Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Obama: Searching for the Searcher

“Being president doesn't change who you are – it reveals who you are,” Michelle Obama said in her speech at this year’s Democratic Convention. Her husband agrees: “After four years as president you know me,” Barack Obama told an audience in in Hilliard, Ohio, toward the end of his wearying re-election tour.

But do we? That is the question that, after the President’s horrendous first debate, puzzled commentators as ideologically disparate as Maureen Dowd and Peggy Noonan. The question goes beyond the barriers that spinmeisters have traditionally erected to prevent finding out about candidates. In a sense, the election might not have been as much of a nail-biter in the final days if we did know who Obama was.

At lowest ebb, Obama even had the base that propelled him to victory in 2008, the vehemently anti-war liberal wing of the Democratic Party, wondering who he was. What happened to the candidate who made MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pinch himself? Why couldn’t the politician who swept all before him at the polls in 2008 do so afterward on Capitol Hill? Oh, why oh why had they ever strayed from Hillary (not to mention her straying consort)?

At the deep heart of Obama’s studied sense of distance from friend and foe alike, he has withheld something of himself. This is how it goes, perhaps, when you are thrown repeatedly into situations in which you find yourself an outsider: Not quite white enough to be accepted by that race, yet not always completely acceptable to blacks, either. An American child plunked down in Indonesia. An Occidental College transfer to an Ivy League school. And so, a defense mechanism comes into play. Don’t let them know you care. Don’t let them know you can hurt.

“No Drama Obama,” he came to be called by associates in his first Presidential run. But to achieve that Zen-like cool, he had to withhold emotion. That confused an American electorate that has become used to candidates gushing lachrymose sentiment and preemptive confessions.

There is precedent for this kind of hysteria, even, believe it or not, for the “birthers.” The last time the issue of birth concerning someone seriously mentioned for the Presidency came in the case of General Phil Sheridan. The Civil War general had to have been born in Ireland, claimed Catholic- and immigrant-haters who didn’t consider his heroics at Winchester and Cedar Creek sufficient proofs of his Americanism, let alone his qualifications for higher office.

The last time candidates encountered this level of vituperation about their background from a portion of the electorate came in the campaigns of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy--both Irish Catholics-- in 1928 and 1960. (How Smith would have extended the Holland Tunnel from New York to the Vatican—as a crude photograph circulated in the South claimed—was a neat trick best left unexplained.)

This year, as in 1928, the Republican Old Guard and its candidate nervously tried to step away from these fever swamps, hoping not to lose potential votes without becoming overly associated with the forces of rampant irrationality and intolerance.

A common thread, of course, united the campaigns of 1928, 1960, and 2012: fear of the other. In 1988, country singer Loretta Lynn somehow got away with her explanation of why she couldn’t vote for Michael Dukakis: “Why, I can’t even pronounce his name!” The Internet and social media appear to have encouraged such thinking. For the last four years, a sizable portion of the Republican Party have dwelt on Barack Hussein Obama, as if a foreign antibody had attached itself to the American organism, in the particularly virulent (and so rare as to constitute an endangered species) form of a “Muslim socialist.”

Nevertheless, for mass production of multiple urban myths, this last election beats all prior ones. The blogosphere centered on the GOP pounced these last four years, claiming the President was withholding not just emotions, but documents relating to his place of birth, his college education, his childhood exposure to Islam. The more documents and people produced by the administration to prove otherwise, the louder the cry that it was all a conspiracy. Facts became fungible to the birthers, open to all the distortion of a fun-house mirror.

Why did such wild rumors gain such traction? It goes well beyond the microscopic treatment to which candidates have been subjected over the last few decades. To some extent, the nativist strain in the American electorate, present when Smith and JFK ran for the Presidency (or when Sheridan was even just mentioned for the job), found its avatar in Barack Obama’s longtime status as searcher.

Back in the early going in 2008, when Obama was also having some trouble moving up on his GOP opponent John McCain by more than a few percentage points, New York Times columnist David Brooks traced the trouble to Obama’s “sojourner” tendencies: “There is a sense that because of his unique background and temperament, Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose through on his journey but never fully engaged. As a result, voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.”

There’s freedom involved in being a searcher and outsider, but also loneliness. If you want to get ahead in politics, it’s best not only not to divulge the existence of that feeling, but even not to get much into the circumstances that produced it.

That is the best explanation I can offer of, for instance, Obama's reticence concerning an aspect of his background that I share with him: education at Columbia University. It’s mystifying—probably unnecessarily so—and has led to some of the oddest, conspiracy-enhancing comments by that articulate, gentle, sane contributor to American life, Donald Trump.

On Morningside Heights
“[W]hen I first arrived on this campus, it was with little money, fewer options.  But it was here that I tried to find my place in this world.  I knew I wanted to make a difference, but it was vague how in fact I’d go about it.”

When I caught that little bit of reminiscing in a newspaper account of Obama’s commencement address at Barnard College this past spring, my eyes widened. It sure sounded more detailed than what he had written about his days across the street as a Columbia University undergrad in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. If I kept reading, I thought, maybe Obama would provide an even more evocative look at a campus that represented a formative period of my life—and, I had to imagine, his.

