A SYMBOLIC ENDING TO THE PAST TWO YEARS
So, here we are, nearly two years since the election of Barack Obama. I won’t soon forget going to the office on the day after that election and seeing people on the streets of D.C. beaming from ear to ear, as if a monkey had been lifted off of their backs. Finally, our nation had matured to the point where we could look past the color of a person’s skin. And the vehicle that allowed us to do this was a tremendously appealing man. Charismatic, supremely intelligent, reflective, calm, dignified, friendly … what’s not to like?
The day after Barack’s election, one of my colleagues and I walked to the Newseum, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the National Gallery of Art. There, displayed in the front of the building, were front pages from all over the world. And with the exception of the Australian paper – which, characteristically, displayed a sporting event – every newspaper highlighted the historic election in America. Like Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, Barack Obama had become more than just another man. He came to symbolize a movement … and a moment in history, one that virtually all Americans, including most of those who opposed his candidacy, could celebrate. Above all else, Barack Obama represented equality of opportunity and freedom for all Americans. But not far under the surface, he represented unity as well. At a time when our nation had become racially and ideologically divided, he promised to bridge the gaps, and thereby enable us to once again take on great projects with buy-in from both Red and Blue states… just like when we used to fight great wars together during the first half of the previous century.
Inauguration Day was almost as magical as Election Day. Barack presided over the greatest party DC has ever had, and the symbolism was flowing once again. Ironically, perhaps the most powerful visual of the day was the image of Dick Cheney in a wheelchair, looking even more Strangelovian than George C. Scott. Ol’ Dick Cheney, snarl and all, was being wheeled into his car and out of our lives. And in his place would be the vitality of Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia. The calendar said it was winter, but the mood said it was spring. America was poised to reclaim her spot as an inspiration to the world, a beacon of progressive ideas.
Unfortunately, the reality hasn’t quite matched the symbolism. Or perhaps it is most accurate to say that every Superman has his kryptonite. And in the case of Barack Obama, that kryptonite wasn’t difficult to find. Barack’s first job was to turn around our moribund economy at a time when Americans are not accustomed to making sacrifices. And his solution, not surprisingly, was to rapidly increase Government spending without enacting a comparable increase in taxes. At first, the GOP went along with him on his spending spree – they had no choice if they wanted to stabilize the economy. But once the economy, and Wall Street in particular, was stabilized, the GOP leadership felt no compunctions about unleashing the kryptonite. It came with a mantra: The National Debt Must Go.
Those four words were taken to heart by every conservative in this land. And the power of those words took on almost Biblical proportions. Conservatives impressed their fiscal conservatism upon their children and recited their mantra when they stayed at home and when they were away, when they lay down and when they rose up. And while I have not yet seen symbols of fiscal conservatism bound as a sign upon anyone’s hands, or inscribed upon the doorposts of anyone’s homes or on their gates, perhaps that is just a matter of time. Clearly, the GOP has realized that as soon as our commitment to fiscal conservatism becomes the new Schema, the holiest of creeds, the ability of Barack Obama to implement transformative progressive reforms will die on the vine.
It was 100 percent pure kryptonite. Poor Barack Obama didn’t know what hit him.
So here we are now, almost two years after history was made, and we’re supposedly about to witness a devastating rebuke to Obama, his Party and his agenda. Some are predicting that the Democrats will sustain a net loss of up to 70 seats in the House, and virtually everyone is predicting that Nancy Pelosi’s speakership will come to an end. The result will be divided government and gridlock – for the GOP will be intent on depriving the President of accomplishments that he could run on in 2012. Gridlock might be just fine in times of prosperity; right now, however, it figures to be tragic, particularly for those who remain locked out of the job market. But no matter, say the elephants who are about to take power, you’ve got to crack a few million eggs to make an omelet.
