GREAT MEN OF TEFLON
With seventeen days left until the election, the GOP seems to be heading for a train wreck. John McCain, having lost all three debates according to the polls, is reduced to authorizing sleazy robo calls by the same firm that slimed him eight years ago. Apparently, his irreligious brand of uber-patriotism doesn’t require him to follow the Golden Rule. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, who still feels no need to answer the media’s questions, was campaigning in North Carolina, where she praised the audience for living in one of the “pro America areas of this great nation.” I guess that means that they won’t be supporting Barack Obama, who was publicly referred to by Congresswoman Michelle Bachman (Rep. MN) as “very anti-American.” Pity today’s GOP – they’re stuck with Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore when they would have obviously preferred Lee Atwater and Joseph McCarthy.
Yes, “my friends,” I am beginning to feel the death rattle of a campaign. Their only hope left is the Bradley Effect. Secret racists are going to have to come out of the woodwork on election day like cockroaches, especially in purple states like Virginia and Colorado, which are giving Barack his seemingly comfortable margin. It could happen. But right now, it is really looking like America is going to give Sarah Palin and the First Dude a few more years to take out their binoculars and protect us all from the Commies across the Strait.
Frankly, the probable outcome just makes sense. We seem to be at the beginning of the worst economic crunch since the Great Depression. The Republicans had been in power for more than eight years when the market crashed in 1929. Now, we’ve had nearly eight years of light and breezy Republican rule leading up to our present economic mess. Who can blame the voters for wanting to try something different, particularly given that the last Democratic President presided over the greatest stock market boom in decades?
For me, though, I don’t want to focus on one party versus another. I’d prefer to focus on a few individuals. Namely, those 20th century American statesmen who have most achieved “greatness” – or perhaps I should say, who have had “greatness thrust upon them.” What do you say we pick one from each party? I nominate Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Roosevelt took office when the nation’s economy had hit rock bottom. Viewing that economy as the victim of benign neglect on the part of the government, FRD aggressively summoned governmental power by means that would have previously been viewed as “socialist” by most Americans. As a result, he provided the stimulus our economy needed to get back on its feet. For this, and for his subsequent command of the American military during World War II, he was elected not once, not twice, but four times.
Yes, “my friends,” Roosevelt made mistakes – serious mistakes. As a Jew, I am duty bound to remind you of his appalling conduct in preventing boats containing German Jews from finding safe haven in the United States. Despite possessing clear information about anti-Semitic atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people (my own grandmother was presented a book entitled “Hitler Terror” in February 1934), FDR callously sent these passengers back to Europe … and the ovens.
So no, Roosevelt was no saint. But he became a hero to the American public, and is now generally beloved by Americans, including even Jewish Americans. Such is the benefit of lifting up a nation from its depths and allowing it once again to dream of greatness.
It’s exactly what Ronald Reagan did five decades after the Great Depression. Just think back to the White House that Reagan inherited. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had become an almost tragic figure. When he would address the nation about our great “malaise,” I could have sworn that we were being led by Droopy Dog. Unlike Droopy, however, Carter could hardly be an object of pity. He was just too damned sanctimonious. Watching him occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was like watching a clinical depressive blaming everyone but himself for his problems.
Carter’s Presidency was going badly enough when a group of Iranians decided to seize American hostages. Talk about Murphy’s Law! Carter appeared powerless to do anything in response to the terrorists, and Americans felt like laughing stocks. We were obviously desperate for a change. Even a former B-actor who didn’t seem especially intelligent or hard working and who resided on the far right wing of American politics came across by comparison as a breath of fresh air. And so Ronald Wilson Reagan was elected.
One of the things I’ve learned from my dear friend (and nearly the next Senator from Oregon) Steve Novick is that every Democrat needs at least one modern Republican politician to admire. (I’m sure this applies in reverse to Republicans, but I’ll let them speak for themselves on that score.) For Novick, that beloved Republican is Richard Milhous Nixon. For me, it has become Ronald Reagan.
