Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obama, Adlai and Reality

One of Barack Obama's worst tendencies, if you're a Democrat in this election season, is to turn into Adlai Stevenson, the two-time failed Democrat candidate for president in the 1950s. Stevenson, Illinois governor, was brilliant, cool, subtly ironic, wonkish, and cared deeply--and he got his ass handed to him on a platter twice by Dwight Eisenhower, the man of whom Claire Booth Luce gushingly said: "General Eisenhower exemplifies what the fair sex looks for in a man—a combination of husband, father and son!”
Not that John McCain is any Dwight Eisenhower, but when you put the two current candidates up next to each other, some of Obama's weaknesses as a campaigner, especially his inability to shout really loud, make themselves evident. The shouting factor has become even more important since McCain has chosen Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, whom many people love because she and her family remind them of characters on one of the long-running reality shows so popular today. They're all so easy to tag: The Special Needs Child, the Soldier, the Pregnant Teen (and Hunky Boyfriend), the Snowmobiler Husband, and, of course, the Pit Bull With Lipstick. Whereas Obama and Michelle's reality show would appear on PBS, early Sunday mornings....
Democrats can take heart, though. Obama sees the need to step it up a bit and yesterday wonderfully said that "you can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig." He said he was referring to John McCain, but we all know better and, up to this writing, he has refused to apologize.
A Dutch friend of mine who lives in this country and follows American politics closely asked me somewhat plaintively at the close of the Republican convention if all American presidential contests included such personal attacks and name-calling as we had just seen. Didn't candidates just talk about the issues? I was astonished, as if he had asked me whether fish need to swim in water. How do I respond? Since almost the very beginning--let's say since 1800--name-calling has been the premiere way to address the issues. It has always been personalities as a way into politics, in our reality show challenged Republic. Once we get a tag for everyone--from that "tall, skinny wretch" Abraham Lincoln to the "Bull Moose" Teddy Roosevelt to "Tricky Dick" Nixon, we start listening.

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