When I read the full transcript of the address, my heart sank. Only a couple more lines about his time there:

“We had the Walkman, not iPods.  Some of the streets around here were not quite so inviting.  (Laughter.)  Times Square was not a family destination.”

What a tease. What a disappointment. Many might regard this as emblematic of the “hope and change” campaign that failed to change the tenor—or, for that matter, the substance—of American politics.

Obama graduated from Columbia College in 1983, one year after the school, in a desperate attempt to get rid of me, thrust a sheepskin in my direction. As a transfer from Occidental College in Los Angeles, the future President spent only his last two years on Morningside Heights. We only had two semesters, then, that overlapped. We had different majors, so it was unlikely that we would ever have crossed paths. And, as a matter of fact, we didn’t.

As it turned out, however, my experience was not uncommon. Not too many people on campus ever did get to know him. Perhaps insecurity about his place there led him to concentrate on his studies, to the exclusion of much of a social life.

While vacationing in Chicago in 2004, a few months after his electrifying keynote address to the Democratic Convention, I bought a copy of Dreams From My Father at a local bookstore. As with a number of my other books, I didn’t get around to scanning it, let alone reading it, for quite awhile—until, that is, he ran for President four years later. Even at that point, what piqued my interest was the news that he was a fellow graduate of the institute of higher learning that I prefer to think of as the “Gem of the Hudson” (when I am not contemplating its football standings—then, “Last in the Ivy League” crosses my mind).

But, after searching high and low in Dreams From My Father for anything related to Columbia, I had to close the highly acclaimed memoir in absolute bafflement. Obama had about four pages a third of the way through about his transfer, and that was about it. The Columbia period is part of a slightly larger New York era marked by malaise (an uninspiring job) and tragedy (he receives the news about his father’s death in a phone call to his New York apartment). I don’t think Obama ever got over having to sleep outside of his apartment when he first arrived.

I was surprised, even disbelieving, by how little he discussed the school from which he received his undergraduate degree.  It’s not as if the academic environment hasn’t provided fodder for other writers, as can be seen in Thomas Merton’s almost painterly description of the campus in his classic memoir, The Seven-Storey Mountain (1948).

Even for myself—a graduate of a Catholic high school in a bedroom suburb of New York City, someone who, a few times before, had visited the campus when it was on spring break—the school involved massive change bordering on culture shock. In my first several weeks as an undergrad, I wondered if I would really fit in. It must have been a thousand more times unsettling for a transfer student who had grown up in Hawaii  (and, further back than that, in Indonesia), profoundly unsure of his place in the world. The experience would seem to beg for treatment in a tale of cultural displacement.

Years ago, one of my teachers reproved an unnamed student who had told her he couldn’t write because he had nothing to write about: “You don’t live in a jar,” she responded, noting that the most seemingly inconsequential actions could be made meaningful in the hands of a writer who observed and remembered. For the first time, however, I found myself wondering if Obama’s eyes had been open at Columbia.

You can imagine my surprise, then, to read David Maraniss’ account of Obama’s Morningside Heights years, the excerpt in Vanity Fair from his biography of the President as a young man. If anyone could be counted on to find something new about him (other than, say, Robert A. Caro, if he were so inclined), it is Maraniss. He possesses the best attitudes of both a journalist and biographer: he tells you something you never knew before, and he writes about his subjects as recognizable human beings, so that both admirers and critics will find things that confirm their previously held opinions.

On the plus side about Obama, then: Maraniss depicts an intelligent young man, a searcher able to adapt to new surroundings. On the negative side: someone so remote, so unsure of his place in the world, that he can’t bring himself, when a girlfriend tells him she loves him, to respond in kind. (“Thank you” is his answer.)

This being Vanity Fair, the focus of the piece is on the human—gossipy—elements: i.e., who was Obama dating before Michelle. This is unlike everything I’ve seen before about the President, where the emphasis has always been on the life of the mind. (The New York Times has had a real fetish for this type of thinking, whether it’s columnist Maureen Dowd likening him to Mr. Spock of Star Trek or a front-page article indicating that this commander-in-chief who personally selects the targets of drone attacks has been a student of St. Augustine’s theory of just war.)

I wondered what Obama might have been like at Columbia. I got one slight sense of this from a letter he wrote to another female friend:

Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?

When he read the above quote, Matthew Hart, a current Columbia English professor, described it to a New York Magazine writer as “classic undergraduatese.” Although, in truth, Professor Hart is pointing to writing that he and his colleagues encounter all too often, the statement’s pomposity reminds me of a student in one of my freshman classes whom we were all ready to shoot death stares at by the end of the semester.

My bloviating classmate, it would appear, would have had a comrade in Obama. I don’t know if “Alex” seemed “surprised” about Eliot, but I can’t imagine correspondence continuing for long in the same vein with the fellow who wrote about “lifeless mechanistic order,” “dichotomy,” and “irreconcilable ambivalence.”

