HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 24, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Nearly

In his column today, David Brooks does once again what he does so often: he concentrates on an important issue, begins to dig into it, but at the last moment turns aside from the core of the problem. That's why he's a good columnist but not such a good thinker.

His topic this time is the character of Barack Obama, and whether it fits him to be a better president than his rivals. Brooks's implied conclusion is that it does. And why? Because, Brooks says, Obama is more coherent within himself. If you study his record you can't find inconsistencies. At sometime in the past, he forged himself and now his character is a healthy whole, not as likely as most to be lacerated by the corrosive conditions of the presidency. The best president, Brooks asserts, is the person who brings the fewest wounds to the White House.

I can remember people saying the same thing about George Bush. It's one thing to have a steady personality; it's another to be a stupid fool. That's the distinction Brooks veers away from examining.

I am not insinuating that Obama could be as foolish as Bush. Clearly, he's not. It's likely that he would be a good president because the things he cares about are far superior to the things Bush cares about. But what we can say of Obama in that respect we can say just as well of Clinton and Edwards. The question, as Brooks puts it, is whether they are more wounded than Obama and therefore would be less resistant to the degenerative influences which descend on any president.

That, however is not the question. It's not a matter of who has been more or less wounded but rather what has been done about the wounds. Has the response made the person more gracious and less vindictive, or the reverse? We know that life has inflicted grievous wounds on both Clinton and Edwards. And we can see with a fair degree of confidence how each has responded. As far as I know, Obama has not been wounded. He has been a good, steady man all of his adult life, working towards good, steady things. And he has been astoundingly successful. That's certainly not a bad record for a presidential candidate, but it doesn't tell us a great deal about how he would come through the fire.

The truth is the Democrats have three strong candidates for the presidency and it is hard to pick among them. The gap between any of the three and every one of the Republican candidates is a chasm. Such wealth ought to bring happiness but I suspect it's actually making us a bit sad. I'm not sure how to choose, but I am sure of this: don't rely on David Brooks to tell you how.


Learning from Haters

Perhaps it's a mistake to gage the effectiveness of a politician by who his or her haters are but I have to confess I'm being pushed towards a more positive perception of  Hillary Clinton by those who oppose her most strongly. They are the lowest people in the country, and it may be that they see Senator Clinton as the candidate who would strike most effectively at their lowness.

I admit, I generally see them as stupid, so they may be stupid about that also. It could be that John Edwards or Barack Obama would be more potent in undermining their vile view of life. Still, their vehemence about Clinton tells me something.

I'm not speaking of people who simply oppose some of Senator Clinton's positions. I, myself, have been troubled about her votes affecting the Iraq invasion though I've assumed she made them to blunt the right-wing assault against her in the general election. It's true that a woman candidate is more vulnerable to jingoistic charges than a man would be. The Clinton camp is acutely aware of that and they've tried to be careful not to supply the yahoos with extra ammunition. Even so, I can understand and respect people who have doubts about her policies. But they're not the people I'm writing about here.

The loudest Clinton detractors seem indifferent to her policy positions. They dislike her for her looks, her clothes, and because of how she speaks and laughs. And they aren't particularly subtle in saying so. But underlying these stylistic complaints are animosities that spring from deeper fear and hatred. If you listen closely to the two supposedly sane pundits who dump on Senator Clinton most frequently -- Chris Matthews and Andrew Sullivan -- you'll discover a sense of inferiority that's exacerbated by Clinton's competence. Matthews, for example, recently said this on his TV show:

I think a lot of people pick a president they figure would sort of like them if they knew them.
And if you are overweight or have a problem with your diet -- and I certainly did for years -- you
may figure Hillary doesn't like people like me. She's looking down on me. What do you think?
Howie, she's looking down on me, that woman. She thinks she's better than me.

I suspect that Senator Clinton spends little time thinking about Matthews, either positively or negatively. But he, obviously, thinks about her and not just in political terms. His dislike is personal. And I doubt it has anything to do with weight. He knows that Clinton pays attention to what government actually does and can speak about it knowledgeably. And he knows also that he can't. There's the nub of the problem.

An intelligent woman who really knows what's going on is a complete horror to lots of people in this country. She seems unnatural to them. They refer to her as some kind of wonk. She might start meddling in affairs that are none of her business. Unlike George Bush she might demonstrate an unbecoming curiosity. How awful would that be!

The national concept of a woman as president has layers on layers. And if you dig down deep enough you find a lot of stuff that few dare speak of openly. That's the putrescence which supplies the core of Hillary hatred.

You could do worse than to cast your vote against that layer of rot.


Non-Literacy

I read an article by Caleb Crain in the New Yorker (the last one of this year) about the decline of reading and what effect it might have on democracy. The implication was that if most people stop reading altogether and find out what they know by watching television, democracy will disappear. Voting can continue, but democracy in the sense of debate, discussion, evidence and weighing various points of view will go away. That's because television doesn't have any compare-and-contrast influence.

