Saturday, January 12, 2008

Obama, MLK and The Clintons

One of the shrewdest commentators of the American scene is British transplant, now an American citizen, Christopher Hitchens, whose sole blind spot is religion. Hitchens is a militant atheist.

Here is Hitch on the Republican field: “Only one of these men has any poetry about him. John McCain, the white-haired old lion in winter, embarking on his last hurrah, quixotically indifferent to money or polls, can still bring a lump to the throat. Stubbornly loyal to his comrades in uniform, adamant for victory in Iraq, he commands a certain respect of the kind that professional image-builders can only dream of. This may not turn out to be the year for old lions, but it’s nice to know, amid all the moisture and bogus emotion, that the country can still produce them.”

And on the Clintons: “The first-time voters started to gravitate to Obama in ever-bigger droves, as did a surprising percentage of the women. This was simply not the time or the place for a politician to be appearing cynical or offering disillusionment ("the couple from Hope campaigning against hope", as Maureen Dowd neatly put it in the New York Times). Things began to look exceedingly bad for the former first couple, and Bill himself was reduced to telling an audience, with appalling crassness, that "I can’t make her younger, taller or change her gender". And then, just as it began to appear that matters could not possibly get any more prosaic, Mrs. Clinton stumbled into an accidentally poetic moment of her very own.

"She cried. Or rather, she trembled on the verge of tears. Eyes brimming with self-pity at a ladies’ coffee-morning, she let it be known and shown that she has a human side and is not the robotic, control-freak, frigid (pick your own keyword) persona that her enemies love to hate. All the exit-poll evidence is that this mammalian moment was when the tide began to turn, especially among female voters. Modern campaigning – devoid as it often is of real political drama or difference – often hinges on such little triumphs of style over substance."

The Clinton’s are constrained just now to make sharp distinctions between talkers and doers. Hillary is a doer, Obama a somewhat charming talker, a pale reflection of husband Bill, who stressed idealism in his candidacy against George Bush the elder because his experience as a doer was more shallow than that of his opponent.

This false dualism – little more than a political talking point, since Hillary’s practical experience as a political executive is rather thin -- now has led Hillary to value former President Lyndon Johnson, a doer, over Martin Luther King, a charming talker.

But there are multiple problems. The distinction, which requires people always to choose doers over talkers, would have left post-World War II Britain in the hands of Prime Minister Harold Chamberlain, an incumbent doer, rather than Winston Churchill, a sweet talker who later became a more aggressive doer than Chamberlain. Presidential incumbent Richard Nixon, a doer, was defeated by John Kennedy, a charming talker before he assumed office and later was annointed the king of Camelot. The Obama site on the internet is bursting with position papers detailing what he would do if elected president. Finally, the distinction Clinton has made almost certainly will not sit well among the 50% of black South Carolinians who have been moved, as was Lyndon Johnson, by Martin Luther King's words. Martin Luther King Day falls on the 21st of January; there is no Lyndon Baines Johnson Day on the calendar.

This is an ooops moment that would, had such a misspeak been bruited about by a Clinton aide, have required a spirited denial as well as the public humiliation of said aide. However, since it was Hillary who wandered into this thicket, she must be carefully plucked from the thorns and briars without doing damage to her suddenly thinning skin. Tears alone will not wash away this stain.

It seems that some iffing and butting might be necessary to repair the collateral damage done to Martin Luther King’ ruptured reputation.

On the 42nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Clinton said about King, “As a young girl, I had the great privilege of hearing Dr. King speak in Chicago. The year was 1963. My youth minister from our church took a few of us down on a cold January night to hear someone that we had read about, we had watched on television, we had seen with our own eyes from a distance, this phenomenon known as Dr. King. He titled the sermon he gave that night ‘Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.’”

Her praise then seemed fulsome enough, even though Hillary, or one of her speech writers, got the date wrong, according to a Washington Post fact-checker.

To err is human, it is said. But to aviod admitting error in presidential candidacies is divine.

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