Sunday, August 30, 2009

Not an Age for Oratory

Another day, another complaint that President Obama isn’t manning up to his oratory on, well, fill in the blank: healthcare, global warming, getting to zero nukes, getting Congress to pull up its socks. Or that his oratory isn’t manning up to what we want it to be, to do for us. And yes, I chose that verb deliberately. There’s an edge of macho to the complaints, but that’s not the whole story.

We want our ponies right now! And we want our president to show how tough he is, to show real leadership by telling us what we should be doing and thinking. And we want to be inspired, perhaps to feel how good we really are or could be if we had the right leadership.

I think the pony problem speaks for itself. But there’s something to be said about strong, manly presidents and inspiration.

We have just had a president, from 2001 to early this year, who was only too happy to show us how tough he was and to tell us what we should think and do, that we should leave all the hard stuff, like whether we torture prisoners, to him, and that his tax cuts for the wealthy and freeing the financiers up to do whatever they thought good would make this a stronger country. He showed his principle by refusing to talk to the bad guys, whether they were in North Korea or the US Congress, and he swaggered around with a chain saw to clear the brush at his ranch, a metaphor for clearing our vision so that we could see what good he was doing for us and the country.

Ah, but this new guy is supposed to be the good guy, so if he swaggers and tells the Congress how to do it’s business, that’s for the good, right? Please.

I watched the whole of Teddy Kennedy’s funeral. (Thank you, New York Times, for the webcast!) It was inspiring. I particularly liked the part where the youngest relatives prayed for Teddy’s ideals. Bob Herbert writes about the Kennedy ability to inspire. But much of Teddy’s ability to inspire was by personal interaction, not by Jack’s oratory. Joe Biden talked about that kind of inspiration.

Ah, couldn’t we wish that Barack Obama, known to be a skilled orator, could lift us as Jack Kennedy did, or perhaps as we now think that Jack Kennedy did.

Kennedy offered his oratorical inspiration at a very different time. The fifties were a dispiriting decade, even though the material circumstances of Americans improved. The Soviets had matched the American nuclear arsenal, bomb for bomb, and in 1957 beat us into orbital space. The indecisive end of the Korean War, following World War II, showed limits we didn’t think we had. China joined the Communist world and set off the witch-hunting of Joe McCarthy and others. Young people were becoming disaffected with what seemed to them the mindless materialism of their parents. Not with a bang, but a whimper was becoming more plausible, even while the bang hovered close by.

By the end of that decade, when Jack Kennedy ran for president, the problem was apathy, not noise; a unity in blandness, not division.

America now resembles the America of 1953 more than the America of 1960. We have the rightwing accusations and lies. We have wars to argue over. We don’t need inspirational oratory now; it would be too close to inflammatory. Although Obama is often compared to Jack Kennedy, his task is more like Dwight Eisenhower’s: to keep the country moving forward and deal with external threats while keeping the people together.

Congress is dysfunctional and public discourse is ugly. President Obama is giving Congress a chance to recall its purpose by developing the healthcare reform bill. He’s giving the public a chance to rebuild its ability to discuss public policy by holding back on pronouncing The Way Things Should Be. And, in any case, who would find him credible if he did?

Yes, it’s frustrating at times that January 20th didn’t switch us from The Matrix to reality, which was one of the implications of those Bush countdown clocks. But that was never an option.

America is a democracy, which means that all of us are responsible for governance, not just the President. Could things be arranged better in our political system? Undoubtedly. But this system has worked before to give us Medicare, Social Security, and the Church Committee. We’re going to have to work with what we’ve got. And it’s all of us that have to do it, not just one man, however capable he may be.

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