Readers of this blog have read enough of my praise for Reagan in previous posts, so I’ll try not to be too redundant. Suffice it to say, for present purposes, that Reagan shrewdly took advantage of the fact that this nation was ready for bolder, more assertive leadership and implemented a vision combining an aggressive foreign policy with a commitment to laissez-faire economics. We disagree fundamentally on domestic policy, but I cannot deny that he was effective in carrying out the policies that he promised to advocate when campaigning for the office of President. And as for his foreign policy record, is there any doubt that Reagan behaved brilliantly in putting the God-forsaken Cold War out of its misery?
Believe me, “my friends,” I haven’t always been a fan. When they named our local airport after the Gipper, I winced. With the passage of time, though, I came to appreciate Reagan for his honesty, his clarity of vision, and for achieving some very tangible and profound results. As conservative Republicans go, he’s clearly my favorite. And so, when I hear his fellow travelers refer to the man as “great,” I acknowledge the truth of their statement. Similarly, when I heard the Clintons bash Barack this past winter for giving the Gipper his due, I was indignant. No modern politician who hopes to unify this nation, and God knows that we have to do something about our presently polarized state, can ignore altogether the genius of Ronald Reagan. That would be as crazy as ignoring the genius of FDR.
Well, “my friends,” you wouldn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know where I’m going with this. We have now come to yet another fork in the road in American history. Nobody yet should be talking about The Great Depression II, but our economy has clearly reached crisis proportions. Forget the fact that we’ve lost a zillion dollars in paper assets during the past several weeks. The fact remains that we live in a society where people have become addicted to living beyond their means and where our workforce is no longer the world’s envy when it comes to education and training. We’re also fighting a seemingly endless two-front war with a military that is stretched like an old rubber band. Not surprisingly, comparisons made between the modern U.S. and the Roman Empire at the time of Nero are becoming more and more frequent.
That’s right, “my friends,” the soup we’re in is pretty thick – just like it was in 1932 and 1980. It’s obviously time for a brand spanking new approach, and a new political party to spearhead that approach. But more to the point, it’s time for the American public to get behind the leader who has the stones to step up and take the reigns. Many right wingers would lament the fact that America allowed FDR to create one alphabet soup government agency after another, but history has looked kindly on the economic policies of Mr. Roosevelt. Similarly, many of my fellow liberals wish that we had fought Reagan tooth and nail when he came to power. But even though I disagree with so much of what he did, I have to admit that it was the GOP’s turn in 1980 to grab the national wheel and taker her around for a spin. Call it democracy. Call it faith in experimentation. Call it the right of every American to see what would happen if we took government off the people’s back.
Well … Americans have the same right to see what would happen if, after a period of unbridled capitalism run amuck, we insert some powerful governmental controls. I’m convinced that Barack Obama will do just that, while never forgetting that this is NOT a socialist country. To me, anyone who labels Barack as a creature of the far left is either ignorant or engaging in demagoguery. Barack is a center-left politician who is about to assume control over a country that is center-right at a time when a leftward swing is not only inevitable but necessary. His ability to lead effectively is largely a function of whether the opposition party attempts to rally around him (the way the Democrats rallied around George W. Bush during the first year and a half after 9/11) or whether they attempt to thwart him. We’ve grown accustomed to the latter treatment during the decades after Reagan left office, and the result has been a do-nothing Congress and a government mired in gridlock. But can we really afford more gridlock? Does anyone seriously think that the world economy would benefit from a Calvin Coolidge-type approach coming from Washington? It’s a scary prospect.
Roosevelt and Reagan were men of Teflon. Given the conditions under which they took office and their clear accomplishments after they assumed command, nothing their opponents threw at them ever seemed to stick, or at least not for long. That explains FDR’s four Presidential wins and Reagan’s ability to win 49 states in 1984. John McCain and his McCarthyesque running mate are beginning to realize that Barack Obama has some of the same Teflon qualities. But can he retain that Teflon if he is elected?
