Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Thread

Preparing for my radio talk, I did a little research today. I went to finally watch the entire forty minutes of Reverand Wright's performance on the National Press Club. Oddly, the effect of seeing this the day after California's ruling on the right for gay people to call their union 'marriage,' a common theme crops here...about Obama. Revealed both in Obama's position on gay marriage, and the fact that he spent twenty years listening to Wright without seeming to realize that the liberation theology of his church could pose a political problem.

The common thread that is revealed, I think, is that Obama is, after all, a politician. Like other politicians, he wishes to create a story about himself that plays a bit loose with the riggors of logic. Wright reveals that Obama was brought up in a religiously left-leaning socially activist tradition, no matter how much, when he visits states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, he'd like to inflect his story as one of modest middle-of-the-roadness. The California ruling - in it's detailed ethical clarity - reveals the intellectual fallowness of the "marriage in everything but name" position that, not just Obama, but most politicians hope will please all the people enough of the time.

Actually, it's nice to pull out this thread - and finally see the seams in the Obama persona start to show.

Maybe some topics are just too hot, even for Obama. Explaining the black liberation church to a white audience or the necessity of the word 'marriage' to a 60% population that believes anything-but is good enough, these are third-rail issues that even the electroshock proof Obama has wished to avoid. Though I personally would hope not: for maybe it takes someone with the rhetorical skills of Obama, and the historical luck of the times, to make liberal social justice a heroic idea again; to embrace gay rights as a party platform the way a party once embraced the rights of blacks and women. These would be courageous issues, indeed, and there is hope yet that, given the exigencies of the coming political moment, Obama may decide to take them on.

Thought he hasn't, yet, and the point to take away, I think, isn't that Obama the candidate is a media creation that makes political calculations. Yes, conservatives see a way in now that Obama has been revealed as a politician like the rest of them. But those of us who watched the initial media swooning and subsequent disillusionment with any detatchment all knew that from the start.

What's significant about Obama isn't the persona he needs to create to build his new coalition. It's that at least this particular political creation is willing to take some significant chances to challenge that coalition to rise to do the tough things that need to be done, when he can see a way to make it work: willing to tell black religious audiences to support gay rights, to tell blue-collar workers that a gas tax holiday is a silly idea, to tell Bush/McCain to shove it when it comes to go-it-alone foriegn policy; to say, in some cases (with the glaring exception of NAFTA), what's the right thing to say even though some people don't want to hear it, and continue to stand by his position long enough to turn around a public negative into a public positive. To take positions, occasionally, that are NOT completely poll tested and guaranteed to be intellectually unabrassive.

That's a characteristic that used to be called leadership. After decades of seeing it only in sci-fi fantasies, but not in our politicians, I think what the Obama phenomenon show us is, we're just not used to the idea, yet, that an actual human being can be both a fallible politician, and a leader.

(Wright's bravura performance was but his way of "playing the dozens" with Obama...)

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