Saturday, February 9, 2008

Time out. Politics Matters. We cannot exempt ourselves from our human responsibilities...

I did like Edwards. I liked the rhetoric. His taking on the Corporatocracy that has stolen the country from the people. But you can have the best ideas going and it means nothing if you don't know how to work the system. If you don't hold the right cards.

The difference between Kennedy and Johnson--I hated Johnson, such a sleaze, but he was a suburb inside operator. He was able to get Kennedy's programs though congress. All that fal da rah about Kennedy's mystique and charisma is more than half nostalgia. I mean, he barely beat Nixon! Freaking NIXON! That should give you a good reality check on how far "charisma" can take you.

Yeah, Kennedy was a good speaker. He knew how to rally his own natural base, but he did not bring that many new people into politics, and half the country hated him. To be effective, his charisma wasn't going to do him much good; he would have to wheel and deal, work with what was there--a reality that reduced his "charisma" to politics-as-usual in his time.

I say this because of the comparisons being tossed around: Obama to Kennedy. The reality is, Kennedy never approached the kind of response that Obama has generated. So what we have in the Democratic primary race now, on one side, is a Clinton who has learned from a master and is almost as shrewd an operator as the Big Dog himself. Clinton as president would know how to work the system--she could be as effective as the limitations of the current distribution of political power and popular sentiment allow... which is to say, she might even match the Big Dog... but by this time we ought to know... that's not enough.

Bill was good. He knew how to play the cards he was dealt, but he couldn't change the deal he was working with, and there's the problem.

That's where Obama comes in. There's no question about it; the man is a popular political phenomenon. I don't listen to his speeches to learn what his policies will be. He's generally on the right side of most issues, but I don't see that as being what matters. Not in this election.

We're involved in one of those generational transition elections--and one like none I can remember in almost 50 years of following politics. There's a part of me that hesitates to come out and take a stand... a lot of reasons to distrust people who have the kind of gift Obama has. He whips up irrational energy... so much depends--not on how he plans to reform medical care--but on how he responds to, how he uses that collective fever he releases in the crowd.

I think of Martin Luther King, an example of someone who had that same gift--and how careful he was, how conscious he was of how he used it. That's really what the non-violent philosophy was about... as much as it was a tactic of mass actions, it served as a natural limit to the doors of power that might have tempted him--and in that era, a pretty effective reality check.

So what I watch when I listen to Obama is the expression on his face--what happens to him when the waves of the crowd wash over him. And I see two things. First, a turning inward, this look of focused resolution--a look of recognition. He knows what is happening. It neither surprises him, nor moves him over much. He withdraws slightly at the very peak of the response... does not push it beyond a certain point, does not seek to drive the crowd any closer to where individual identity is abandoned to the mass. Nor does he show any signs of needing this--he enjoys it, takes it in, but it's as though you can see a look of satisfaction that precedes that moment, a confidence he brings to the crowd, rather than seeking it from them... he has not come to ask the crowd for personal confirmation... which is precisely the source of his power, of his charisma. He remains, somehow, outside of what is happening around him, and so, in perfect control.

So I see in Obama, as he awakens a whole new political constituency, a new political reality taking shape.

Yes, effective power will always depend on the kind of insider skills at which the Clintons (and Lyndon Johnson) were past masters, and Obama as president will be no more effective than Kennedy, for all his charisma, if he doesn't surround himself with the right people, if he doesn't learn how to use the power he releases... but this doesn't worry me.

He's a fine poker player. A skill he used as a newcomer to Illinois state politics. He seems to have as sharp an instinct for the details of power as he does for shaping the big picture, so the real advantage of Obama over Clinton, the real choice, is between Clinton's proven ability to work, and work within, a broken system. Politics as the art of the possible, the art of producing, as we have come to expect... the lesser of several evils, while Obama, by raising up a whole new popular political constituency to appeal to, to back him up, stands not only to change the deal with a new set of cards, but to change the game.

I see I've used that word twice... change... which may, for all its rhetorical redundancy, not be as hollow as it sounds.

Given my likely choices... voting or not voting--since I'm not quite ready to give up my belief in the idea of democracy--of government by the consent of the governed (and if anything is clear at this point, a vote for a Republican would amount to abandoning that belief) ... I am inclined, baring further developments to the contrary, to say that I'm am prepared to vote... and with no small measure of hope for what it might mean... for Barack Obama for President.

Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Day, Ebenezer Baptist Church


  1. This is a most eloquent essay. I think that you have nailed it. JFK, for all his charm, brought no changes - and LBJ, for all his faults, moved the goalposts.

    Obama uplifts the spirit. One dares to hope, almost.


  2. This is the finest essay of the campaign season. - Will Barber

  3. Obama for president!

    Or Clinton. I could live with that, too.

    Just no more Republicans. And let's hope that the bag of reeking scum currently residing at 1600 PA Ave gets brought up on charges of treason and is strung up by his testicles and entrails from the flagpole on the White House lawn.

  4. Wonderful essay, Jacob. I wanted Edwards for the reasons you mentioned, but I'm supporting Obama now.