I’ll freely admit that, as a politician, Barack has been damned lucky. He ran for U.S. Senate against a Republican who was forced to quit due to scandal. That Republican was replaced by a carpetbagger whose mouth seemed to run about ten times faster than his brain. Moreover, now that Barack is running for President, he finds himself opposing a party with an approval rating of less than epsilon and a candidate who has neutralized his one advantage (greater experience in government) by nominating a neophyte for Veep who apparently can’t identify a single newspaper or magazine that she reads. No question, Barack has received his share of fortunate breaks.
Still, “my friends,” this man hasn’t merely had greatness thrust upon him. From where I’m sitting, he owes his accomplishments primarily to what he has achieved. It has now been more than twenty months since Barack kicked off his campaign on a cold February day in Springfield, Illinois. During these past 600+ days, he has spent virtually the entire time under the nation’s microscope. And from what I can tell, he made only one stupid mistake ; he referred to Pennsylvania’s Reagan Democrats as “bitter.” That’s one boo-boo. One fumble. One bogey. In more than twenty months.
So Barack has been incredibly steady and disciplined. But he hasn’t merely grinded par after par. He’s made plenty of birdies, and more than a few eagles. His speech after winning in Iowa was brilliant. His speech after losing in New Hampshire was even better. He went on to deliver other brilliant speeches – one about race effectively shut down the Jeremiah Wright red herring, and another was at the Convention, where he cleverly toned down his oratory and provided a few more details about his agenda. But Barack is more than just a modern-day Demosthenes. Let’s not forget the incredible organization that he has put together. This organization could conceivably effectively neutralize the Bradley Effect: even though more rednecks will vote against the “Negra” man than they are willing to admit to pollsters, the pollsters may also be underestimating the number of new voters whom the Obama organization will be bringing to the polls. Barack’s organization has also done a masterful job at fundraising, destroying the famed Clinton machine in the winter and breezing by the Republicans this fall.
Barack’s greatest accomplishment may be the way he has effectively navigated between the Scylla and Charybdis of modern American race relations. If he came across as a tad more subdued or understated, he’d be branded as another passive “Democratic Loser,” like Dukakis or Mondale. But if he dared come out firing with too much heat, he’d be viewed as another “angry black man.” Hell, he’s already been called “uppity” by a Congressman despite having behaved like a perfect gentleman.
Just imagine how white America would view Barack if he had acted with half the petulance or arrogance that McCain brought to the debates. Fortunately, we haven’t had to worry about that; even conservative pundits have acknowledged that Barack has consistently displayed perfect pitch in his demeanor. In the end, it is that demeanor – Barack’s seemingly steady hand – that will likely trump all the other factors in these perilous times to earn Barack the Presidency.
That’s right, “my friends,” Barack has come across as cool as Eastwood. As cool as Reagan. As cool as Tiger. How’s that for EQ. Not bad for the first African-American President in the history of the Harvard Law Review.
So let’s say that the odds-makers are correct and Barack wins a comfortable victory. Or let’s say that even cynics like me are correct and that, despite a significantly underestimated Bradley Effect, Barack wins a squeaker. What then? Will he become a President made of Teflon? Or one, like “Still-President Bush,” made of Velcro?
I can’t yet answer that question. But the future of this nation for decades may hinge on that answer. Can we really afford to have another four to eight years of partisan pugilism and Potomac paralysis? We need to lead the world, and not with our cries about responding to imaginary weapons of mass destruction but with our responses to very real weapons of economic and environmental degradation. Are we going to cede that leadership role to Europe? Or Asia? Or do we plan once again to be a player on the international stage? If so, we need a heck of a lot of unity here at home – the same kind of unity that we had during Roosevelt’s war against the Nazis or Reagan’s war against the Russians.
Barack doesn’t appear to be the man of vision that Reagan was. Nor do I see from him the passion of, say, a Martin Luther King. But what I do see is an incredible IQ to match his incredible EQ. And, more specifically, I see his ability and willingness to assemble the best and brightest advisors available on a range of issues, mine their collective wisdom to identify sound positions, and then artfully sell those positions to the public.
Such qualities, “my friends,” are precisely what we will need in our next leader.