#29 Flak From All Sides

On July 16, 2008

Hello Everyone,

Some of you may have noticed – many no doubt have been relieved – that I have not written since Barack became the presumptive Democratic nominee. Some of you may also recall from my earliest musings about a year and a half ago, I am not a political professional or party activist. I remind you that the last time I was deeply committed to a candidate was during Bobby Kennedy’s quest nearly forty years ago – an effort that sadly lasted less than three months.

All to say, I hope the occasional observations I now begin to offer about this final phase of the election process will be somewhat interesting and perhaps even useful despite my amateur status. I embark on this next stage, much like I did the first, primarily for my
own need to understand and secondarily to share whatever thoughts I have with you for any value they may have. But, I ask forgiveness from the start for my mistakes and whatever naiveté or outright foolishness I display in the process. I’m no professional pundit.

It has taken some time for me to acclimate to this “general” election phase. It seems like the media is still having trouble, so I’m not alone.

Many of my ideas during this phase will be informed by a careful re-reading of Barack’s two books and his many speeches, including his anti-Iraq war speech in 2002 and his seminal keynote address at the 2004 convention. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s important book on Lincoln, Team of Rivals, will also offer instructive parallels to the current situation.

As the New York Times noticed recently, Barack “caught heavy flak from all sides” when he rejected public financing for his presidential campaign. We know that he has been taking flak from all sides on numerous other issues as well.

Contrary to popular opinion, I think that is a very good sign, not a cause for concern.

A week ago Barack said, “…people…apparently haven’t been listening to me.” Gail Collins of the Times weighed in the following day, “When an extremely intelligent politician tells you over and over and over that he is tired of the take-no-prisoners politics of the last several decades, that he is going to get things done and build a ‘new consensus,’ he is trying to explain that he is all about compromise. Even if he says it in that great Baracky way.”

Reading Goodwin on Lincoln is illuminating here. A true picture of him is hard to conjure since we have been dazzled by Lincoln’s legacy for so long. It is appropriate that Goodwin reminds us that, first and foremost, Lincoln was a superb politician – a skilled politician, not some bumpkin log-splitter from Illinois.

Lincoln won the Republican nomination in a tight race on the third ballot at the 1860 convention in Chicago; there were no primaries in those days. Goodwin writes that he won with “fewer privileges” and less experience than his three principal rivals. Coincidentally, the leading contender among them was William Seward, a sitting senator from New York and previously its governor.

“The news that Lincoln had defeated Seward came as a shock… Since people were unaware of the skill with which he had crafted his victory, Lincoln was viewed as merely the accidental candidate…” It’s fitting that even his name caused confusion: “Still an obscure figure, he was referred to by half the journals… as ‘Abram’ rather than ‘Abraham.’”

“Chance, positioning, and managerial strategy – all played a role in Lincoln’s victory,” Goodwin writes. “From beginning to end, he took the greatest control of the process leading up to the nomination.”

Looking back a hundred and fifty years, many want to romanticize Lincoln, imagining “Honest Abe,” the guileless rube from the frontier who miraculously and unexpectedly arrived on the scene just in time to save the Union. In fact, he was a deeply-gifted politician with a “profound and elevated sense of ambition,” according to another historian.

In my humble opinion, it is time for us to recognize that Barack Obama is also a politician. A world class politician. Possibly the best politician of the last half century, if not longer.

His nomination was not an immaculate conception. He’s no innocent. And, thank God for that.

We can fantasize about Barack being “apolitical,” “post-political,” “post-partisan” or what have you. The fact is that he is a masterful politician. He proved that in the primaries, defeating more “privileged” rivals.

But, “politician” doesn’t need to be the pejorative we have come to assume. John F. Kennedy, himself an accomplished politician, once said, “Mothers may…want their favorite sons to grow up to be president, but….they do not want them to become politicians in the process.”

We need not only to get over the fact that Barack is a politician, but rejoice in it. Only those skilled in shaping public opinion and searching for the possible, will accomplish anything worthwhile while in office.

My best hope – and highest confidence – is that Barack will restore luster to his profession, perhaps even reminding us in the process of our most esteemed politicians, the Founding Fathers.

Barack Obama is a much more practical and pragmatic figure than many perceive him to be. Or, perhaps, want him to be. He’s not an ideologue or stubborn. We’ve had enough of that kind.

It is useful to remember that Lincoln did not campaign as an abolitionist, regardless of the caricature that has been crafted with the passing of time. During the campaign of 1860, Lincoln took such a pragmatic stance with respect to slavery that is shocking to read
today – even more so in light of our present circumstance. He said, “I am not pledged to the ultimate extinction of slavery; (do) not hold that the black man is to be the equal of the white…” Lincoln was merely opposed to the extension of slavery into the new territories, not its abolition in the states and territories where it already existed, and was not advocating racial equality.

Similarly, Barack said in his now famous, but seldom read, speech opposing the Iraq war in 2002 (it’s on barackobama.com) that he was “not opposed to war in all circumstances… What I am opposed to is a dumb war… a rash war… Let’s finish the fight with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda [in Afghanistan.”]

Likewise, in the 2004 convention speech which introduced him to the nation, Barack took a decidedly inclusive stance, “… there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s a United States of America…pundits like to slice and dice our country into Red States and Blue States… but I’ve got news for them… We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States.” He is all about inclusion, consensus and compromise.

As Kermit the Frog famously lamented, “It isn’t easy being green.” It isn’t easy to be a “purple” politician in the twenty-first century either. You get “flak from all sides.” It causes purple bruises. But bruises needn’t last long.

So, two ideas for all of us to keep in mind over the next 3 1/2 bruising months. Barack Obama has long presented himself as a practical and pragmatic politician. Not an ideologue. Progressive, but not predictably left or right. Not Blue or Red.

We might keep this in mind as we react to his positions on parental responsibility, the death penalty, wiretap laws, church-sponsored social service programs, and a myriad of other issues. I’m sure he will even take flak from some quarters due to his decision to visit the Palestinian territories on his trip to the Middle East next week.

He’s not flip flopping. He’s being true to what he’s promised over the half dozen years I’ve known him, read him and listened to him. He’s being true to what he wrote thirteen years ago in his first book. When one end of the spectrum or the other stops whining, then we’ll all know that Barack has really flipped. Don’t expect that to happen.

Please pass it along.


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