Saturday, January 12, 2008

THE NATURAL

On July 27, 2004, the same day I turned 44, I sat in my mother’s living room mesmerized by the television set. It was showing the Democratic National Convention, and the nominee, John Kerry, had selected a young state senator from Illinois to give the keynote address. On that night, the speaker, Barack Obama, was introduced to the American public. Obama’s address, entitled “The Audacity of Hope,” positioned him as a mainstream progressive who, with good looks, a gifted flair for rhetoric, and a biracial background, would appear to represent the future of American politics. Still in his early 40s, he seemed years, perhaps even decades, from reaching the pinnacle of his power, but there was no question that the sky was the limit. This man, stated simply, was a natural.

Obama made many fans that night. But few could possibly have been more impressed than I was. That address, you see, came at a pivotal time in my life. I was late in the editing stages of my first novel, The Creed Room, which is both a story and an exposition of my personal philosophy. Like all first time novelists, I was insecure about my prospects for publication, or for that matter, the quality of my work. That’s when I saw Obama speak. He seemed to personify just the type of statesman I had been calling for in that book. And that fact accomplished two things. First, it told me, once I saw the incredible reaction to the man, that my book was on to something, Second, it made me feel that The Creed Room wasn’t quite as original as I had thought. There was at least one man out there, I realized, who hardly needed to read the book. He instinctively understood everything I was saying and, unlike me, was in a position to make my vision a reality.

For those of you who prefer blogs to books, The Creed Room is about a group of people, largely strangers to one another, who are brought together by a mysterious “benefactor” to formulate a new creed for humankind. The members of this group spanned a wide spectrum of religious and political ideologies, but they tended to be relatively religious and relatively progressive – like I am. Like Obama is. Their host paid them handsomely to take their divergent views and somehow weave them into a coherent philosophy, which they ultimately coined “Empathic Rationalism.” That is how this blog got its title.

For me, the process of writing the book led to several conclusions germane to my appreciation for Obama.

First and foremost, there exist a number of fundamental problems with our nation and our world that we must tackle soon, or else the consequences could be quite dire. I would suggest that global warming is one such example, and the ongoing war between the Israelis and Palestinians is another.

Second, we will never be able to reach a complete consensus on what these issues are, let alone how we should attack them, but that fact need not sober us, because a complete consensus isn’t necessary to solve these problems well enough.

Third, we may legitimately hope for a solution because we are able, if we try, to form a critical mass of people who will work together in support of common goals. This occurred, for example, when our nation doggedly fought WWII.

Fourth, we will never be able to reach even the “critical mass” stage in tackling a key social problem without the agreement of corporate America … or should I say, the critical mass of corporate America. Similarly, corporate America and its political allies cannot successfully tackle key social problems without the agreement of at least the critical mass of American progressives. Sure they can cut taxes for the rich (and have done so, as we all can attest) … but beyond that, their powers are limited.

Fifth, in order to form coalitions among groups with different ideologies, we need to enrich our national dialogue. This means that we need to foster a culture in which people are: open minded; genuinely interested in public policy matters; willing to listen as much as to talk about these issues; and are compelled to treat their opponents’ arguments with respect, rather than resorting to strawmen and other rhetorical techniques to discredit those arguments. (Whenever I give a talk on The Creed Room, I always quote John Stuart Mill’s line that “In all intellectual debates, both sides tend to be correct in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny.” That still applies two centuries after Mill wrote it.)

Sixth, it is not enough that our culture needs to embrace the dialogue in its most respectful and positive forms. We need leaders to model this approach – leaders in business, in the entertainment industry, and most importantly, in government.

Seventh, our greatest leaders – those who are most responsible for creating the sea change that removes us from our national malaise (currently, we resemble ancient Rome during its time of decline) – must help us bridge what has become perhaps the most formidable chasm in our nation today. I am referring to the ideological gulf between the religious right and the secular left. The leaders I am envisioning have to be widely respected among both such categories of people. They certainly can’t inspire visceral distaste – by being viewed, for example, as unethical or hypocritical. Rather, they must inspire action to tackle the problems before us. The key concept is that they must be able to inspire, and to do so broadly. Otherwise, they’ll never prove effective in moving the critical mass of the nation, which surely must include plenty of people on both sides of the chasm.

As I formulated these ideas, I found myself wondering if the battle was hopeless. I hadn’t, for example, seen too many leaders who met the criteria set forth in the previous two paragraphs. Then came July 27, 2004. It was at that point that the audacity of my hope was reinstated. We had a man who could lead us – all of us. We had a man who instinctively possessed the qualities needed to turn this nation into one big Creed Room, and to lead us in tackling together our biggest problems … one at a time.

