Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The New Yorker Story

While barrels of ink have been spilled over the New Yorker cover, not much has been said about the story that appeared in the magazine.

From the point of view of the publisher, the cover was a clever device. It certainly produced a good amount of controversy. If you are a magazine, it’s always better to be noticed, and the cover was the equivalent of a bared breast.

Cartoons of this kind always carry a mixed message. The partisans on the right were not unpleased, and for those on the left, the cover made their point: that much of the criticism issuing from the fever swamps on the right was silly, cartoonish. Michelle Obama is not, as pictured, a bomb throwing 60’s radical; Sen. Barack Obama is not a practicing Muslim but a Christian politician. Even Fox News, generally held up by the left as the simulacrum of right wingnut politics, acknowledged that this kind of criticism was unfair.

The real problem with the cover was that it detracted from a fair and fulsome account of Sen. Barack Obama’s early years as a neophyte politician in Chicago. Not as many people who reacted to the cover also commented on the story. The lad did pretty well by himself. One should understand that being a freshman politician in Chicago is a little bit like being Jonah in the whale; that Obama survived to tell the tale at all tells us a great deal about his character and political acumen.

And what is his character?

It’s that of a Chicago politician. On a scale of 1 to 10, he’s Machiavelli.

And his political ability?

Obama is to politics what jazz is to music, pretty much all improvisation. Jazz musicians make up the notes as they go along. Obama’s character is a little bit like a moving stream. There is a sameness about it, but the stream itself, always forward moving, is never the same in the same spot.

Obama has a talent, enviable in a politician, for leaving people and things behind in his wake. When he tossed overboard the Rev. Wright, he may have surprised some journalists. But Wright was not surprised. He explained, with a bemused smile, that Barack was a politician first, and everything else second. Trinity church was for Obama a stepping stone to bigger and better things. But don’t believe Wright. Ask Toni Preckwinkle, Obama’s alderman, his mentor and the person who gave Obama his start in Chicago politics.

“I think he was very strategic in his choice of friends and mentors,” she told the author of “How Chicago shaped Obama,” Ryan Lizza, “I spent ten years of my adult life working to be alderman. I finally got elected. This is a job I love. And I’m perfectly happy with it. I’m not sure that’s the way that he approached his public life—that he was going to try for a job and stay there for one period of time. In retrospect, I think he saw the positions he held as stepping stones to other things and therefore approached his public life differently than other people might have.”

It is striking how insubstantial Obama’s personal political relationships are; this is essentially Jesse Jackson’s compliant. To a certain extent all political relationships are written in the air, but the refrain one hears when Obama’s old cast-off friends get together to exchange war stories is how disloyal he is, sometimes a mark of someone who is making up his personality as he goes along.

There is a ruthlessness about all this that is masked by Obama’s outward appearance. No one can say for certain – it is doubtful Obama could say for certain – where the fictional Obama, the protagonist of his books, ends and the real Obama begins. His character is chimerical by choice. One thing is certain: If Obama has a character deficiency, it will be our deficiency when he becomes president, as seems likely.

All this may matter or not, but no one should doubt that we have entered a stage in history in which slight errors, especially in foreign policy, will give birth to awesome consequences?
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