May 12, 2008
Obama's Darn LikablityBy James Edmund Pennington
Lurking just beneath all that defiant bravado about Obama's unacceptably left wing voting record, disgusting associates and yawning gap where his experience ought to be, is the unexpressed Republican fear that the charming Illinois Senator just might be that easy-to-live-with guy America wouldn't mind coming home to.
In any event, now that all doubt of Obama's inevitable nomination has been dispelled, it's high time John McCain, his minders and independent supporters acknowledged the enormity of the struggle they face between now and November. The stakes are huge, the political terrain a veritable wasteland, and their opponent singularly formidable.
It should be no difficult task to convince conservatives of the first (the chasm separating McCain and Obama on national defense, federal judges and taxes, to mention but three simplicities, should suffice). No sane person disputes the wretchedness of the political terrain. But there is disturbing talk among McCain supporters about the alleged weakness of the opponent. One hears and reads about a possible McCain walkover, stemming, variously, from Obama's hard left voting record, his inexperience, his awful associations or some combination of the three. These are all indeed legitimate campaign issues and themes, and they need to be hammered home ruthlessly, but any talk of making an easy case against Obama should cease.
Sensible McCain supporters need to begin this struggle with the following painful acknowledgement: on a personal level Barack Obama is one of the most ingratiating, likeable, least threatening, and intelligent-seeming men to run for the Presidency in the last hundred years.
There. Though I would no more vote for him than for Robespierre, I said it. It is a fact of consequence that needs to be faced.
In personal gifts relevant to political success, only three Americans during the twentieth century merit mention with Obama: Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan. This trio, as the historically well-schooled will recall, shared not only great political talent, but a common destiny: they all won.
So let's have no more talk of how much obviously weaker an opponent Obama is than what's-her-name. He is formidable enough, particularly for the execrable circumstances we confront.
I can almost sense the rage of the convinced rising up in blogosphere : "He is the most dangerous leftist to run for the presidency in a hundred years, perhaps ever;" "His odious associations will sink him like a concrete block." "He has the most Liberal voting record of any United States Senator." "He is a typical academic elitist who can't relate to the common man." Yes, yes, yes. All true. But there's a problem: to me -- a reliably conservative, serious and dour male of considerable vintage -- Obama seems like a nice guy.
This confession angers you? It's keeping me awake nights with worry.
Justice Scalia put the Republican dilemma nicely when he explained why he and Ruth Bader Ginsburg like each other so much and get long so well: "Some very good people have some very bad ideas," he observed, simply and intelligently. To fit the ever prescient Scalia's thought to the Obama situation, can we safely assume that a majority of voters won't simply refuse to believe that someone so pleasant as Obama could possibly share any of the views of the creeps he's consorted with?
A bit of history that seems relevant to the present situation: In 1980, back when communication was effected through messages chipped into stone tablets carried by horses, Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency against an incumbent named Carter. Carter enthusiasts breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Republican nomination was settled. They all knew their man was in trouble, but what luck! The Republicans had nominated an out-of-the-mainstream right wing extremist! The only man Carter could beat! Reagan's overall world view in fact was probably somewhat to the right of most Americans'. But in the event, Reagan won in a landslide, tremendously assisted by his ingratiating manner. There's more, of course, to why he won, but no one would dispute the importance of his manner.
People simply couldn't believe that a man as nice as Reagan, as warm, as humorous, self-deprecating, unthreatening, and pleasant to listen to, could be dangerous. Sound like anyone you've heard of recently?
Of course, Reagan's conservatism, though probably somewhat more intense than the country's as a whole, was more in synch with 1980 America than Obama's liberalism is with the America of today. But in the Youtube, three TVs in-every-house era, would you bet the SEP IRA that Obama's undeniable affability will not trump his apparent politics?
I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, to observe that Barack Obama could turn out to be the Ronald Reagan of the left -- just nice enough to make his alleged political persona and entourage seem implausible and/or unimportant to a large segment of the great American middle.
