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July 31, 2008
I had planned to write on several other topics today, but they can wait. Senator Barack Obama’s carefully-orchestrated nine-day publicity-seeking presidential campaign swing through the Middle East and Europe pushed more important issues off the political stage and resulted in a deluge of political and news media commentary, in which I decided to join.
First, my basic reaction to the Obama candidacy, an opinion certainly not ameliorated by his performance in Europe:
I don’t believe there has been a presidential nominee as lacking in demonstrated leadership capability and significant political experience since Republican Warren G. Harding was elected president 88 years ago.
Harding, with an undistinguished record as an Ohio newspaper publisher and equally undistinguished record as a United States Senator for six years, won with 60 percent of the vote in 1920. One of his biographies refers to his “vibrant speaking voice.” Undistinguished Senate record, vibrant speaking voice. Does that description bring any current political figure to mind?
More personal opinions:
I wonder whether Obama and his handlers realize that his public-appearance-dominated, egocentric, nine-day journey to the Middle East and Europe may actually cost him votes? I believe this will certainly be the case if Republicans—whose campaign for Senator John McCain has been something less than inventive—can find ways to keep Obama’s lack of experience—not significantly ameliorated by a nine-day sprint through the Middle East and Europe—and his overweening ego alive as legitimate, major issues.
Obama’s speechwriters had to be quite busy, of course, to draft remarks for his nine-day journey, so perhaps an occasional blooper was inevitable. For example: Obama’s speech to that much-publicized crowd of 200,000 in Berlin included these words: “The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand.”
Was the “old allies” language supposed to apply to the United States and Germany? Americans were willing to establish a supportive foreign aid program and military cooperation with West Germany following World War II, at least in part to keep all of Germany from falling behind the communist iron curtain. But it’s hard to think of a European country as an “old ally” when you recall that America was twice engaged in bloody warfare with that country in a 28-year-span in World War I and World War II. Some “old ally”!
I really can’t see how a hero’s welcome by a worshipful crowd of Germans will turn on rather than turn off a good many Americans who think that Obama should be running for president of the United States, not president of the world.
Another example of speechwriting subject to challenge: “Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen—a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.” Excusable exaggeration for political effect? Or simply an outright falsehood?
Do you suppose that Obama’s campaign team had arranged the rally, provided an overhead crane to allow photographers to take pictures of the ground and a giant TV screen projecting Obama’s image for all in the crowd to see—did all of these things to persuade the Berlin crowd that Obama was appearing simply as “a fellow citizen of the world”?
If you believe that, be sure to put out milk and cookies by the fireplace next Christmas Eve.
The Los Angeles Times account included this summary of the speech: “The all-but-certain Democratic nominee for president voiced aspirations for a world that abolishes nuclear arms, banishes ‘the scourge of AIDS,’ feeds the poor in Chad and Bangladesh, unites against Muslim extremism and stops global warming.”
One wonders whether, after leading the world to solutions of these formidable problems, Obama will rest on the figurative seventh day.
President Nicholas Sarkozy of France declared after meeting with Obama: “Good luck to Barack Obama. If he is chosen, then France will be delighted.”
France, it should be remembered, is the same country which has long been unpopular with a good many Americans—a country which America helped save from German domination in two world wars and which then repaid the United States with non-cooperation on global security issues following World War II.
With so little in the way of significant experience, how account for the fact that Obama is running strongly in the polls? Several factors are involved here, I believe.
One frequently heard explanation: He’s not Bush.
Then there is John McCain’s age. At 72, he would be the oldest president ever to take office.
Another factor in Obama’s showing is, of course, the fact that he is good looking, relatively young, and eloquent—all of which have led some not unfriendly commentators to say that he has a sort of rock-star appeal to younger voters.
And perhaps the most important factor of all working in Obama’s favor 14 weeks before Election Day: McCain and his staff have not yet developed an effective campaign strategy and tactics.
How about the fact that Obama is half black? Definitely an appeal to liberals and some younger voters, who see his election as atonement for slavery and racial discrimination.
We may never know with certainty whether the appeal of his color to some voters will be offset and possibly turned into a negative when other voters can express their opinions in the privacy of the voting booth.
Switching from my opinions to those of others, let’s start with the views of Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe. Vennochi wrote:
“Barack Obama always was a larger-than-life candidate with a healthy ego. Now he’s turning into the A-Rod of politics. It’s all about him.
“He’s giving his opponent something other than issues to attack him on: narcissism.”
My recollection of Greek mythology was good enough to call up an image of the mythological character named Narcissus, a handsome youth so in love with his own image that he stared at it in a pool of water until he fell in and drowned.
A look at my Columbia Encyclopedia produced this more precise version of the myth: “Narcissus, in Greek mythology, beautiful youth who refused all offers of love, including that of Echo. As punishment for his indifference he was made to fall in love with his own image in a mountain pool. Unable to possess the image, he pined away and was turned into a flower.”
A description of Obama as infatuated with his own image is, I think, appropriate. But, unlike Narcissus, he is certainly eager to accept the love of others—which, ironically, is made less likely as his ego (or “messianic complex,” in the words of a blogger for left-leaning Mother Jones magazine) becomes more and more a part of his public persona.
Columnist Vennochi also offered this cutting comment:
“Before a vote is cast at the convention, he has gone on a foreign policy tour that will use cheering Europeans—and America’s top news anchors—as extras in his campaign.
“What do you expect from a candidate who already has auditioned a quasi-presidential seal with a Latin inscription Vero possumus—‘Yes, we can’”? (Obama did drop that “just call me the president-elect” pseudo presidential seal after three days of ridicule.)
David Brooks of The New York Times said of Obama’s Berlin-performance: “But he has grown accustomed to putting on this sort of saccharine show for the rock-concert masses…his words drift far from reality…Obama has been benefited from a week of good images. But substantively, optimism without reality isn’t eloquence. It’s Disney.”
Brooks pointed out that when John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan made memorable speeches in Berlin, “their rhetoric soared, but their optimism was grounded in the reality of politics, conflict and hard choices.
“Kennedy didn’t dream of the universal brotherhood of man. He drew lines that reflected hard realities: ‘There are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.’
“Reagan didn’t call for a kumbaya moment. He cited tough policies that sparked harsh political disagreements—the deployment of U.S. missiles in response to the Soviet SS-20s—but still worked.”
David Gergen, who seems to lean towards Obama, in a CNN commentary indicated he was turned off by Obama’s show of negotiating with the president of Iraq about U.S. troop withdrawal. Gergen said America has only one president at a time. A presidential candidate shouldn’t be negotiating foreign policy with the head of a foreign government.
The former French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, said that Obama indulged in “some pro-German demagogy on nuclear weapons to get applause.”
The large-circulation German daily newspaper Bild referred to Obama as a “political pop star.”
A front-page story in The New York Times carried this headline: “Obama, vague on issues, is a crowd pleaser in Europe.” The Times story told of the enthusiastic popular reception which Obama received in Europe but added that European governments and politicians “are not so sure” that his rhetoric makes sound political sense. The Times of London, while praising Obama, said that his European tour “loses him ground back home.”
A typical example of the staged show business that accompanied Obama’s nine days in Europe and the Middle East was his press conference in front of Number 10 Downing Street, where he had just met with British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.
Number 10 Downing Street is, of course, the well-known British equivalent of our White House.
A New York Times “news analysis” said Obama’s European tour was a masterful public relations performance but “it also fueled the questions his critics have used to try to undercut him: whether he is arrogant and taking his election for granted.”
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