Simply consider the qualities Barack Obama exemplifies. Merely by looking at the guy you can’t help but think of such as ideas as “melting pot” and “unity.” In addition, he is a former president of the Harvard Law Review, so he’s obviously intelligent. In fact, he exudes a mental capacity even more than intelligence: thoughtfulness. This guy is professorial without being didactic. He obviously loves to think things through, but he isn’t simply interested in his own thoughts; he wants to learn from others as well. And it is perhaps those qualities that give him such good judgment, including the judgment to buck the trend among ambitious politicians and reach the correct view on the critical issue of the last several years -- whether to support the Iraq War from its inception.

On July 27, 2004, I didn’t know where he stood on that war, but I’m not surprised he got it right. I would trust his judgment more than a seasoned politician simply because of the intellectual qualities he possesses.

Let me pause at this point and say that Obama is not the only candidate in the race to be both exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful. Hillary’s proponents would argue – perhaps correctly, who am I to say – that she possesses both qualities as well. I’ve never seen her operate in small groups; perhaps she would indeed surprise me with her ability to listen and chew on ideas. But despite all that, Hillary voted to authorize that Iraq War and she has tied herself in knots about the War ever since. The reason appears to be her moral compass. Ultimately, she made a political calculation that being pro-war was the best way to advance her personal ambitions. And it is that sort of power-over-principle attitude that leads roughly half of this nation – enough to prevent any critical mass from forming -- to viscerally distrust her.

Obama, as a politician, is surely not above casting votes in favor of expediency. But he – like McCain – comes across as a man for whom expediency has its limit. Sure he’ll say he’s against the right of gays to marry, even though I’d speculate that he personally would support that right if politics weren’t involved. Yet as much as I care about gay marriage – and readers of The Creed Room know I care about it a lot – it’s not as important as whether to authorize a massive war. On something like that, Barack has always seemed unwilling to compromise his integrity.

I know from the practice of law that some litigators trade above all else on their reputation for integrity, whereas others trade on different things – like their willingness to fight like hell for their client and never back down. Barack is in the former camp. For him, his reputation for ethical excellence is everything – much like it is for McCain. (That partially explains why McCain’s popularity did such a nosedive when he was viewed a little while back as a sell-out to the religious right. That reputation has improved again as we’ve all watched him take on the mainstream of his party on such issues as torture and immigration. McCain is the rare politician whose reputation might actually improve by taking positions contrary to the majority.) As I watched Obama’s keynote address, I said to myself that this is a man who will think long and hard before he would get himself mixed up in a Watergate or a Monicagate.

From the previous paragraph, you can tell that in some important ways, I respect McCain as a fundamentally moral man who can bring together people on different sides of the aisle to get things done for our mutual benefit. But McCain is hardly the kind of inspirational leader we need to usher in the necessary sea change. Take it from a writer who is condemned to being perennially prosaic: McCain speaks in prose; Obama speaks in poetry. And while prose might be interesting, it is poetry that inspires.

I would imagine that most of you have, by now, watched Obama’s “concession” speech after the recent New Hampshire primary. That may have been one of the most poetic and inspiring speeches in our nation’s history. It might not rank up there with the “I Have a Dream” speech or the “Gettysburg Address,” but I dare say that it has a place at the next level. Perhaps William Jennings Bryan or Daniel Webster would disagree. Perhaps. Then again, prior to July 2004, I had thought of their species as extinct. Obama’s keynote address was probably not the equal of his oration in New Hampshire, but it was damned good enough that you could see the potential. And let’s face it – here is a man, here is a genius, whose best days are ahead of him. Hillary uses that argument as a reason not to vote for him, and many people seem willing to buy into that. But folks, remember the first of the seven Creed Room principles stated above. We have some issues that need to be tackled right now! Can we really afford to wait a full nine years before we tackle global warming? Can we really afford to elect a President like Hillary or McCain who might say the right things but is unable to lead our nation and our world to action?

Permit me to quote from a recent column by E.J. Dionne, Jr., one of my favorite political columnists:

“If Mrs. Clinton's answers come off as well-intended lectures, Mr. Obama is offering soaring sermons and generational opportunity. In 1960, the articulate Adlai Stevenson compared his own oratory unfavorably to John F. Kennedy's. ‘Do you remember,’ Mr. Stevenson said, ‘that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, 'How well he spoke,' but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, the people said, 'Let us march.' ‘At this hour, Mr. Obama is the Democrats' Demosthenes.’”

That potential was clear to many of us on July 27, 2004. And that alone makes Obama unique. But that wasn’t what thrilled me the most about watching his keynote address. Go back to the seventh point I raised above in discussing The Creed Room. Now think about Demosthenes. If you put that legendary Greek orator in a time machine and brought him to the present, we would all see that he is an immensely talented speaker. Maybe he could even inspire us to action. But he couldn’t bridge our fundamental chasm … after all, he lived hundreds of years before Jesus and a millennia before Muhammad. I somehow doubt that his views could speak to the issues about spirituality that so divide us today.