One of the possibly unintended consequences of our amazing technology is that today an enormous percentage of our huge, three hundred million plus, citizenry regularly hears, sees, and feels it knows, a would-be President, a far greater percentage than achieved such familiarity during, say, the time of Washington (who got to be the President of a cozy little nation of about four million, while remaining a total stranger to all but a few thousand people).
But today, through technology, more or less all of America lives with its president, almost like family. He is in our living rooms and kitchens every evening. As Cole Porter whimsically penned, we come home to him. Would Obama be nice to come home to? To a lot of ordinary people, particularly those in the electorally critical and generally non-ideological middle, the answer to that question is more to be sought in easily perceptible manner than in obscure substance.
It worries me that I don't mind listening to Obama. I don't mean what he actually says, of course, which is either airy nonsense or garden variety hyper-liberal utopianism, but his manner of talking. As he talks, he actually seems to be translating current thoughts into words, to be engaging in what we used to call conversation. He doesn't yell. His voice rises and falls at appropriate moments. He has humor. He benefits from possession of a pleasantly modulated, mellifluous voice that tends to calm and sooth rather than to excite.
Compare that to the speech patterns of those inflicted on us by recent history, as either presidents or would-be presidents.
In the late 70's I had to turn off any electronic device that brought the sanctimonious, unctuous Carter into my house. My skin crawled when he spoke.
I grabbed just about as quickly for the power switch when the humorless, trite, lethally boring Mondale or Dukakis started to talk.
Reagan, of course, was a brief exception -- a man America liked to listen to -- but that was a long time ago, and even Reagan, in the later years of his presidency, as he aged, had his problems without a written text.
Bush Senior never encountered a thought he couldn't mangle in English, so actually listening to him was not only like work, but unpleasant.
The raspy-voiced Clinton (Bill), contrary to popular myth, was also a hard listen, not just because he usually seemed to be recovering from bronchitis, but because he was always cutting too fine a point and bloviating a one minute thought into a thirty minute verbal assault. And in the latter stages of his presidency, of course, his infamously loathsome conduct made one immediately wonder, when his voice was heard, whether the women-folk were safely inside the house and the silverware secured.
Gore, so far as I'm aware, has never really talked at all, rather, he has yelled, raged and fulminated, an unfailingly loud, angry and desperate-seeming man -- attacks of nervousness and temporary hearing loss were always risks when he was on, so with him, too, people tended to move the dial to the "off" position.
Kerry was so flat-out nauseating when he spoke it was hard to keep food down; no event, however serious, up to and including the end of the universe, could possibly warrant all that faux Brahmin-accented, relentlessly ponderous, fake gravity.
Clinton (Hillary) may well have lost the nomination because of her unfortunate speaking voice, combined with her curse of invariably sounding rehearsed and false; but mostly it was the voice, grating, harsh, vocal chords all used up, a mediocre mezzo ten years past advisable retirement.
And then there is our present President. This is hard for me, because I genuinely like and respect the man, and I admire his major decisions, choices and policies. To me he is an enormously sympathetic figure, especially now, in the final agony of his unfairly pilloried presidency. Posterity will be much kinder to him than his contemporaries have been. Kinder to him, I said, not to his use of language. He can't talk extemporaneously. Period. He admits it, jokes about it and there are no dissenters from this truth.
In sum, it's been a long time since the White House occupant, or anyone with a serious chance of becoming one, has been easy to listen to. As long as one disregards what he's actually saying, which, as I say, many normal people automatically do when listening to a politician, Obama is pretty easy on the ears. This salutary gift, and the personal likeability that comes with it, is going to be a considerable asset in his coming struggle against (yet another) verbally challenged Republican.
The McCain team, and its independent supporters, needs to think fast, hard and seriously about all this. For what it's worth, I vote to tag Obama early, hard and often with the truth about who he is politically and whom he will bring to Washington. And to do so bluntly, using all the visual and factual aids he and those closest to him have provided. Outrage will immediately issue forth from all the usual places, but this is no time for squeamishness. Selling the substantive reality will be hard, because it is so at variance with the persona. Rely on the obvious, and repeat it often.
If not this, what? Substance aside, who would you rather come home to?
James Edmund Pennington is the pen name of an attorney.