Newsweek has the first of a seven part series up on how Obama did what seems to be impossible on paper—win the Presidency while up against not one, but two of the most popular politicians in D.C. while being black in a country where racism is still quite commonplace. If you’re a political junkie, this is great reading—total inside baseball, all soap opera. However, just reading the first part, I learned something new and had an assumption I’ve been carrying around for a long time vindicated.
The latter has everything to do with why Democrats were smart to go with Obama over Clinton. My feeling was that both were capable leaders, though both were centrist Democrats whose asses we had to ride the second they stepped into office. And the fact that we had a woman and a black man running meant that we were voting to break the streak of white men into the White House either way. But for me it came down to the war in Iraq and the existence of Mark Penn. On the former, since Obama didn’t support the war at any point in time, he was able to address that issue with the public in a straightforward manner, instead of hedging and making excuses like Kerry did. This story vindicates my feelings on that. Obama apparently characterized the war as “stupid” from the get-go. It wasn’t just that he was against it, but also that he seems to realize what should have been obvious from the get-go, which is that this war will turn sour very quickly, and everyone who was associated with it will pay the price.
But I also backed Obama because I wanted the Clinton style of campaigning over with. Mark Penn comes off as even more politically obtuse than I would have imagined in this piece. He’s so focused on trying to mold his candidate into this John Wayne masculine ideal that he won’t allow in evidence that his strategies aren’t working. I found it quite telling that Clinton had a minor meltdown after she choked up in public, because Penn had been hammering at her how she needed to be the tough guy, but David Axelrod—Obama’s campaign strategist—was open-minded enough to take the incident for what it was.
Obama’s strategist David Axelrod was on the campaign bus when word came that Clinton had teared up, experienced some sort of breakdown. Some of Obama’s aides began chortling about an Ed Muskie moment, but when Axelrod went online and saw a video feed of the incident, he had an uneasy feeling. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, Ed Muskie and all that’,” Axelrod later recalled. “But it didn’t come across that way to me at all. It came across as a moment of humanity from someone who badly needed to show one.”
That was my feeling at the time, too. I liked Clinton in that moment, and it made me resent all her handlers that kept trying to make her be something she’s not, when who she is is just fine. She’s already a nervous person, but the amount of pressure on her to be a cool cucumber that comes across as somewhat masculine made her even jumpier. Comparisons to Muskie are unfounded—different person, different time, different set of pressures. Two big things have changed. First of all, we live in the age of Oprah, and thus being emotional is not seen so much as undermining your own authority. Some people try to hang that on Oprah, but the ratings and her continued place in the public eye don’t lie. More importantly, we live in an exceedingly cynical age, when the number of strategists and handlers around politicians inclines the public to think that they never have an uncalculated moment. We have grown to quit thinking of the people in D.C. as operating with human motivations, but instead see them as unemotional lizards whose decision-making is motivated strictly by greed and calculation. That it’s actually impossible for so many people to be so inhuman doesn’t challenge this view. Subsequently, the moment anyone shows that he or she is actually a lot like the rest of us, we like them more. That, I think as much as anything, is why the Lewinsky scandal improved the popularity of both Clintons. All of a sudden we realized they aren’t some bloodless ambition monsters, but actually people (like us!) who have flaws and multi-faceted desires and make mistakes. Clinton choking up did the same thing, and frankly, it kept her campaign alive.
What I learned new relates to that. This story gives you the strong impression that Obama is the guy he says he is. His campaign team works more by intuition than by applying rock hard principles that they won’t change, and most of the criticism of Obama comes from himself. Indeed, this is why he can bend to the desires of the public, become what they need him to be, and it doesn’t come across as slick or phony. Because he’s right there with them. The way he adopted the cadence of a preacher really illustrates this—it comes across more as someone stepping into a role than someone putting up a front to lure others in. I found myself relating to the guy, reading this article. He’s an introverted extrovert, which is rare in a politician and can be very off-putting to people. (Believe me, as someone who is like that, I know. You like people and like to be in the spotlight, but you’re also inner-driven and intense, and that doesn’t tend to mesh well with the former and people have trouble figuring you out.) Obama is also intensely attached to his family in a way that’s rare for people that are so ambitious.
There’s some pretty fun stuff from the highlights, making me very eager to read the next 6 chapters of this feature story. The best is something you’ve probably already heard:
NEWSWEEK has also learned that Palin’s shopping spree at high-end department stores was more extensive than previously reported. While publicly supporting Palin, McCain’s top advisers privately fumed at what they regarded as her outrageous profligacy. One senior aide said that Nicolle Wallace had told Palin to buy three suits for the convention and hire a stylist. But instead, the vice presidential nominee began buying for herself and her family—clothes and accessories from top stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. According to two knowledgeable sources, a vast majority of the clothes were bought by a wealthy donor, who was shocked when he got the bill. Palin also used low-level staffers to buy some of the clothes on their credit cards. The McCain campaign found out last week when the aides sought reimbursement. One aide estimated that she spent “tens of thousands” more than the reported $150,000, and that $20,000 to $40,000 went to buy clothes for her husband. Some articles of clothing have apparently been lost. An angry aide characterized the shopping spree as “Wasilla hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast,” and said the truth will eventually come out when the Republican Party audits its books.
If she wants to hang onto the spotlight, she better get out of being a politician, because this sort of shit means the party is cutting her off. If she’s smart, she’ll go into some sort of media job, though I don’t know how she could do that, either, because she’s a terrible interview. Maybe she could be a televangelist.
This sort of thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it. It’s a nice reminder that yes, politicians are people, too.