I’ve never been part of the “birther” movement, nor the smaller, no-less-oddball offshoot that doubted Obama ever graduated from Columbia. At the same time, I had wondered if he did, in fact, write Dreams From My Father, which Time Magazine termed “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” The style of the memoir differs a great deal from that of The Audacity of Hope: the former lyrical, with long sentences that take their time to unwind, the other guarded and tight. They vary so much that it’s hard to believe the same sensibility was behind both.

It shouldn’t matter whether Obama had one of his books ghostwritten (how many modern politicians write their own?), anymore that it should matter about college grades dating back nearly 30 years ago. The fact that both made for minor silly campaign controversies owes, ironically, as much to progressives’ worship of intellect in their candidates as to right-wingnuts' rampant paranoia.

George Washington wasn’t, by our standards or even his own, an intellectual (Aaron Burr, for one, was given to sneering about his poor writing skill). But his sound judgment, sense of realism and integrity made him a far more effective President than fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson.

At least since Adlai Stevenson, liberals have swooned over intellectual Presidential candidates. That worship did no favors for the candidates, party or electorate. The candidates put on false fronts: the only book on Stevenson’s bedside at the time of his death, notes Michael Barone, was The Social Register, and, as Herbert S. Parmet documented in his biography Jack, JFK gained his Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage under fraudulent circumstances, as he had contributed only the most sketchy writing to the section on John Quincy Adams. For their pains, Stevenson was scorned as an egghead elitist, and JFK had to endure an accusation (later, mistakenly withdrawn) by muckraker Drew Pearson that Profiles was ghostwritten.

Obama’s correspondence about Eliot and Yeats, though pretentious, indicates that he had a comprehensive intelligence. On the other hand, the sustained, lyrical prose of Dreams of My Father is not something that can be suddenly dashed off after tapping into an untapped well of creativity. It requires constant years of long-term commitment and practice. It doesn't appear that Obama had much of the latter. Outside of class assignments, he did not write all that much in his youth: a March 1983 article in a Columbia publication, Sundial, on the nuclear freeze movement; a job writing on foreign countries after he graduated; no bylines of his own as president of the Harvard Law Review; and, as Drew Westin noted (in a New York Times piece that covered, devastatingly, more aspects of the President's career) “publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography.”

As for the manufactured hullabaloo about his college grades: I suspect that more than a few baby boomers would blanch at their college transcripts now. What is important is not what one would do with one’s life then, but what one has done with it since. We have come to a fine pass in this country when college grades from long ago matter to any portion of the electorate today.

Yet progressives cannot claim complete outrage over this. They chortled in 1999, when Jane Mayer and Alexandra Robbins published a piece in The New Yorker on prospective candidate George W. Bush’s lackluster Yale transcript, based on a purloined copy of the same. Was there any compelling Pentagon Papers issue of national importance involved with that? Hardly. (Progressive glee over confirmation of Bush’s lack of smarts became muted when, it turned out, opponents Al Gore and John Kerry weren’t academic stars,either.)

A comparison of Obama to JFK might be instructive here. We may not know definitively, for quite some time, whether Obama wrote Dreams From My Father himself, or if he had some ghostwriting (or significant editing) help. But even if this dents his credentials as an intellect, it doesn't undermine what he has demonstrated in office, qualities he possesses in common with Kennedy: caution (sometimes to a fault) in policymaking, as well as deep insights (natural to someone who has spent significant time abroad) into foreign lands and a curiosity that takes little or nothing for granted.

Beyond Inflated Expectations
Progressives’ views of Obama as intellectual have this in common with their concept of him up to 2009: they represented not merely great expectations, but inflated ones—in a sense, reflecting his own grandiose ambitions to become a transformative President, even in an era of divided government, hyper-partisanship and the 24-hour news cycle.

Don’t let the triumphant post-election analysis of the “decisive” victory fool you. Obama had a political near-death experience, as for a long time he was unable to finish off a rival with staggeringly self-defeating inclinations and utterances. Just in time, he was able to find his voice—or did he?

The question is neither academic, nor, at the moment, easy to answer. “Voice” was what first drew notice to the candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois when he addressed the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In the four years since his soaring inaugural address (nobody seems to have forgotten his pledge to “roll back the specter of a warming planet”--except Obama himself), that voice came to seem increasingly muffled.

Can Obama recover that voice? Is he lost irrevocably without it? Or can he, in the middle of his administration, like Frank Sinatra in mid-career, make something new—unillusioned, but powerful and enduring—of the instrument that brought him fame? Perhaps the path to that might be found in a line, posthumously published, from F. Scott Fitzgerald's notebooks, a thought that might serve the President, his supporters, and the wider electorate in assessing his past and future paths in his second term: "Action is character."

(White House photo of Barack Obama in his first press conference as President)

1 comment:

Ken Houghton said...

"when I am not contemplating its football standings—then, 'Last in the Ivy League' crosses my mind"

HEY! Seventh this year, having beaten Yale.

(We won't mention that they lost to Harvard this year by the same margin they lost to Rutgers our Freshman year.)