Obama is different. As I watched that keynote address and listened to him focus so heavily on religion … that’s when my hope reached its crescendo. Here was a politician who clearly appreciated the need for separation between “church” and “state.” He understood, in other words, that the government should not promote one religion over others, or even religion over non-religion, let alone abridge the freedom of religious exercise. He also believed that the fundamental values of religion are consistent with those of progressive politics – the imperatives of caring for and educating the poor, respecting the dignity of all people, honoring the rights of minorities, preserving civil liberties, working together with other nations for peace (rather than attempting to impose peace on other nations), etc. But … here was a man who was also thoroughly grounded in spirituality. And to know this man the way we all come to know our Presidents would inevitably require that we perceive that deep love of religion that he brings to all walks of life. Even many members of the religious right would come to appreciate that sincere religiosity. And that thought pleased me no end.


When I get into political discussions with supporters of other candidates, I sometimes hear the criticism that Obama is an “empty suit” or “lacks substance.” I can understand the argument that he lacks “experience,” but “substance”? What people mean by the latter is that he hasn’t enunciated what issue is most important to him and how precisely he hopes to tackle it, or what other issues are nearly as important to him and how precisely he hopes to tackle them as well.

Don’t you see why he hasn’t? Don’t you see why it would be unfortunate if we forced him to? Obama has been honest with us about who he is and why he’s running. He has written books about his checkered personal life, for crying out loud. He has spoken about his cocaine use. He has even said, in reference to another drug, “Yes I inhaled. That was the point.” He has a record of votes that shows he’s a liberal, and while running for President, he hasn’t flip-flopped on that record. He has mentioned some general areas where he’d like to implement reforms. He has even laid out a specific “plan” to address our inadequate health care system.

But the truth is that if you buy my vision for an Obama Presidency, you must know that he needs to remain flexible. Once he wins the election – assuming the nation wakes up before it’s too late, which is often a lousy assumption – he needs to take the temperature of the nation to determine which fundamental changes are ripe for the picking if only we had a modern-day Demosthenes to lead us in making them. Then, he can work to make these changes … one at a time … all the while remembering that it takes a large coalition of conservatives as well as liberals to wage wars, whether they involve killing people on the battlefield, stemming global warming, or alleviating the scourge of poverty.

It is easy enough to assemble a collection of the “Best and the Brightest” and construct ten-point plans for solving society’s problems. But those plans are written in prose. Let’s first of all revel in this man’s poetry. He’s a 46-year-old guy, the child of a goat herder from Africa, who has one name that sounds like Saddam’s and another that sounds like Bin Ladin’s. You’ll forgive him if he feels that he must first make the sale to the masses in poetic language. Only after he’s elected -- only after he has waxed poetically about the need for a particular reform – do we need him to set forth every bloody detail.

“Yes, we can,” Obama said over and over again in his New Hampshire concession speech. “Yes, we can.” There was little use of the first person singular. Like any great spiritual statement, it was nearly all addressed in the first person plural. “We the people,” right? Barack Obama was offering a response to Hillary Clinton’s shameless argument that he had some chutzpah in raising people’s hope excessively. Is that really possible?

We’ve been sitting back and watching our nation grapple with Jim Crow… the Vietnam War … Watergate … Monicagate … taking the lead in creating Global Warming … and now, our mysterious and almost laughable misadventure in Iraq. And someone is being lectured for making us believe in our future. Wow.

I don’t want to lie to myself. I don’t know if Obama can get elected. And if he does get elected, I don’t know if he can sufficiently unify this nation to form the type of critical mass needed to implement necessary changes. But this much I do know: without him, there’s not a lot of gas in our collective tank. And for those of us who call ourselves progressives, or who dare to call ourselves liberals, isn’t it worth taking a chance on someone who can at least use the word “hope” and pass the laugh test?

4 comments:

Betty C. said...

It's funny I would read this post today, Dan. I almost signed up as an Obama supporter this morning after getting an email from the former Kerry campaign explaining Kerry's endorsement of Obama. But then I held back, actually feeling like I couldn't set myself up for being hurt again.

I know this sounds really strange, but the past two elections have made me suffer so atrociously that I almost feel I can't put myself on the line. So I told myself "wait until Super Tuesday and see how it's looking."

I never would have thought that way before w. and before Iraq. It's like they've taken something out of me.

Daniel Spiro said...

As I long time fan of lousy sports teams -- and losing politicians -- I'm used to atrocious suffering. While I can't ask anyone to give money to a political candidate (due to the Hatch Act), I can say that I don't let past losses affect my interest in politicians or sports teams. Call it stubbornness. Or defiance.

Betty C. said...

Somehow that response doesn't inspire me that much!

Daniel Spiro said...

Well then, let me say it this way.

The Democratic race is wide open. It's basically coming down to two people, or so it appears: Clinton and Obama. Both have a very good chance.

Clinton was the leader two weeks ago. Last week it was Obama. Now it's Clinton again. In two weeks, it might be Obama. That's the way I suspect this race will go for a while.

To use the sports metaphor again, it's probably the third quarter and the game is close. I suspect it will be decided on Super Tuesday, but even that might be wrong. It could, theoretically, go all the way to the Convention. In fact, on the Republican side, that is even more possible.