It feels creepy agreeing with Richard Cohen, but I agree with him about "The missing Obama"
Plus: At the WaPo, a pundit is born!
I've often suspected that at least some of Richard Cohen's Washington Post columns are written by the Broder monkeys -- the 500 monkeys at computer keyboards who bang out the columns printed under David S. Broder's byline -- in their spare time.
Say, have you been keeping track of this great America's Next Great Pundit Contest the Washington Post has been running? I noted the announcement back in the day, and even spent whole seconds contemplating entering, but quickly gave up the idea when I accepted that they were serious about wanting a "pundit" as opposed to an insightful and incisive columnist. (Much emphasis was given to performance on video, which I guess is thought to be central to the pundocratic life.) I didn't pay any further attention until yesterday, when I happened to notice that they were already down to two finalists. Wow, head to head!
So, skipping over all the rest of the contest proceedings, I read one of those final entries, "The Palin take on health-care costs," and was so appalled, I couldn't bear to read the other. I guess the guy thought he was being "cool" and comical and casual. It just seemed to me garbled, ignorant, and backward -- truly revolting. I thought it would have been embarrassing in a high school newspaper. After that, I didn't have the heart, or rather the stomach, to read the other final entry.
When I went to get a link for that column, I discovered that there was no need for me to have read the second piece; the one I had read, by one Kevin Huffman ("I'm a Teach for America executive and a former lawyer and first-grade teacher. An Ohio native, I live in Washington and find the city puzzling, amusing and amazing" -- isn't that just charming? bleahhh!), was the winner!
By "pundit," of course, what the Post means is somebody who'll throw out a heap of opinions that sound slightly offbeat but always reinforce good old mainstream orthodoxy -- a true Village voice. The paper's opinion pages already have quite a lot of these. I would have thought the last thing America needed was another one.
But then, the Old Pundits can't go on forever. As we already know, David S. Broder hasn't written a column in years, possibly decades, that chore having been turned over to the Broder monkeys (see photo above), the 500 monkeys at computer keyboards who bang out the columns printed under the Broder byline. And I've often suspected that at least some of Richard Cohen's columns are written by the Broder monkeys in their spare time.
But every now and again Richard Cohen rouses himself from punditry and writes an actual column. Of course the subject matter will tend to the bleedingly obvious. (In the technical literature, this is commonly referred to as Maureen Dowd Syndrome.) Nevertheless, sometimes even obvious points need to be made repeatedly in order for, well, the point to be made.
The missing Obama
By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
In my set, I am known as the guy who always had some reservations about Barack Obama. Sure, I supported him in the primaries against Hillary Clinton and I voted for him, with both glee and enthusiasm, especially after John McCain uttered the most shocking words in American politics -- "Sarah Palin." But I had such qualms about Obama that I even disparaged his famous speech on race, which almost everyone else thought was just about the greatest ever given on the subject. I just reread it -- and I was a bit chastened (I was too severe), but mostly I was saddened. Where is the man who once gave that speech?
The speech, delivered in Philadelphia in March 2008, was compelled by the rantings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had been Obama's pastor and spiritual adviser. Wright, a man of a certain age with the emotional scar tissue that comes from a life in a harshly racist society, had let loose his anger -- and it had been caught on tape and YouTubed around the world. A sermon that had a context and an appreciative audience looked like sheer demagoguery and madness on the small screen. Obama had to kiss off Wright.
He did so with style and with dignity. But more than that, to reread the speech is to be impressed once again with the fluidity of Obama's mind -- his logic, his reasoning and his immense writing talent, which made a great impression on the impressionable people in my profession.
But to reread the speech is also to come face to face with an Obama of keen moral clarity. Here was a man who knew why he was running for president and knew, also precisely, what he personified. He could talk to America as a black man and a white man -- having lived in both worlds. He could -- and he did -- explain to America what it is like to have been a black man of Wright's age and what it is like even now to be a black man of any age.
Somehow, though, that moral clarity has dissipated. The Obama who was leading a movement of professed political purity is the very same person who as president would not meet with the Dalai Lama, lest he annoy the very sensitive Chinese. He is the same man who bowed to the emperor of Japan when, in my estimation, the president of the United States should bow to no man. He is the same president who in China played the mannequin for the Chinese government, appearing at stage-managed news conferences and events -- and having his remarks sometimes censored. When I saw him in that picture alone on the Great Wall, he seemed to be thinking, "What the hell am I doing here?" If so, it was a good question.
The Barack Obama of that Philadelphia speech would not have let his attorney general, Eric Holder, announce the new policy for trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other Sept. 11 defendants in criminal court, as if this were a mere departmental issue and not one of momentous policy. And the Barack Obama of the speech would have enunciated a principle of law and not an ad hoc system in which some alleged terrorists are tried in civilian courts and some before military tribunals. What is the principle in that: What works, works? Try putting that one on the Liberty Bell.
Of course, there's a difference between campaigning and governing. There is no reality to campaigning. You want Guantanamo closed, you say you'll close it. You want to close it as president, and all of a sudden it becomes a political crisis that costs you your White House counsel, an experienced and principled man named Gregory Craig. Governing is hard.
But governing has to be informed by moral clarity, by the sense that we always know the president's interior life -- his bottom lines. Obama's political career has been too brief for us to know his bottom lines by votes cast in any legislative body or decisions made as an administrator. He had little record but lots of rhetoric -- much of it morally stirring and beautifully written.
As president, though, he has tried so hard to be the un-George Bush that the former president's overweening moralism -- his insistence on seeing things as either black or white -- has become an Obama gray. Human rights in general has been treated as if it's a Republican idea. Obama should reread his Philadelphia speech. He'll find a good man there.