Those who are looking for the causes of Barack’s downfall during these past two years should obviously start with a focus on the kryptonite. Our national debt was out of hand even before Barack took power. Once the GOP focused their laser beams on that issue, the moderate swing voters were forced to take notice. Only the most ideological Keynesian could deny that the debt needed to be reduced, not expanded. But there were other causes of Barack’s political woes, and these cannot be ignored either. The Supreme Court still belongs to George W. Bush, and it was Bush’s Court who changed the campaign contribution laws to give a HUGE advantage to the traditional Party of big business, the GOP. Plus, as indicated above, Barack did campaign as a transformational candidate, and when he couldn’t deliver transformational change, this sucked all the air out of the Democratic balloon. To be sure, dyed-in-the-wool Democrats can be counted on to vote for their Party. But have they campaigned for their Party? Have they donated to their Party? As the weeks have passed leading up to this election, all the enthusiasm, it seems, has been on the side of the Republicans.
Or so I had thought. Today, however, I realize that somehow, not all hope has died. The passion of the winter of 2008-2009 can indeed be re-kindled. That will become manifest today on the National Mall at noon, when the most popular progressive in the United States takes the stage on the grounds just to the west of the Capitol.
Barack Obama the statesman has had his day, and he may again have other days in the future. But right now, progressive Washington belongs not to a statesman but to an entertainer. Not since the inauguration have I seen any interest on the part of young people to March on Washington, but I’m seeing it today. Every kid wants to be there to pay their respects to their new hero – a man who speaks truth to power, much like Barack did two years ago, before he came to symbolize official Washington, and the gridlock and divisiveness that goes with it. Sure enough, we are hosting friends from Indiana who flew in to attend the rally because – you guessed it – their teenager wanted to be there so badly.
Jon Stewart does not have to worry about all of Barack Obama’s constraints. He can afford to say and do whatever he wants. And if one of his gags falls flat, he then can channel Johnny Carson and make fun of himself for being unfunny. (That was always when Carson was at his funniest, remember?) It’s a perfect vehicle for taking on serious issues – a foolproof vehicle, really. Stewart knows this as well as anyone. “People, relax,” he likes to say. “I’m just an entertainer, just a comedian.” And that entitles him to ridicule anyone and anything that deserves to be torn a new one – all the while having a great time in the process. It’s Jon Stewart’s world, and you’re living in it.
Young people aren’t stupid. They have more time on their hands than we adults and a hell of a lot more energy. They see very clearly whenever a Superman comes along. They saw it in Obama and made all the difference in his fight for the Democratic Nomination. But they could also tell when Barack’s enemies were able to identify and deploy the kryptonite. And now young Americans require a new hero. They still like Barack, but “like” is not enough. They need someone to love. They need Jon Stewart.
So what exactly does Stewart symbolize most? Competence? Intelligence? Impishness? Iconoclasm? Maybe all of the above. But I think he says it best when he points out that he is the kid in the back of the bus firing spitballs, only in his case, the recipients of the spitballs aren’t lovable nerds but the world’s biggest jerks. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing pompous asses brought down a few pegs? Adults like it, kids love it. And well they should. At a time when the country and the world seems to be hopelessly dysfunctional, the spitball seems like the ultimate weapon. At a time when most have given up on our ability to change the world, at least we can rejoice in our freedom to ridicule it.
I like to joke that there is always at least one man that my wife would dump me for in a heartbeat. It used to be Harrison Ford. But today it is Jon Stewart. And all this Jon Stewart affection reminds me of that old Seinfeld episode called The Gymnast, when Seinfeld was dating such an athlete. After frequently pointing out how gymnasts can contort their bodies, he finally tells his friend: “I couldn't believe it. Uh, I mean I thought I was entering a ‘magical world’ of sensual delights, but it was just so ordinary. I mean, there was nothing gymnastic about it.”
Apparently, the feeling was mutual. For at the end of the episode, the gymnast told Seinfeld directly exactly how ordinary he was: “In my country, they speak of a man so virile, so potent, that to spend a night with such a man is to enter a world of such sensual delights most women dare not dream of. This man is known as the "Comedian". You may tell jokes, Mr. Jerry Seinfeld, but you are no Comedian.”
Then she walked off the stage and was never heard from again. But I can guarantee you one thing. At noon today on the National Mall, she’ll be there to celebrate a true comedian – one who actually matters. And my wife and daughters will be right there with her.