Posts tagged Barack Obama
Are Hope and Change tainted before Obama is even sworn in?

Is that scandal stalking Barack Obama before he is even sworn in? Senate seats for sale in Illinois; a federal grand jury investigating political donations to his choice for commerce secretary... Is he already tarnished? Hardly. First, there is nothing scandalous about staff of a Democratic president-elect holding discussions with the Democratic governor who will fill the Senate seat he just vacated. It would be surprising if they had not. And while we do not know the content of those discussions, and an internal Obama check clearing everyone tells us little, we do know the governor of Illinois directed a string of unimaginative expletives at Mr. Obama and his advisors which suggests they were not receptive to his schemes.

Decency compels us all to admit here that many honest people have unwittingly spoken to a crook at some time in their lives. Especially if they are in politics in Illinois, where three of the last seven governors have done time and dozens of Chicago city councillors have been convicted of corruption since 1971. (As John Barber recently wrote in the Globe and Mail, the vigour with which Illinois prosecutes political corruption makes its perpetrators look stupid as well as crooked.)

History shows that a person can emerge from such a milieu not only smelling but actually being clean. For instance Paul Douglas, a distinguished economics professor who enlisted in the Marines at age 50 in 1942, got himself assigned to combat and won a bronze star and two purple hearts at Peleilu and Okinawa, and represented Illinois for three blameless Senate terms ending in 1967. And Harry Truman rose in Missouri politics with the backing of the Prendergast machine in Kansas City, yet was a man of unimpeachable personal honesty although, it turned out, in the White House he lacked judgement about the integrity of those to whom he felt loyalty.

Such blindness to the flaws of friends may not be directly scandalous. But it fulfils all its essential functions, as it did for Ulysses S. Grant and Warren Harding, neither of whom entered office with visible warning signs of scandal ahead. But if Barack Obama has issues respecting associates they concern not corruption but the disquieting radicalism of men like pastor Jeremiah Wright and former Weatherman Bill Ayers.

That is not to say that having friends, political associates or views that upset partisan opponents is inherently scandalous. While few elections have equalled in vitriol that of 1800, plenty of presidents have entered the White House to a chorus of abuse about their alleged extremism, including Ronald Reagan, who scandalized opinion but was not scandalous because he actually thought the West could win the Cold War.

Nor is it scandalous to face specific accusations, however serious or widely believed, that aren’t true. During the 1828 campaign at least one newspaper called Andrew Jackson the mulatto son of a British soldier’s whore, scandalous only to those who printed it. Charges that “Old Hickory” was occasionally criminally violent had better foundation, but where he was from such conduct was normal.

Even when charges have some factual basis it is important to distinguish between personal and political scandal. In 1884, Republicans taunted Grover Cleveland with “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” because he confessed to fathering an illegitimate child, possibly to protect a married friend who was sleeping with the same woman. In any event he won (prompting the counter-chant “Off to the White House ha ha ha”), then sustained as president the reputation for clean government he acquired as mayor of Buffalo. Philandering may be morally repulsive but it did not seem to diminish the political effectiveness of, for instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

There is a blurry line between the personal and political when it comes to another popular vice. In 1853 Whigs ridiculed Democratic candidate and former General Franklin Pierce, as “the victor of many a hard-fought bottle” and alcoholism did diminish his already feeble performance in the White House, while one shudders to think of Richard Nixon answering the hot line while pickled. But fondness for strong drink has marked many successful incumbents as well, while some notably abstemious presidents were duds, so opinion is legitimately divided on the relevance of such personal vices to politics.

You wouldn’t expect it to be when someone enters the White House dragging the chains of legitimate political scandal. For instance when Bill Clinton, dangling Whitewater, his wife’s futures trading foray, and enough sexual and other escapades to tag him as “Slick Willy”. But ahead of him stand two presidents whose entry into the White House was obviously and instructively tainted.

First, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes notoriously won the 1876 election on the basis of brazenly false returns from three former Confederate states, Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, leading to an ugly bargain that Democrats would accept his election in return for the end of Reconstruction and federal pork for the south. His reward was one undistinguished term as “Rutherfraud” Hayes. More ominously, though rarely mentioned in polite company, every single Democrat elected to Congress from the south and every Democrat who became president with southern electoral votes from the end of Reconstruction through the 1960s is contaminated by the flagrant violent racist exclusion of blacks and Republicans from the polls secured by the bargain of 1876. This includes Woodrow Wilson and FDR.

The second relevant example, prominently featuring Illinois, is John F. Kennedy. In his memoir With No Apologies, Barry Goldwater insists he gathered enough affidavits to prove JFK stole the West Virginia Democratic primary but the attorney general failed to follow up. In any event Kennedy definitely won the close election of 1960 through electoral fraud by Richard Daley Sr.’s machine in Cook County and Lyndon Johnson’s in Texas (where Johnson also clearly won his first, narrow Senate victory in 1948 by out-cheating his adversary). Yet no taint attached to Kennedy, then or later, possibly through widespread elite feeling Richard Nixon was the sort of man who needed to have elections stolen from him. If you want real scandal, look no further.

In any case don’t look at Barack Obama. Unless surprising new facts emerge, he enters the White House untainted, directly or indirectly, by the fact that a lot of other politicians including ones from his home state are dumb crooks.

[First published on]

It was closer than you think
So that was a decent night for the Democrats. Sort of. I know, I know, Barack Obama "will electrify the world."

He's a "supernova." Of course now the press are also saying he faces difficult challenges and is something of an unknown and we'd all better lower our expectations. But hey, when change has come to America, who wants to quibble?

Me, actually. I agree that the election of a black president is a historic triumph of America's open society and Americans' fundamental decency. I'm too right-wing to support John McCain and I think it's amazingly great that such a thing could happen. Only in America, folks. At least, it hasn't happened in Canada, Germany, France or Britain where they like to sneer at American prejudice.

Some people claim a substantial hidden bigoted vote reduced Barack Obama's vote total. In fact he got more of the white vote (around 43 per cent) than the Democratic average in the previous 10 elections (39 per cent). But in any event, if some voters secretly voted against Mr. Obama because of his race, millions openly voted for him because of it, so it doesn't explain the narrowness of his victory.

Yes, narrowness. And here I must poke many journalists in the eye for covering what they wanted to happen, not what did. The Globe and Mail declared Barack Obama the victor "in a landslide triumph, winning more than 335 of the 538 Electoral College votes, in striking contrast to the wafer-thin victories that sent George W. Bush to Washington in 2000 and again four years later." Pfui. A landslide is Reagan in 1984, with 525 of 535 Electoral College votes and 58.8 per cent of the popular vote, or Nixon in 1972 (520 and 60.7), LBJ in 1964 (486 and 61), or FDR in 1936 (523 and 61).

I don't care how much you hate Republicans. Three-sixty-four and 52.5 is not a landslide. Statistically this election resembles 1968 or 1992 ... except both those campaigns featured strong third-party candidates.

It's also hard to argue that John McCain, or Sarah Palin, alienated moderates. If final turnout is around 125 million, Barack Obama gets seven million more votes than John Kerry in 2004 including 70 per cent of new voters, a galvanized Democratic base and working Joes and Janes concerned about the economy. If it's much higher, John McCain approaches George Bush's 2004 total despite losing the Joes and Janes and core Republicans who never trusted him. Either way there's no room for a wave of defecting moderates. You don't have to approve of it. It's still true.

One normally sensible Canadian pundit warned the GOP that "many of its remaining moderates ... were brought down, leaving the party weakened and prey to the radical evangelicals and talk show hosts who dominate its right wing. If the GOP clings to that base, perhaps with Ms. Palin as its champion, the party has no future." Yeah. They'll end up running right-wing losers like Reagan instead of moderate winners like Bush Sr. and John McCain.

