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Friday, February 1, 2008

No nasties in Camelot

Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama has deep cultural implications. Along with Caroline Kennedy's and Patricky Kennedy's support for Obama, it is a repudiation of the kind of politics that that characterizes recent campaigns. As reported by The New York Times and Time, Ted Kennedy had conversations with the Clintons about the tack Hillary's campaign took in adopting the Republican strategy of "defining" Obama. It has led to other politicians, who see this as the Republican style of campaigning. to throw their support behind Obama.

When people are attacked in demeaning, untruthful, and accusatory ways, they are sorely tempted to respond in kind. The exchanges between John McCain and Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee exemplify this tactic. Romney himself has termed some of the attacks on him as a return to the Nixon era. When the Clintons decided to play rough with Obama, they appeared to be adopting those Republican tactics and, consequently, offended a large portion of their own party. The Kennedys' endorsement of Barack Obama was a repudiation of the kind of "rhetoric" that has damaged politics and lead to the deadlocks in Congress. Personal animus displaces reason and intelligence.
When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced each other Thursday night, they avoided the querulous rancor that so delights the electronic media which promotes intense animosity between debaters because they assume that is what people want to see and that's what attracts viewers. Instead, Senators Clinton and Obama engaged in a conversation that was civil, articulate, respectful, and, most of all, substantive. If people did not know what distinguishes the positions of the two candidates after that debate, they are not capable of knowing. The debate was an exchange of information and perspectives--an expository performance that is essential to any true debate. And that confounded those who think debate occurs only when there is nasty exchange and rancorous denouncements of other participants in a debate.

Bill Schneider of CNN opined that Obama did himself no favor by being nice. He said that Obama needs to make a more forceful assertion of himself, presumably by a personal attack on Sen. Clinton, if he us to attract needed support. Behind that statement is the assumption that the American people are drooling idiots who can respond only to Jerry Springer-like confrontations of mindless rancor. It is the opposite of Ralph Waldo Emerson's appraisal of audiences: "There is also something excellent in every audience,—the capacity of virtue. They are ready to be beatified."

The Republican National Committee in one of those mean, jeering school-yard taunts that passes for wit and satire among its witless and petulant minions, issued issued this "actors' awards" statement about the debate:

Actor in a leading role: Barack Obama, for his performance as Clinton's "friend" after snubbing her three days earlier.

Actress in a leading role: Hillary Clinton for her performance reaching out her hand "in friendship and unity" for three days. (This claim of a snub has been soundly refuted as a contrived ihterpretation by a press corps that wants and needs a fight.)

Writing (Adaptation of a screenplay): Hillary Clinton for rewriting her record.

Director: John Edwards for dictating the first 15 minutes.

Cinematography: CNN for capturing Hollywood's love of the Democratic candidates

The Kennedy endorsement was a call for politics on a higher plane. It is not a one family issue.

The press also totally ignored a bi-partisan conference of leaders at the University of Oklahoma early in January called to deal with the partisan gridlock that impedes the national business. The press could only fix on Mayor Bloomberg of NYC and whether he would announce as an independent candidate for president.

The Kennedy endorsements of Obama were a repudiation of those factors that cause the gridlock in Congress and affect the national business generally. While some people like to think of the Kennedy era as Camelot, the Kennedys represent a long tradition of New England reformers of which Ralph Waldo Emerson was the best known because of the lectures he delivered in out- of - the - way places throughout America. Obama's offering of hope is in that tradition. He echoes these words of Emerson's:

  • Government exists to defend the weak and the poor and the injured party; the rich and the strong can better take care of themselves.

  • Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.

  • Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.

  • The people know that they need in their representative much more than talent, namely, the power to make his talent trusted.

  • We shall one day learn to supersede politics by education. What we call our root-and-branch reforms of slavery, war, gambling, intemperance, is only medicating the symptoms. We must begin higher up, namely, in Education.
You can be assured that the attempts by Ted Kennedy to raise the level of campaign politics will be met by the Republicans and their blogging automatons with recitations about Chappaquiddick and Obama's secret life as a Muslim and a member of a black-racist church in Chicago.

In their last debate, Senators Clinton and Obama gave us a glimpse of what good will, good preparation, and substantive purpose can product. That is not to say that they did not make some factual errors during the course of their discussion. But what a relief it was from the tabloid fixations of the press and the relentless malevolence of the blogs.

While I am sometimes accused of being anti-blogger, my criticism of blogs is that they seldom rise above the level of petty meanness, malevolence, and self-absorption. That brings to mind another observation from Emerson:
  • There can be no high civility without a deep morality, though it may not always call itself by that name.
The interest in the younger voters generated by Obama is from his offer of hope in a political culture that often serves the meanest motives rather than the highest aspirations.

The time of Emerson is called the American Renaissance in literary circles. The efforts to elevate political debate from the degraded depths is an attempt to capture that spirit and purpose again. There are many people who want that rebirth of decency.

The conference at the University of Oklahoma, the Kennedy family endorsement of Obama, and the debate that ensued show us what politics can be. The voices of good will and justice get outshouted in the malign clamor that forms the official style book of one of our major political parties and adopted by much of the media. We heard the voices of good will and justice in at least one debate, if anyone cared to listen.

1 comment:

Sarkozy said...

Thank you for this piece... well said on pretty every much every front. Please join "South Dakotans for Barack Obama", a Facebook group recently created. I hope we can keep the nasties out. See and join us. I really enjoyed what you had to say...

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States