"Human Greatness" is an unusual energy coupled with straightness, the direct shooting mind, it is incompatible with a man's lying to himself, it does not indulge in petty pretences.
Ezra Pound (GK, p. 106)
Pound had Mussolini. Norman Mailer had JFK. We, I, have Barack Obama.
I first began to like Obama when watching him handle himself in confrontations with Hillary Clinton, whether in real-time debates or in his responses to journalists about her most recent attack. He has a way of accepting the facts (where they are not obviously skewed) and taking a position on the real point of contention. Also, like Pound's Mussolini (which is to say, a larger than life statue of the man), Obama seems to display a "swiftness of mind ... in the speed with which his real emotion is shown on his face" (GK, p. 105).
So I was eagerly looking forward to reading his book, The Audacity of Hope. Now, my eagerness here was obviously tempered with the certainty that I would be largely disappointed. Mailer, let us remember, would be "forced" to admit that, by ordinary standards, Kennedy did not write well (imagine Pound having to comment on Mussolini's poetry!). But there is still better and worse writing, and I think Mailer offers us a good model for an analysis of The Audacity of Hope in his review of Lyndon Johnson's My Hope for America.
Of course, a book written by a high official must not be judged by average standards, or one would be forced to say, for example, that Jack Kennedy was not a very good writer and that Bobby Kennedy, at last reading, wrote a dead stick's prose—his style almost as bad as J. Edgar Hoover's. But even at its worst, the prose style of Jack Kennedy (and his ghost writers) is to the prose of L.B.J. (and his ghost writers) as de Tocqueville is to Ayn Rand. It is even not impossible that My Hope for America is the worst book ever written by any political leader anywhere. (Cannibals and Christians, p. 48)
Now, even Obama's title is better than Johnson's. And its source, the Rev. Wright, is of course much more interesting. It should remind us that part of Mailer's hope for Kennedy was that he could "play fair" with Castro. In his open letter to JFK, Mailer articulated the theme of the "imperfect union", let's say, that is the United States. This was in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs.
You are in trouble. Your best troops now fear that you are not deep enough to direct the destinies of our lives. And if you are not, the country will deaden a little more, even as it increases in its fevers, and the imagination of the best will will begin to harden into the separate undergrounds of a New left and a new Right, ready to war against the oppressive, flatulent, and totalitarian center of our beleaguered land.
Do not hold to that center, Jack, it is the pusillanimous sludge of liberal and conservative bankruptcies, a pus of old jargons which will whip into no militant history, but may be analyzed eventually by the chemists as the ingredient which smudges the ink on such mothers of the center as the N.Y. Post. (The Presidential Papers, p. 78)
Of course, Obama has not yet been in a position to screw up the invasion of a country whose music he did not understand (Mailer's analysis of the Bay of Pigs). So we can use this warning as an audacious expression of our hope for Obama, namely, that he is deep enough to direct the destinies of our lives. The next president of the United States will, arguably, either be that deep or destroy us (at least the vital parts of us). If Obama succeeds, he will have to defeat the "totalitarian center" of US politics. (Interestingly, McCain offers more hope in this regard than Clinton.)
I generally like Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech. I think he manages to avoid the worst pitfalls in his "condemnation" of the Rev. Wright's opinion of America, which, like many European, left-leaning, intellectual types, I find much less objectionable than his American critics. I was disappointed, around eight minutes into the speech, to hear Obama say that "the problems of the Middle East ... emanate from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." That's a pretty simpleminded thing to say. It's the sort of thing a presidential candidate arguably "has to say", so we can forgive it in its way. But Obama's appeal to me has so far been his ability to avoid saying what a candidate has to say. And even this he seems to acknowledge when he talks about "a candidacy as imperfect as mine".
After 9/11, Le Monde famously declared that "We are all Americans". Indeed, in the years that followed we all got our versions of the Patriot Act and of "home grown terror cells". Even before 9/11, I was arguing among my friends that we should give up the European Union and subscribe directly to the US Constitution, that Denmark should become just another state in the union. That would, for example, allow us to vote on who should become the Leader of the Free World. That is the audacity of my hope for America.
If Obama is not elected, my hopes will be diminished. I am going to spend a few posts on this topic.