Margaret Wente, also normally sensible, wrote on election day that Mr. Obama "has made me proud of America again" because Americans "are turning out in record numbers to repudiate the leaders who disgraced and failed them." A fine explanation of the record turnout Obama landslide ... if it had happened.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

I'm not afraid of Barack Obama

At the risk of stirring controversy I'd like to declare that Barack Obama would probably make an OK president. To his supporters this will sound outrageously tepid. Whereas many conservatives are passionately convinced the rookie Senator from Illinois is absolutely the worst imaginable candidate for the Oval Office since, um, the last guy the Democrats nominated. In this respect, at least, hard-core Republican and Democratic sympathizers are quite similar: Compare what the latter now say about John McCain with the way they used to praise his independence from George W. Bush, and ask yourself whether they, too, don't need either a reality check or an honesty transfusion.

The test I apply within my own social circles, such as they are, is to ask which Democratic nominee for president in the last 60 years they do not consider conspicuously unfit for that office. Not just potentially ineffective, lacking experience and/or liable to espouse bad polices, but offensively unsuited to it. I realize conservatives are likely not to support liberal candidates regardless of their personal qualities (and vice versa). But in a democracy, if your hair rises in panic at every nominee from the other party it is your judgment that is called into question, not theirs.

I apply my 60-year test to Republicans because I want to be sure my net is large enough to catch Harry Truman. He had his failings, but his temperament was well suited to the difficult job of U.S. president, and particularly in foreign affairs he is now vindicated as thoroughly as he was pilloried at the time. The Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson opined on Tuesday, expressly respecting George W. Bush, that "Almost every North American politician who leaves office unpopular hopes for a Truman. Alas for them, Mr. Truman's rehabilitation was unique." Oh really? What about Ronald Reagan? Or Richard Nixon? Or Dwight Eisenhower? Shall I go on naming Republicans or is the point clear?

I know it's hard to rally the troops with a dramatic cry that while your own candidate is uninspiring the other guy is liable, on balance, to be marginally worse. But even active partisans should try to remember which of their utterances are deliberate exaggerations or outright lies. Those who merely follow politics with passion have no excuse for plunging into the bile so enthusiastically as to splash it about. I don't expect Democrats to prefer Republican candidates or vice versa but I do expect them to keep a little perspective.

A number of essentially mediocre Democratic candidates in the past half-century might have made a dangerous mess of Soviet-American relations. But that doesn't make Walter Mondale a leftist menace like Al Gore, or a cad like Bill Clinton. Democrats should be ashamed of the enthusiastic welcome they gave Mr. Clinton at their convention 10 years after he was impeached; Richard Nixon was not even at the 1984 RNC a decade after resigning. But honestly, would conservatives, or Americans, be worse off today if Michael Dukakis had defeated George Bush Sr. in 1992? And if Sarah Palin were a Democrat, would the Globe editorially demand her resignation from the ticket and peddle rumours of a "shotgun" wedding for her pregnant daughter?

Some of my Republican friends tell me Sen. Obama is bitter, radical and dangerous. I don't believe it. Yes, he inhaled some noxious vapours from the left-wing fringe of black American politics but I don't think they poisoned him. Indeed the one extravagant expectation of his supporters that I think he could meet is to help heal America's deep and ancient racial wounds, simply by raising his right hand and repeating the oath of office.

I grant that on foreign policy he seems to vacillate rhetorically between appeasement and belligerence and if he were to do so in office we'd all regret it. But honestly, what true Republican liked John McCain before the campaign started? And if the Democrats are going to win, would you rather it be with Hillary Clinton? Or Al Gore? They can't all be worse than one another. Membership in the Democratic Party may indicate poor judgment, but unless you're willing openly to call it proof of imbecility, depravity or both you can't treat every nominee as confirmation of that claim. And by the way, if liberals would extend the same courtesy to conservatives, in Canada as well, it might not harm political discourse there or here.

