Wednesday, November 01, 2006

AFFINITIES AND ALLERGIES

There are only two celebrities I ever recall discovering for myself. The first was a girl who hit a little yellow ball. I happened to be watching her on TV play a minor tournament when she was about 15 or 16. It was a weekend afternoon, and yet I was alone sitting in front of the tube watching this un-hyped tourney. I really can’t say why I was watching except that I loved the sport. But that day, I wasn’t just a spectator; I was a fan. The brilliance of this child’s game dazzled me, and when I heard her interviewed after the match – and I saw her as a shy, unassuming, yet intense prodigy -- I was captivated.

That was the first tourney she won in the U.S. She went on to win 22 major tournaments, and I watched nearly all of her major tournament finals. One day, years later, I walked out of my own house because I couldn’t cope with my mother-in-law rooting loudly for this lady’s opponent in the finals of the French Open.

This lady’s name is Steffi Graf. And I am what you would call a fan of hers, wouldn’t you say?

When I first came to appreciate Graf, I was convinced that nobody outside of the tennis world was aware that she even existed. But when I first came to appreciate the second celebrity that I “discovered,” his name was already well known by even casual observers of the American political scene. The difference, I convinced myself, is that most of them knew only his name and a few superficial facts about him. I, on the other hand, felt I instinctively understood his raison d’etre as a politician.

This second celebrity may be called “The Tiger Woods of Politics.” Or, if you prefer, “The Natural.” I choose to believe he will become first African-American President of the United States. His name, of course, is Barack Obama. And my discovery took place during the Democratic Convention of 2004.

At the time of the Convention, I had been working on an early draft of The Creed Room, a novel that very much involves the intersection of politics and religion. I came to the conclusion in the course of writing that book that this country needed to fall into the hands of progressive politicians whose spirituality and values were beyond question and who recognized the need to align progressive politics with the interests of the business community (i.e., in that sense, they should be more like Clinton than either Reagan or Bush). I also decided that the country needs to be led by visionaries who aren’t swayed by whatever is politically expedient at the moment (i.e., in that sense, they should be more like Reagan and Bush than Clinton). In other words, I decided that this nation needs politicians who could demonstrate to the society that religious values are harmonious with liberalism, not antithetical to it, and whose liberalism is infused with such guts and passion that they feel the need to accomplish feats on the grandest of scales. Then I saw Obama speak, and I realized that this was one dude who hardly needed to read my book (at least its sections on politics), because he already knew everything I did and, no doubt, so much more.

Since the Democratic Convention, I’ve followed Obama’s career fairly closely. But obviously, I missed something, because in no way was I prepared for him to indicate during recent weeks that he is actually considering a run for the Presidency in 2008. My initial reaction to learning of his musings was disappointment. You see, I’m convinced that he will, not might, but will be a two-term American President. And I would like to see him serve when the sum of his experience, energy and charisma levels are at their peak. In short, while he might think that he needs America to achieve his greatest ambition, I believe that America needs him more than he needs us. We need someone to rally the country in support of a war on global warming … or a war on poverty and crime … or a war on sectarian strife throughout the world. We need, as someone else once said, a “Uniter, not a Divider.” Other politicians can talk about these goals, but only a rare political genius can conceive of actually delivering the goods. Barak Obama, the handsome, moderate-liberal, born-again Christian, bi-racial former President of the Harvard Law Review -- who Lawrence Tribe called his second best student at Harvard in 30+ years -- appears to be such a genius.

If he is indeed a genius, if he is indeed a “natural,” then why not assume that he knows the best time for a Presidential run? If he says that time is 2008, then why shouldn’t I defer to his judgment? Given that he’s in his mid 40s, Obama wouldn’t appear to have the experience or the gravitas to reach his optimum leadership level until well into the following decade. But appearances can be deceiving, particularly when you’re talking about men whose genius is so great as to defy conventional wisdom.

I almost convinced myself that a 2008 run would be sensible. But then I came across “Run Barack Run” op-ed pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I’m not talking about pieces by liberal columnists like Richard Cohen or Frank Rich. I’m referring to pieces by their conservative counterparts: specifically, Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks.

Krauthammer’s piece was well reasoned, and it never once offended me. He paid tribute to Obama’s talents, and then concluded that Obama should run in 2008 because it would help him get elected in later years. In other words, the 2008 was more like a debutante party in front of the nation that would later come to embrace him when he was more seasoned. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “that’s a perspective I hadn’t considered. It might make sense.”

Krauthammer’s columns rarely offend me because the man is as advertised: someone who is almost always going to take the right-wing perspective on any topic. If there’s a right-wing perspective on whether maple trees are better than oak trees, or whether miniature poodles are better than bichon frises, Krauthammer would stake it out. I know where he stands, and more importantly, he makes no attempt to deceive any of his readers --at least that’s what I’ve always thought.

With David Brooks, however, I can’t make quite the same statements. There’s something about his columns that make me gag. Unlike Krauthammer, he tries to come across not as a hard-right guy but as a conservative who is fair and balanced. He constantly attempts to throw bones to the progressives. But that’s what they are – bones! The meat, he always leaves on the right side of the table.

Moreover, unlike George Will, who might actually be a learned man, Brooks comes across as only making pretensions in that direction. Indeed, everything about his style seems to me pretentious – and I fear that some people might actually buy that he is an intellectual and a relatively moderate voice in public affairs. That’s what gives me the creeps.

I might disagree with Krauthammer 99% of the time, but my reactions to his columns rarely reach deep into my heart, let alone my viscera. When it comes to Brooks, however, you could say that I have a physical allergy. I don’t sneeze, I don’t break into hives, but all of my synapsis reflexively question whatever conclusion he’s espousing. Recently, one of those conclusions was that Obama should run for President in 2008.

