November 22, 2010
Respectable Conservatives Still Don't Get ObamaBy Jack Cashill
If United States Senator Al Franken -- it hurts to say that -- ever had a redeeming moment, it was in the role of Stuart Smalley, a character he created for "Saturday Night Live."
In the most memorable of Smalley's "Daily Affirmations," the lisping, wildly insecure psycho-babbler hosts Michael Jordan. After explaining to his audience that Jordan is "a basketball player for a professional basketball team," Smalley says to him, "You should be very proud of yourself."
"Well, thank you, Stuart," says Jordan, "I am."
Stunned by Jordan's self-assurance, Smalley blunders on:
"I can imagine that the night before a game, you must lie awake thinking, 'I'm not good enough. Everybody's better than me. I'm not going to score any points. I have no business playing this game'."
"Well," answers Jordan in perfect deadpan, "not really."
Not even Stuart Smalley would accuse Jordan of narcissism. In real life, as in the Smalley skit, Jordan simply exhibited the confidence that comes with being the world's best practitioner of his art.
From the beginning, too many "respectable" conservatives have thought of Barack Obama as a political Michael Jordan, the best and brightest the system had to offer. Jonathan Last works off this assumption in his current Weekly Standard article, "American Narcissus." Dinesh D'Souza did the same in his recent book, The Roots of Obama's Rage. So too did much of the respectable conservative media (RCM) in the months leading up to the 2008 election.
Whereas William Buckley would have challenged the assumption, son Christopher bought in. "I've read Obama's books, and they are first-rate," he wrote in endorsing Obama weeks before the election, "He is that rara avis, the politician who writes his own books. Imagine."
David Brooks, who graduated from the Weekly Standard to the New York Times in 2003, proved no more discerning. "I remember distinctly an image of -- we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant," Brooks wrote of Obama, "and I'm thinking, a) he's going to be president and b) he'll be a very good president."
No self-described conservative proved more effusive than columnist Kathleen Parker. In an article days before the 2008 election, she hailed Obama as "more Reaganesque than Reagan" and, in a corollary reflex, disowned Sarah Palin, "the winking wonderwoman of Wasilla."
In easily the best moment on the otherwise-unwatchable new CNN show "Parker Spitzer," documentarian John Ziegler confronted the RCM princess on her pre-election affection for the would-be president. "You were duped by the media," said the charming pit bull Ziegler.
"No, I'm not going to say I was duped," said Parker, but of course, she was -- if not by the media, then by her own blithering self-esteem. Like so many on the respectable right, she envisioned Obama in the same smart kids' club in which she saw herself.
Although Jonathan Last can think rings around Parker, he writes about Obama as if he were a narcissistic Jordan, a flawed superstar. Superficially, of course, Obama would seem to identify with the Michael Jordans of the world. As Last observes, in 2004, at the time of his breakthrough speech at the Democratic Convention, Obama exulted, "I'm LeBron, baby. I can play on this level. I got some game."
One wonders, however, whether Obama really believes that. In the affirmative action-free zone of basketball, Obama did not have much game. To his everlasting chagrin, he could not start even on his preppy Hawaiian team.
Obama found his game once he hit the mainland, but he had to know that he was flying high only on diversity's wings. Last does not get this. In recounting Obama's glide through the worlds of law, literature, academics, and politics, Last accuses Obama not of fraud, but of vanity.
When, for instance, Obama claimed that he was a "better speechwriter than my speechwriters," Last concedes the point: "Maybe he is a better speechwriter than his speechwriters."
In another instance, Last quotes liberal author David Remnick on Senator Obama's rushed completion of his second memoir: "The one project that did engage Obama fully was work on The Audacity of Hope. He procrastinated for a long time and then, facing his deadline, wrote nearly a chapter a week."
These chapters average nearly fifty pages in length. They are well-written and well-researched. A professional writer, working full time, would be stressed beyond endurance to meet such a deadline. A moonlighting senator, writing longhand, would not have a prayer. Last is a writer. He should know better, but he criticizes only the imagined time Obama spent on the public dime. "Your tax dollars at work," says he wryly.
That gets us back to Obama's vanity. If he were as competent as he appeared to be -- president of Harvard Law Review, brilliant memoirist, dazzling speechwriter -- his vanity might be understandable, but he has never been what he appears to be.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, the New York Times ran an article on what psychologists call the "impostor phenomenon." To measure it, they ask test subjects questions like, "At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck" or "I can give the impression that I'm more competent than I really am."
Although the article had nothing to do with Obama, Obama would surely have scored off the charts had he answered those questions honestly. He has always known that he is not as competent as he has appeared -- as a writer, as a thinker, as a student, as a senator. His "luck" derived from the fact that he grew up almost exactly as privileged white people do but in the body of a black man.
Hearing Obama, his white supporters heard themselves. Seeing him say what he said surprised them, validated them, delighted them with its freshness. In speaking of Obama in early 2007, Joe Biden framed those expectations with dunderheaded clarity. "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American presidential candidate who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
Respectable conservatives allowed themselves to be deceived much as their liberal counterparts were, but without the excuse of political self-interest. For conservatives, the interest has always been personal. By welcoming Obama into their club -- and, in the same spirit, by keeping Sarah Palin out -- they differentiated themselves from their red-blooded allies in what Parker dismissed pre-election as "the right-wing blogosphere."
The problem for the RCM is that they no longer control the information flow. In fits and starts, the blogosphere has done most of the real reporting on Obama. In one of those rare confrontations between blogosphere and RCM, Parker was as defenseless as a piñata before the merry swipes of Ziegler.
D'Souza and Last deserve more respect, but their willful blindness to Obama's limitations limits their own credibility. In the same issue of the Weekly Standard where the Last article appears, for instance, Michael Birkner concludes, "[John] Kennedy did not write Profiles in Courage. He simply took credit for it." To date, no one in the RCM -- Last and D'Souza included -- will even raise similar questions about Obama's books and speeches despite the overwhelming evidence that he had as much help as JFK.
To preserve their respectability, respectable conservatives have chosen to ignore what the blogosphere reports. As a result, when they look at Obama, they still see Michael Jordan and wonder why he is off his game. Out in the blogosphere, we see Stuart Smalley and wonder when the breakdown comes.
Jack Cashill's new book, Deconstructing Obama, will be out in February.