In the end, I tell my conservative friends that, if elected, Barack Obama will either do a decent job, which would be good, or be a comically catastrophic bust like Jimmy Carter and push the country back to the right, which would also be good. So we have nothing to lose but our sense of proportion.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Expecting too much from Obama

Barack Obama has done the right thing in the right way by dumping America-hating Rev. Jeremiah Wright. True, he did it at the wrong time, but in politics you take what you can get. When I read about Rev. Wright's self-immolating performance at Washington's National Press Club on Monday, my immediate reaction was that, whatever else might be said about this man, his theology is fatally flawed because he peddles hate. And Barack Obama singled out precisely that failing the next day. He didn't just call himself "outraged" and "saddened." He described Rev. Wright's comments as "giving comfort to those who prey on hate."

Exactly right. But years, even decades too late. So what is left of Barack Obama's political appeal as a healer, especially of racial divisions? (Which, parenthetically, he'd better be after his outburst of snobbery about God, gays and guns left him an extremely dubious healer of cultural ones.) Here I would caution against the unreasonable expectations habitually raised in politics by partisans, commentators and candidates including Mr. Obama himself.

When people said he could heal racial divisions, were they expecting a miraculous laying on of hands and an instant, complete national cure? For some of his more star-struck supporters the answer seems to have been yes. But it was, and is, fatuous to think anyone could heal America's racial divisions with a couple of soaring speeches and an inspiring book. On such a serious problem we should have reasonable expectations.

Indeed, Rev. Wright is correct on one key point: The depth of bitterness among black Americans about historical injustices and their lingering effects is extremely deep. But he is dangerously wrong on another key point, namely that it is the appropriate role of leaders in the black community to foster and nurture that bitterness. It does no good to anyone, least of all his congregation.

If there's a worse sin for a pastor than peddling hate, it's peddling despair. So let me cite another black preacher in response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright: "We must not," wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in 1958, "let the fact that we are the victims of injustice lull us into abrogating responsibility for our own lives." It would be weird and tone-deaf to ignore the ongoing impact of that ghastly injustice. But to tell black Americans in 2008 they are still the victims of a giant conspiracy, where the CIA unleashes AIDS on them in a country run by the KKK, is to encourage lethal feelings of helplessness.

Rev. Wright is stepping down anyway and one hopes we've pretty much heard the last of him. But the larger issue will not go away nearly so easily. What is most troubling and important about the Obama/Wright affair is that for decades the politician heard this kind of thing from the pastor and, as far as we know, didn't find it odd.

Possibly Sen. Obama sat stone-faced through the weirder bits; possibly he rolled his eyes; possibly he objected; possibly he nodded politely; possibly he nodded enthusiastically. We cannot now tell. Anything anyone suddenly "recalls" about any man who is odds-on favourite to win not just a major party nomination but the presidency of the United States must be treated with profound skepticism. But we can be sure he heard the weirder bits. Just weeks ago Sen. Obama said Rev. Wright was "like family" and the reverend is not a man shy about his opinions.

So we also know, unfortunately, that whatever reaction Sen. Obama had to what he now calls "appalling" and "ridiculous," he didn't find it walk-out-of-the-room outrageous. He may have found it plausible or implausible, true or false, right or wrong, but he didn't think it lunatic-fringe rubbish. And in this he was far from alone. Millions of black Americans routinely listen to this kind of thing from professors, activists, even spiritual leaders, and while some may disagree, far too few find it nutty. Indeed, one measure of the depth of the two American solitudes is that Rev. Wright seems to have had no idea what impact his National Press Club performance would have on his own credibility.

It is against this backdrop that one must judge Barack Obama's conduct now and in the future. Of course his sudden emergency deep-sixing of Rev. Wright was both long overdue and transparently political. But remember: He is a politician. So remember also Henry Kissinger's memorable assessment of his colleague Melvin Laird, Richard Nixon's defence secretary, as "a devious man but, when cornered, a patriot."

Right now Sen. Obama is looking like a devious man but, when cornered, a healer. I'll take it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]