Sunday, March 13, 2011


March 13, 2011:

Last night we went to a dinner party and several of my closest friends fell into an argument about whether Hillary Clinton would have made a better president than Barack Obama. I was at the other end of the table and couldn't join in, and didn't want to in any case. I've had enough of that one. In 2008 Lorraine and I supported Hillary for the job over Barack, on the grounds that she had more experience, was tougher mentally, had been through the fire and knew how to fight for what she wanted, how to wield power. We almost lost friends because we took this stand; people we knew very well just could not believe we would support Hillary, who had voted for the Iraq war (as had 80 plus other Senators), and they were rather insulting about it. As it has turned out, many of those same people are now deeply disappointed by Barack. He is not the person his speeches persuaded them he was, not a savior from the left but a centrist still trying to find his balance in the midst of the current mindless chaos of American political life, and he has trouble connecting. He is, in fact, very much my kind of person: intellectual, somewhat aloof, and cautious. But I never thought my kind of person would make a good president. Jefferson was my kind of person, and he did not make a very good president and virtually retired from the job in his second term, spending a good deal of it at Monticello.

It makes for an interesting dilemma in any case, both for me personally and for the nation. For me, it becomes a question of finding my own balance between liking the man for the way he thinks and wanting someone stronger, more decisive, more impassioned. Presidents are always in the position of doing what they can, not what they want, and there's very little he can do faced with a loud, radical anti-Obama majority in the House and a tiny pro-Obama majority in the Senate. But he can't seem to make clear, or doesn't want to, what exactly he does stand for and hopes to accomplish; or when he does try to do that, he lacks the common touch that would sell it. He's rational, and politics is not. Politics is about feelings, desires, fear of the future, fear of the present. So I like him, but I don't approve of him. He's the flag fluttering in the wind, not the force of the wind itself. Maybe nobody could be such a force in the current environment, and it's hard to find a politician in any case who would do anything--stand on principle, for example--to jeopardize a second term. And for this nation, at this time, a second term for Obama is essential to our future. Nevertheless I wish he would make more mistakes, go out on a limb once in a while, take real risks. Risk is the dark forest where leaders become great.

As for the nation and its dilemma, I remain skeptical. The nation was formed in the first place out of a loose cantankerous federation of individual states, each with its own interests, some with slaves and some without, some predominantly mercantile, some agricultural, and to a degree it has not progressed very far from that situation. The slave states still resent their losses and insist on celebrating what is essentially a criminal past (in the sense of crimes against humanity), the heartland states still claim a specious moral superiority over the coastal states, which are, thank God, far more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and there is very little common ground to stand on. Each party claims to represent the "real" America, which of course is the home of innocence, natural grandeur, and "freedom," and don't you forget it. We can't seem to grow up. We fight wars for "freedom" without acknowledging to ourselves--and that's the worst of it; it's one thing to lie to others, but to lie to ourselves is truly dangerous--that these wars are actually about our economic interests, most recently about oil, and about maintaining world power. Obama is at least clear on that subject; he is himself a realist and seems to understand that it's one thing to speak to the people of Egypt about freedom and tolerance and quite another to declare a no-fly zone over Libya.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Americans of one sort continue to cling passionately to their nostalgia for a simpler, more straightforward world where the rights of gay people or blacks or women were never an issue and white men could expect to get a good job and raise a family and retire with enough money for a house on the lake; while those of another cling to the ideal of a constantly progressing society where everybody's rights are respected, the poor are given a fair chance and the country as a whole is dedicated to caring for its disadvantaged. Neither sort has much tolerance for the other any more, and zero understanding. The flood waters are rising and each sort struggles for the high ground. Who, indeed, could possibly run such a country? Meanwhile by all the standards by which nations are judged--crime rates; economic mobility; high school and college graduation rates; achievement levels in math and science; health care; infant death rates; obesity levels--we are failing. We stand close to the bottom of the industrialized modern nations on every one of these scales. Yet we continue to deceive ourselves about who we really are. We continue to sleep through this profound and possibly fatal crisis. What we need, I believe, is a leader who is willing to take that risk and speak truth to our inner complacencies, to challenge the self-righteousness we have for too many centuries hidden behind. To wake us up. And I doubt Obama has the stomach for it.