Monday, April 21, 2008


Sam Smith

Watching Clinton and Obama debate the other evening, I recalled a video I had seen in the 1990s of DC City Council chair John Wilson speaking to a class of University of DC students - some slouching, some with hats precisely askew, some adjusting their carefully contrived facial expression - and telling them that attitude wouldn't take them far in life. Wilson knew; the one time civil rights activist had made it far and it had taken a lot more than attitude.

I wish that Clinton and Obama had heard him because both candidates have constructed campaigns that are extraordinarily egocentric, overburdened with image manipulation and devoid of that arcane element known as issues that one used to find in campaigns. Of course, they are not the first to practice this sort of politics; it was, after all, Senator Clinton's husband who convinced her party that it didn't need to believe in anything.

Certainly Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos didn't help matters with their churlish questions. But, among the media, it wasn't only their fault. A few days later Teresa Wiltz raised the level of the campaign with this analysis on the front page of the Washington Post's Style section:

"There's Barack Obama, fresh from Wednesday's debate dust-up, beleaguered but still standing, acknowledging that he's taken some hits from his opponent, some mighty hits, but you know, it's okay, because that's politics. Ultimately, you've got to . . . And then he -- pay attention now -- brushes the dirt off his shoulders. Repeatedly. The crowd leaps to its feet, applauding and laughing. Talk about a major Jay-Z move. People, we're talking about a seminal moment in the campaign, the merging of politics and pop culture: in which a presidential candidate -- a self-confessed hip-hop head and Jay-Z fan -- references a rap hit and a dance move."

Consider the Gibson-Stephanopoulos knife jabs. If Obama had a serious plan to deal with the economic crisis, the environment or public education, even a lazy television head might have picked one of those topics. But what sort of question can you ask Obama? You ask him about anything serious and you'll soon be choking on the abstractions and the babble about hope and change. So it's too inviting to turn to malicious trivia. And if you're a journalist stuck for a lead, you happily make the major Jay-Z move.

Both Obama and Clinton have made themselves the only issue that matters and both are paying the price of it - with more of the cost yet to come.

In one case, the plan falters on the fact that a guy who was an unknown state senator only four years ago has, through the magic of cliches and public relations, transformed himself into an appealing mythical metaphor of multiculturalism. And as he put himself in The Audacity of Hope, "I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views." Since writing that book the screen had remained remarkably vacant, demonstrating at least the audacity of Obama's own hope.

In Clinton's case, we have the myth of her 35 years of experience, largely undefined except for length, although it is likely that the GOP will fill in more of the gaps during the general election should she pull off the nomination.

While Bill Clinton got away with treating national policy as one long television commercial, it is worth remembering that he initially snuck in thanks to Ross Perot. Further, as a con artist, he is far more skilled than either his wife or Obama.

The Republicans, on the other hand, can put up a candidate as intrinsically weak as John McCain and still have him run neck and neck with either of the two Democrats, despite each having extraordinarily passionate constituencies.

The difference is that the GOP believes in something that transcends whoever is running for office. For nearly three decades, in fact, Republican mythology has so dominated political discussion that the media and the public accept much of it as the norm, witness in the war on terror and the limitless virtues of capitalism.

The fact that the GOP is wrong, heartless, stupid and mean about much of this merely adds power to the argument that it helps to believe in something.

Ever since Bill Clinton dismantled the Democratic belief system, his party has virtually forgotten what it thinks. It has no comprehensible plan for the economy, the environment, the Iraqi war, cities, education or who's coming for dinner. It has become just another House of Pancake Makeup, presenting what it believes will look good on television.

But if it is enough that Clinton is the icon of feminism and Obama the image of a new, younger, hipper America, why aren't they doing better?

Obama gave part of the answer, unintentionally, with his bitter analysis of small town America. Like any good postmodernist he could deconstruct the problem; he just couldn't reconstruct an alternative. And so he reduced the people he was meant to be helping to just so many more subtexts.

If the Democrats really want to win this election they have to come up with better reasons than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And they need the Obamas and the Clintons of the party to be able to express these reasons in a passionate, convincing manner that will appeal to voters. Among the useful side effects of this: who ate dinner with Obama ten years ago becomes far less interesting.

It shouldn't be that hard to argue that collapsing pension plans are more important than a few married gays in the neighborhood. Or that poor healthcare kills more people than abortion. Or that retrofitting America so our children won't have to live in an ecological desert isn't a bad idea.

But until people in the party's high places come to believe in something, the Democrats will continue to wallow their apathy over issues and wonder why the GOP does so well. And their perfect candidates will continue to lose and they will continue to wake up the day after the election mumbling, "It isn't fair"

FDR's campaign manager, Jim Farley, would sometimes tell unhappy members of his party: "Just remember, behind a Democratic candidate, no matter how bad, are other Democrats. But behind a Republican candidate, no matter how good, are other Republicans."

It was a good line because in those days everyone knew what a Democrat stood for. Today, nobody does.


At 3:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good essay!


At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What anon. above said.

At 10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With each state primary we get to see the skin of the onion stripped away, one layer at a time. And it becomes increasingly more obvious that Obama and Clinton are not the answer we need for a new direction for this country. The Green Party is looking better every day. I'm seriously hoping Cynthia McKinney not only wins the Green Party nomination but is included in national debates so Americans can actually see and hear a real alternative.


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Your editor has been a musician for many decades. He started the first band his Quaker school ever had and played drums with bands up until 1980 when he switched to stride piano. He had his own band until the mid-1990s and has played with the New Sunshine Jazz Band, Hill City Jazz Band, Not So Modern Jazz Band and the Phoenix Jazz Band.


Here are a few tracks:





APEX BLUES   Sam playing with the Phoenix Jazz Band at the Central Ohio Jazz festival in 1990. Joining the band is George James on sax. James, then 84, had been a member of the Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller orchestras and hadappeared on some 60 records. More notes on James

WISER MAN  Sam piano & vocal

OH MAMA  Sam piano & vocal