Last Friday night a friend called and told me that Barack Obama had posted a sort of pre-announcement of the start of his presidential campaign on his website. I immediately cued it up and within ten minutes was writing a column blasting him for ripping off half of his campaign speech from a smorgasbord of '04 Democratic candidates -- then stopped when I realized that I'd already written exactly that column about Hillary Clinton's kickoff speech a few weeks ago.
So I went back and watched the speech again, and I actually felt chills run up my spine. A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton's launch speech ripped off John Kerry and the DLC with its "Let's have a conversation" theme; Obama, meanwhile, went the Howard Dean route, nicking "A campaign to take America back" from Dean and RFK Jr., among others. The fact that Hillary, like Kerry, is set up as the DLC-acolyte candidate while Obama, like Dean, is set up as the antiwar candidate suggests a kind of permanent template for the Democratic primary process. Maybe soon the race for the Democratic primary will be like Everytown USA's annual high school production of A Streetcar Named Desire, where every year they find a new antiwar Blanche and a new pro-corporate Stanley. The faces are different, the lines are the same.
I've been on the fence about Obama for more than two years now, ever since his breakout performance at the Democratic convention in '04. When I saw that speech -- an iconic piece of inspired nonsense/political showmanship, one that set flashbulbs popping like Michael Jordan's virtuoso 1988 dunk contest performance -- I knew right away that he would be the Democratic presidential nominee someday, perhaps even in the next election cycle.
When I mentioned this to my friends, they told me I was crazy. Obama had had absolutely no national experience at that time, he was a political virgin, there was no way he was ready for prime time. My answer to that was, compared to what? Throw a guy who can speak like that against the list of likely Democratic candidates in 2008 -- a sorry collection of human saline drips that included Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chris Dodd -- and Obama could fucking walk to the nomination, even if he chose a page from the Betty Crocker cookbook as his stump speech.
Fast forward two years and that appears to be exactly what Obama has done. The Illinois Senator is the ultimate modern media creature -- he's a good-looking, youthful, smooth-talking, buttery-warm personality with an aw-shucks demeanor who exudes a seemingly impenetrable air of Harvard-crafted moral neutrality. If Hillary Clinton even dares to open her mouth within a hundred feet of him at any time during the campaign, she's going to come off like a pig digging for truffles. Even Edwards -- the so-called "slick" candidate from '04 -- sounds like a two-bit suburban Buick dealer next to Obama. You get past the "issues," and it's a wipeout.
Obama knows this, and so his entire political persona is an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind. You can't run against him on the issues because you can't even find him on the ideological spectrum. Obama's "Man for all seasons" act is so perfect in its particulars that just about anyone can find a bit of himself somewhere in the candidate's background, whether in his genes or his upbringing. You can be white, you can be black, you can be Christian, you can be Muslim, you can be from the American heartland or from Africa... you can even, according to his book The Audacity of Hope, worship Norse Gods or bury your relatives according to Hawaiian rituals:
In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites ...
As far as political positioning goes, his strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view, and conversely emphasizes that when he does take hard positions on issues, he often does so reluctantly. He is a black man from Chicago who gets away with praising Ronald Reagan, which is not an easy task. His political ideal is basically a rehash of the Blair-Clinton "third way" deal, an amalgam of Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton and the New Deal; he is aiming for the middle of the middle of the middle.
In short, Obama is a creature perfectly in tune with the awesome corporate strivings of Hollywood, Madison avenue and the Beltway -- he tries, and often succeeds, at selling a politics of seeking out the very center of where we already are, to the very couch where we've been sitting all this time, as an exciting, revolutionary journey into the unknown. And while most of what he says and writes is basically some version of the same old tired clichés about family and faith and hope and optimism and "working together" and "getting involved," he adds to those clichés real literary flair, wordsmithing far beyond the range of most politicians. Take this bit about his kids in his book:
... I sat at the dinner table, watching Malia and Sasha as they laughed and bickered and resisted their string beans before their mother chased them up the stairs and to their baths. Alone in the kitchen washing the dishes, I imagined my two girls growing up, and I felt the ache that every parent must feel at one time or another, that desire to snatch up each moment of your child's presence and never let go -- to preserve every gesture, to lock in for all eternity the sight of their curls or the feel of their fingers clasped around yours.
Here's the thing about Obama, the reason they call him a "natural" and a "rare talent." When Hillary Clinton spouts a cliché, it's four words long, she's reading it off a teleprompter, and it hits the ear like the fat part of a wooden oar. Even when Hillary announced she was running for president, she sounded like she was ordering coffee. Obama on the other hand can close his eyes and the clichés just pour out of his mouth in huge polysyllabic paragraphs, like Rachmaninoff improvisations. In this sense he's exactly like Bill Clinton, who had the same gift. He is exactly what is meant by the term bullshit artist.
My usual instinct when presented with this type of Zelig-esque, Eddie Haskell, non-stick personality is to violently reject it. But over the course of the last few weeks I've found myself increasingly amused by the Obama phenomenon. For one thing, he clearly pisses off Hillary to no end. Same with Biden and all of those other windbag jerk-off assholes in that revolting "national security Democrats" clan in the Senate. There is something subtly racist (in Biden's case, not so subtle) in the way these more entrenched Democrats are riding Obama's lack of credentials and acting like the '08 nomination is their birthright, like he hasn't "waited his turn" or something, paid his dues. As if any of these clowns would wait ten seconds to declare for the White House if they had the same odds that Obama has now.
I have no idea who Obama really is, but he is against the war now (and at least never voted for it) and he seems to infuriate the right people. He has people bitching now that he's not black enough, and there are obviously going to be plenty of people for whom he's too black. And both of those groups of people, frankly, deserve whatever's coming to them. So for the time being I'm going to enjoy his rise to the top, the same way I enjoyed reading The Red and The Black -- like another great phony, Julien Sorel, Obama is a perfect mirror of the society he was born to conquer, and his journey upward throws everyone he passes into stark, humorous relief. Whether I'll vote for him is another story. But he's certainly helping make it clear who shouldn't get my vote.
Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone.
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