance and responsibility, their ‘nationalism’, in being little more than a hatred of whites, is delusional and self-defeating.

Straddling both worlds, he learned to “shape-shift”: conjugating his verbs and speaking in what he called a typical “Midwestern newscaster voice” helped him communicate with white audiences, and being able to “slip into a slightly different dialect” was useful with black audiences. Others, including Hillary Clinton, made embarrassing attempts to do the same thing; and Harry Reid had to apologise for saying what was in fact true – that Obama had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one”. Bobby Rush, who beat him in a Congressional race in 2000, insists the president even borrowed the way he walks from black men on the streets of Chicago. Irksome as it must have been for everyone – John McCain most of all – what was Obama supposed to do? Squander his advantages? Act like something other than a politician? Like an angry black man, for instance, or a pretend white one?

He got himself elected to the Illinois Senate and sat, frequently bored, on the backbenches in Springfield for six years. Then the Democrats won a majority and Obama became a prime mover in the passage of 26 bills. It was because “we had power”, he said. At his first run for Washington, a lot of black Chicago did not think he was black enough, at least not in comparison with Bobby Rush. Rush whipped him. Obama learned. Next time, his main opponent in the primary sank when his divorce papers were unsealed and made public. Then the same thing happened to his Republican opponent and he sank as well. So Obama won in a landslide, with 91% of the black vote and, despite his being pro-choice, three-quarters of the Catholic vote. Being so far ahead in the campaign, he had ample time to prepare his Democratic National Convention speech, which made him famous across the nation and got people wondering if he might not run for president in 2016.

There was one more stroke of luck – if we don’t count George W Bush, and, perhaps, the team Hillary Clinton appointed, and Sarah Palin, and the Global Financial Crisis. Just days before he announced he was running for president, the contents of one of his pastor’s radical sermons were published in Rolling Stone. This time his team diffused the not entirely misguided Reverend Jeremiah Wright, but 12 months later, in the middle of the campaign, ABC News played some extracts that ultimately forced Obama to denounce him. The luck consisted in the fact that no one bothered to probe further. Had Hillary Clinton or anyone else with an interest looked, they would have found the sermons on CDs for sale at the church – and Obama’s campaign very likely would have ended in Iowa. Instead, Obama turned the near disaster into a triumph in his usual way: with a speech.

Like most wars, the American Civil War had more than one cause, but slavery was at the heart of it. And money. And humbug. As the victorious General Grant said, there could have been no war had the South’s slave-owning elite not been able to persuade the poor white trash that their interests were as one with their own, and that those interests were so threatened by tyranny and injustice they – the trash – should go forth and die in defence of them.

Slavery and the slave-owners having gone, today there are Wall Street, the corporations and their lobbyists and the politicians great and small of both parties stuck snugly in their grip, along with cable news and all the celebrity blatherers and mountebanks begotten of the frontier, Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch. And for the trash, Karl Rove’s own cannon fodder, those who believe that the Earth and all the firmament were created in less than a week and that Rush Limbaugh comes to them for the good of the country rather than the advertising revenue: the gun-toting, Palin-worshipping patriots and attendees of Tea Parties, who wouldn’t know a teapot if one hit them on the head and who think $8 per hour with a holiday for Thanksgiving makes the US the very zenith of social justice and opportunity.

Even if it was more symbolic than real, millions of black Americans saw Obama’s election as another step towards the decent terms promised in 1865 and again a century later, but still in fundamental ways denied them. Among the many obvious reasons why Americans who are not black voted for him, one was surely to dull the noise of the other civil war – the one between the interests and alleged ideals of outrageous wealth and power and what those without them take to be their interests and their ideals: ideals that are not specifically Republican or Democrat, but are nevertheless held by a great many citizens to be American. When Obama said that “I am my brother’s keeper” is no less an American ideal than individual initiative, they agreed. Not all Americans regret the passing of the frontier. Not all American Christians are zealots, and not all atheists are. When they heard Obama urge secular humanists to drop their prejudice against religious faith, and entreat evangelicals to stop using faith “as a tool of attack”, they were comforted. “Obama’s ability to negotiate among the sharply disparate perspectives of his fellow citizens was at the heart of his political impulse and his success,” Remnick says. It was a quality that those who were still fighting the wars hated in him, even as it proved irresistible. “The nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting,” said Thomas Hobbes, “but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.” Obama’s preternatural calm was the assurance.

He can’t solve the country’s problems, of course. They are simply too big and too many. The euphoria has long gone. The Right insists he’s a socialist and soft on terror, and the Left declares him meek, naive and unprincipled. It’s as if the muse has left him. He’ll be lucky to win a second term. Then again, the man’s luck is not the striking thing about Obama. The striking thing is the quality of his mind. Good minds are often compromised by politics (and weak ones frequently succeed), but page after page of The Bridge assures us that Obama’s mind and his politics work in formidable combination. He had picked his way through the impossible terrain of American politics: black politics and white politics – race politics; conservative politics and progressive politics; religious politics, media politics and parochial politics. And in the end, like the very greatest American politicians, pragmatism was his transcending virtue. From Jesse Jackson in the crowd to the waitress in the Ohio restaurant, whatever all those millions were feeling as they watched him that night, for Obama it was surely the purest vindication. All the strands of his experience and judgement had led him to that stage. He had thought his way to the presidency. And there is still reason to hope that he will think his way through it.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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