People will read opinions they don't like but they won't watch them being touted on TV. I know this is true because my wife will not watch even two minutes of Bill O'Reilly and whenever Chris Matthews is on she'll immediately go away denouncing his idiocy. So when people start getting all their views from TV they'll receive only what they like already and never change their minds about anything. This won't happen to my wife because, generally, when she flees the TV she goes upstairs to read a book. But if a person doesn't read, he'll just keep on flipping channels and eventually find something to soothe his prejudices.

The article has a number of explanations about why this happens and how brain waves are affected by reading and non-reading, all of which is interesting but whose accuracy I have little means of judging. But the basic thesis, that people who read have different minds from people who don't read, seems almost self-evident.

If you're pro-word and anti-moving image, there doesn't seem to be much you can do about it other than to read yourself.  Scarcely anyone is persuasive enough to harangue somebody else into reading Proust. The world may take a turn back toward reading or it may continue to move away from it, just as the world may get progressively better or simply go to hell.

This may strike you as depressing but, then, maybe not. Since none of us can control the future then we don't really have much responsibility for it. We can do what we do because we like it and believe in its worthiness, and let it go at that. To think we can do more is delusionary. So, if the world decides to stop reading, I'll regret it but I see no sense in agonizing over it to an excessive degree.


Health Care -- the Marker

There has been much talk among campaign watchers lately about whether Barack Obama is too accommodating to the forces of economic privilege and whether John Edwards is too confrontational. I suspect the difference is not as great as those stark questions imply. Unless he's completely foolish, Obama knows he will face fierce opposition from the biggest profit takers in the country if he tries to accomplish what he says he wants to bring about. And John Edwards knows he can't spend all his time denouncing plutocrats because they do wield force in the country and have to be dealt with one way or another.

The goal for both of them is not to punish or humiliate rich people. It is simply to limit the harm they inflict on the rest of the population. That won't be easy for either of them, and neither has, so far, laid out a plan to accomplish it. Nor has Hillary Clinton, for that matter.

The biggest challenge will come from health care. Everyone who has studied the problem knows that our system is impaired by forces which take vast sums from it but contribute nothing. The people who are getting that money will fight like crazy to keep on getting it. They will tell every lie they can imagine, and they will raise up every boogeyman they think has a chance to frighten the American people. That's what they've been doing all along and there's no reason to think they will change their tactics. So far, they have been quite successful.

Unless a Democratic president is prepared to confront those tactics and defeat them, he or she will fail to bring about the main change the people have the right to expect from a successful candidate. So, the issue is not who is more or less confrontational. It is rather, who can best deal with the stratagems of the parasites.

I don't know, for sure, who that is. But I do know this: it will require not only careful attention to detail but the ability to explain clearly and powerfully to the population why the arguments against thorough reform are selfish, greedy and false.

If you look strictly to experience, I think you have to rank the candidates in this order: Edwards, Clinton, Obama. But experience isn't the only factor that will influence success. Determination and courage matter even more. And that's where confusion rises. Which of the three Democratic candidates is most determined to deliver an efficient health system which extends to every citizen of the nation? And who is brave enough not to be turned by any assault the plutocrats can mount?

If we knew the answers to those questions, we would know, without doubt, who deserves our support. That's because the qualities required to do something sensible about health care are the same qualities needed to benefit the majority in all areas of government.


Talking and Knowing

The hardest thing for a sensible voter is distinguishing between what a candidate says and what he knows. It's made even more frustrating by the current situation which generally seeks to punish a politician for openly revealing his full knowledge.

We can see these problems at work in Hillary Clinton's stated explanation about how to achieve positive change. Some people, she says, hope for it; some demand it; others work for it. The insinuation is obvious. Obama is the hoper, Edwards is the demander, whereas she is the worker.  She's pretty much right, so far as rhetoric goes. But she doesn't much want to get behind the rhetoric to discover what it really means.

In an intelligent column in the American Prospect, Mark Schmitt points out that we're getting the most accurate description of the situation we face from John Edwards. But then, Schmitt continues by noting that the main duty of a politician is not to describe a situation, it is rather to produce change.  When we look at the Democratic campaign that way, we could decide that Obama has the better program. But that's only if Obama knows what he declines to say, that the right wing cannot be persuaded to do what's right for the majority of Americans. The right wing has to be outmaneuvered and the question is, what's the best way to do it.

Schmitt refers to a tactic used by community organizers. You get your opponents on a committee and then you control the agenda of the committee, leaving them either neutered or, better yet, looking like nasty obstructionists. Is this what Obama has in mind when he speaks of inviting everyone to the negotiating table? If he does, he obviously can't say so. Yet that's what we need from him.

John Edwards is planning to use democratic force. Clinton is planning to use the classic tactics of negotiation and compromise. Might Obama be planning to spring a trap?

The truth, of course is that a successful president will have to use all three tactics. The Republicans will have to be surprised and subjected to the force of an aroused public, but they will also have to be assured that what's being sought is simply a reduction of their power, not their destruction.

The difficulty of choosing right now comes from our not being sure which tactic is strongest, or which candidate can use all three tactics most skillfully. It would be nice to think that the remainder of the campaign would clarify the answers. But I doubt that it will.


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