Brooks’ column on the topic was, characteristically, humorous, though unintendedly so. He sang the praises of Obama for the first 75% of the column, and then said near the end – quite gratuitously – that Brooks himself might not support Obama’s candidacy. Ya’ think? By the time I finished the column, I immediately wondered whether this was all a set up. Why are yellow-dog Republicans urging a Democrat to run? Could it possibly be that they knew something about the perils of such a candidacy that I didn’t – that even Barak “The Natural” Obama didn’t?

Then I found my answer. I took it from women’s sports – not tennis this time, but golf. Perhaps Krauthammer and Brooks were analogizing Obama to that other “natural,” Michelle Wie. Wie hasn’t won a tournament in years because she thrust herself on the major stage prematurely. Whereas Tiger Woods at 15 and 16 had the insight to play other kids his own age and get in the habit of winning, tournament after tournament, Wie has learned simply how to play great shots but, invariably, figure out a way to lose. Sure, she’s demonstrated herself to be a prodigy in the process, but the young Tiger Woods demonstrated himself to be a closer par excellence. Not surprisingly, as an adult, he closes out tournaments better than any golfer in history.

Perhaps the GOP knows that you only have one chance to make a first impression – both with your country and with yourself. Perhaps the GOP knows that 2008 is perhaps Obama’s only chance to screw that impression up. He’s so damned gifted as a politician that his ascendancy seems almost inevitable, but that assumes that he seizes the right time – a time when he is experienced enough to claim what is rightfully his. I am more convinced than ever that 2008 isn’t the time.

So, Barack, if you’re listening, here’s my advice:

“Patience, patience, patience. Tiger started out winning multiple U.S. Amateur titles and he now appears poised to play his best golf a full two decades later. Remember that. And remember, too, that whereas Tiger was allowed a seemingly unlimited number of years to ply his trade at the highest level, you only have eight. We need you to pick those eight years judiciously. We need you to pick a time when this nation is ready to come together in support of a major, transformative initiative. We need you to pick a time when this nation is ready to place you as part of its pantheon – right next to the man who purchased Louisiana, won the war between the states, or beat back the Depression. Have you decided what cause you’re ready to take on? Do that first, and formulate a plan for achieving your goals. Don’t pull a Rumsfeld.

“Finally, whatever you do, don’t pay attention to the advice of pseudo-fans who won’t even promise their support if and when you throw your hat in the ring. Listen to those of us whose support is already in the bag. I never rooted against Steffi Graf; I won’t root against you. And in that regard, I’m hardly alone.”

6 comments:

Finding Fair Hope said...

But David, the Democrats need a sterling, one-hundred per cent Teflon candidate -- one who can speak clearly without a stumble (unlike John Kerry), one who doesn't have the baggage of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or John Edwards. The Democrats need a winner, a Jack Kennedy for the times -- and let's face it, even he wouldn't have a chance in today's political climate.

There is time to consider a lot of candidates yet. Maybe someone else will emerge from the pack, but for now my money is on Obama.

I'm so glad to read what you've said about that smug lightweight, David Brooks, who I think was just put on earth to irritate me. Let us hope we do not live to see him become the eminence gris of the political Right, and that instead he self-destructs by his own pomposity.

By the way, I've stopped writing my blog, but today will post to direct readers over here.

Daniel Spiro said...

FFH,

I could accuse you of misstating my name as David instead of Daniel, but then again, in my post I repeatedly misspelled Obama's first name. (Maybe I'll fix that later. For now, it's a nice testament to why I can have so much more faith in him than in myself.)

Anyway, what's in a name? And in my case, will I ever learn how to spell? In four and a half decades, it hasn't happened yet.

Finding Fair Hope said...

Major oops! Well, everybody seems to want to call me Mary Louise. Or Mary Louis. Or Mary Anything-Else. "David" just came out as I typed...sorry.

Grammie said...

While you made some excellent points about the importance of "timing" in getting elected, I still believe that Barack Obama is the necessary candidate for 2008. I don't think that we can afford to wait too much longer for the right leader to mature and develop before the time is favorable for him to emerge as a candidate.
Every time that I hear Obama speak I am more convinced that he has the potential to lead this country.
G-d knows we need a truly intelligent and compassionate leader NOW more than ever....someone with integrity and insight who thinks before he speaks.
I am convinced that Obama is that leader.

Daniel Spiro said...

Grammie,

I think I'm less worried about getting Obama elected as I am about making sure that, once elected, he is maximally effective.

Looking at the list of potential candidates, I cannot even imagine a close second to the guy when it comes to talent as a politician. He might have drawbacks of which I am not aware, but I am confident that his strengths should more than compensate for them. Moreover, because those strengths should so obvious to anyone who isn't way far to the right, it's difficult for me not to be confident in his eventual ascendency to the top job in the land. My cynicism about the continued racism in our society doesn't reach the point where I feel that a relatively moderate, multi-cultural candidate would lose a Presidential run purely because of skin color.

That Cleaning Lady said...

I have to have a bit of caution on the side of the race issue (not MY issue mind you). Same as sexism with Hillary. This country's not ready to elect a woman or a multi-racial candidate. I'd be more concerned about Obama's ability to stay alive once elected.
What I have seen and read of Obama, however, leads me to believe he could very well be a Jack Kennedy. Well spoken, thought provoking, and he stands a pulpit like only Jack did. I can hear that voice now, "Ask not what you country can do for you.."