HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 14, 2008
From Liberty Street

Exploitation and Opportunity

John Turner


It seems to be the case that Barack Obama's remarks about the bitterness of people in small western Pennsylvania towns is going to rile up the presidential campaign for quite a while. That it will is a sad commentary on the state of our political debate. What it shows is that many voters are more concerned with whether politicians give them the proper respect -- whatever that is -- than with how they would govern. You've got to be a pretty sad, and bitter, person if you give a flip about whether a politician calls you bitter. People who look to politicians for their self-respect are in a pathetic condition.

I haven't experienced the inner circles of politics very often, but I do have enough knowledge of what goes on there to report that scarcely any politician actually respects the general population of the United States. Why should he? When political figures feign respect, they do it for only one reason: they want to manipulate voters. And that's fair enough. Manipulating voters is the name of the game and you can scarcely blame a candidate for using whatever weapons the game allows.

John McCain and Hillary Clinton will go into high drive accusing Obama of being an elitist, which, of course, is about the worst thing you can be if you're running for national political office. Exactly what an elitist is, or why it's bad to be one, they need not say. It will be enough to use the word and let it go at that.

What I'm always hoping for, and almost never getting, is a candidate courageous enough to change the game itself. It would be a healthy thing if the game permitted admitting that performing adequately as president requires skills and knowledge that the average guy swigging beer in an Altoona bar doesn't have. If we could confess that to ourselves -- which, of course we can't -- then the game might begin to test people for what they do know and what they can do. Those abilities could become even more important than pretending a groveling respect for the aforesaid Altoona beer drinker.

I would like a game like that. For one thing, it would be more fun than the game we have now, which we have to admit is pretty deadening.  Politicians would need to start saying sharp things to one another rather than smarmy things (if you say sharp things now, you're an elitist).

And here's the most fascinating possibility of all: if we started probing into the capacities and attitudes a person actually needs to function well as president it might just result in our getting a more effective president than the one we've had since January 2001.

Consequently, Obama's so-called gaffe offers him an opportunity. I doubt he'll take it, but now and then there are signs he would like to take it if he thought he could do it without undermining his chances of becoming president. Obama gives one the impression he would like to play in another game, a contest that would be genuinely entertaining. He is, sometimes, a bit boring -- I detest all this drivel about making us into one people -- but much of his boringness may come from his grasp that he has to play the game as it now exists.

His two opponents, by contrast, give every sign of loving the game as it now is and not wanting to change it in any way. They are almost perfectly alike in that respect, though they are not at all alike in their vision of what they want the government of the United States to be.   One dreams of slaying the enemies of his country whereas the other fantasizes about providing ready health care to all sick people, and getting credit for it herself. Their differences presage a contest between a twelve-year-old imagination and a fairly mature one. In that conflict I much prefer the latter contender, but even if I could have her victory I would still like another game.

I'm glad I'm not an advisor to Obama right now. If I were, I would be caught up in a battle between the head and the heart. I would be thrilled if he would decide to try boldly to change the game. And if he made that decision, I'd tell him the only way to bring it off would be to slice into both McCain and Clinton with a passion and make them look like weary-minded fools. I don't think that would be hard to do, but I couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't backfire.  My head would be mindful of Shelby Steele's proclamation that a black man can't lose his temper and hold onto his status as bargainer. So my head might end up advising Obama to keep on playing the game as he has played it up till now.

We never really love the head in these fights.

Since I'm not an advisor I'll just sit back and watch. But if Obama should make the attempt to step out into a new game, I'll certainly cheer him on.


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