Sunday, August 31, 2008

Joy and Inoculation

As a speaker’s son, I had a front row seat at the 1963 March on Washington.  In the era of sound byte history that hot August day is remembered largely and deservedly for Martin Luther King’s seminal speech.  What I remember most vividly was the palpable sense of joy that pervaded in that sea of humanity confronting the speakers as they looked out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  And it was that same sense of joy that struck me as I watched from afar the crowd of 80,000 plus who gathered in Denver to witness that giant step for America as Barack Obama strode toward the lectern at Mile High Stadium. 

Frank Rich writes today of how the press has misread this Presidential campaign.  I for one think they aren’t so much missing the real story playing before us, as much as they seem intent on promoting a fictional contest narrative that will guarantee eyeballs until election day.  It reminds me of that maniacal urgency of corporate executives to keep quarterly earnings up.  Is that so because our most visible media are feeding the same beast?  Of course it is.  The problem isn’t that the news we get is controlled by the few, but that much of it is hyped or even manufactured to meet a bottom line.  And sadly, to some degree, that’s not a totally new story.  The narrative throughout the summer of 1963 was just as inaccurate, just as laden with provocative hyperbole.  The predictions for tension and havoc were so dire, that a confirmation of President Kennedy’s invitation to have the leaders visit the Oval Office came only after the March had ended, it’s true, rather than imagined, nature demonstrated.

The other thing that struck me in watching the convention – I’ve followed all of them closely since childhood when Adlai Stevenson came upon the scene – was the unspoken but clearly evident word inoculation.   Both Barack Obama and John McCain are inoculated men.  However rough and tumble the contest has been and will be, there are third rail places in their story that opponents dare not touch.  For Obama, whatever subtext there may be, race is essentially off the table.  They may talk of his limited experience in public life, but not that an African American, by definition, is untested as President.  For John McCain, as we will be reminded every day this coming week, it is his military service.  Ironically, such service was held against John Kerry because he opposed the disastrous War in Viet Nam, while it is used to bolster John McCain whose imprisonment makes his earlier military performance untouchable.  For both Obama and McCain there are questions that simply can’t be asked, measures that can’t be taken.  Both are using this inoculation to their advantage.

Obama’s deft use of race is to move beyond it.  To be sure, he has found it necessary to reference the obvious, but only when forced to do so.  Perhaps the most striking thing about his acceptance speech, delivered to the day on the 45th anniversary of the March, was how very little he said about it.  Others in his place might have made it the center of their message, but he chose to let the 40 Million plus Americans who watched and listened connect the dots.  To be sure he is a man who has dreams, but there was no milking of that line on Thursday night.  In contrast, John McCain takes out his story of captivity at every opportunity.  Be assured it will be in full view next Thursday as it has in virtually every campaign appearance.  Even when the seven home memory gaff became an issue, his campaign reminded one and all that he had made his prison cell his only home for years.  How dare anyone question a man who suffered that indignity, gave so much for his country?

It is said that Obama is a man of methodical intentionality, not of impulse.  He sometimes suffers that reputation in an environment that prizes emotion and selected the current President because he was someone with whom you would want to share a Bud.  Interestingly, voters never thought about that as a measure of Presidential qualification until pollsters and pundits created the question and suggested its relevance.  McCain, on the other hand, is known as a craps shooter who thrives on impulse and gut decision-making.  Reference Jack Kennedy (with a temperament much like Obama) and the Cuban Missile Crisis when you consider what kind of person you’d prefer to have in the White House when the phone rings at 3 AM.  The difference in the two was seen clearly in the choices of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.

McCain’s calculation is that his story inoculates him more, and strikes a greater emotional chord than Obama’s being an African American.  It also is consistent with the Republican’s very successful employment of national security, and most specifically fear, to win a series of elections.  The question is whether that story line has played out.  Yes, more Americans may feel that McCain is  best qualified to be Commander, but it may also be possible that our focus on war and warriors has become more politically toxic than positive.  The fact that Bush never asked us to engage, to make sacrifice, in the current wars may come back to haunt the Republicans.  I was very young but remember the gas-rationing letter affixed to the back window of our car during World War II and the margarine that we had to eat for lack of butter.  They we but small symbols of national engagement.  No family was untouched by Viet Nam, if only with the threat of draft hanging over the heads of their young sons.  A time to shop and mortgage is what most Americans know of the Iraq war years, and its all that going sour is what is uppermost in their minds in these dog days of summer.  Then too there is that “not again” syndrome.  We all know someone who, to the point of irritation, has told the same autobiographical story so predictably and so frequently (often inappropriately) that it becomes the object of ridicule.  As his hero Ronald Reagan so famously said, “there he goes again”.

One more thing can be predicted about the week ahead.  Gustav will be brought into play big time, the ultimate distraction.  “President” McCain is on the case, consulting with Gulf Coast officials and awaiting a briefing by Governor Barber, who just happens to be a former GOP national chairman.  The potentially lethal bullet of a Dick Chaney speech has been dodged with its cancellation in the face of a potential Labor Day natural disaster and his essential foreign trip in the following days.  The Bush speech has been scrapped for now and may be rescheduled – don’t bet on it.  Who said there isn’t a God and that the Republican convention won’t be held under divine protection?  But will there be joy?