February 21, 2008

Only Words -- It looks like the big "plagiarism" charge against Obama went nowhere, just as it should have, and the Clinton communications guy who leveled the charge ought to be in the doghouse because it was a petty charge with no substance and it just made the campaign look lame and desperate. Not what the Clinton campaign needs right now. It is an interesting argument, though. What Obama said, which was adapted from what his friend Deval Patrick said in response to the same charge, was just that being able to come up with stirring rhetoric is not just a superficial thing. This is not a new idea any more than the charge was a new idea. These are all things that are repeated over and over in political battles, like the phrase "my fellow Americans". The idea that Obama was committing some kind of crime or malfeasance by repeating the idea that words do matter is ludicrous.

The point is an important one. In fact, the historical figures quoted are known primarily for their powerful language. JFK, FDR, Martin Luther King, Lincoln, Jefferson, etc. made history by their use of language, the primary medium for the transmission of ideas. What else are they known and remembered for? How did they fight their battles? Yes, on occasion people like Martin Luther King took to the streets and risked being jailed, beaten or even killed. But in most cases, the great people in political history fought their battles with words and ideas. That is how the game is played. Yes, there are political battles fought through strategies of law and legislative processes. But even then the construction of arguments is the primary medium of exchange. We're not talking wrestling or combat.

On the same track, all the talk about how experienced Clinton is, how battle hardened she is, seems to be a fairly weak argument, and it is proving to be in the battle against Obama. People say, "She's a fighter. She's had everything thrown at her and she's survived and come back." But she has only run in two elections in her life, no more than Obama. She may have had to fight against attacks and slander in the court of public opinion, but she is not very experienced in fighting in campaigns and winning elections. And she is not doing so well against Obama. She seems at a loss as to how to fight him. What, after all, is the stuff of elections? It's about words and ideas, and other subtler things that create the qualities of leadership, what stirs people.

Hillary says, sure Obama gives a great speech, but speeches don't put food on the table. The same charge was brought against JFK, that it was all just "charisma", which was implied to be just about his good looks. True the women loved him, but it wasn't just about good looks. In contrast, look at Mitt Romney. He's not a bad-looking man, but it doesn't take him very far because he is wooden, talks like a hand-puppet, and has nothing to say that inspires anyone. JFK stirred people because he was very smart, was brilliant with ideas and language. He developed his speaking ability as he practiced, but it was the words themselves that created his appeal, the ideas, the aspirations. It wasn't superficial gestures and flourishes and good looks and nice suits.

Hillary, for all her talk about experience, is not an inspiring campaigner, and it's not just about some superficial, dramatic talent. It's about what she has to say. She herself does not seem to be particularly inspired by what she has to say. He language is dull, and her ideas are dull. Her short senate career has been dull. She has not distinguished herself by taking bold stands on things. She has methodically made her deals, stacked up political debts, built her power base. She's a very smart, very calculated politician, but not very inspiring. If Obama had not appeared in the vacuum of presidential politics, she would be the presumed nominee at this point. But he did appear and he does stir people with his language. And it's not just a superficial quality. It's about language, the primary medium of ideas, of action, of human civilization.

Almost all presidential candidates come out with books these days as an extension of the political collateral. JFK, who was a reporter before he was a politician, set the trend with his books Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage. George W. Bush came out with his book A Charge to Keep, which was written by Karen Hughes, and Bush doesn't give the impression he even read it, any more than he reads anything else. The typical candidate's book is ghost written. Bill Clinton's memoir is a real memoir. He no doubt had editorial assistance as most author's do to some degree, but it's his voice and his story and it's a real book. Hillary's book also appears to be really her book, and really her voice, but it's dull. It's calculated, and pieced together, as she is, and it's very dull reading.

Obama wrote a book in 1994, Dreams From My Father, and it is a real book by a real writer. It's not just the obligatory politician's book. Pick it up and read the first two paragraphs and you know you are in the hands of someone with a powerful mind, a real writer who can form cogent, gripping ideas and pull you into the narrative, fascinated to see what will come in the next paragraph. Is this superficial? I think not. I think that is just an attack made by people who do not share the talent. And it is an uncommon talent.

I'm not all giddy about Obama. I'm not drinking the kool aid and giving up my mind in order to grab onto an image of a saviour who will solve all my problems and take away the necessity to think or take responsibility. There are problems, and will be problems no matter what happens. He has taken less than satisfactory positions on many issues in my view. He appears to be very cozy with Wall Street titans. He has taken many positions which are far too compromising with the predatory corporatist powers. Who knows where this all goes? But on this point about words and about the Obama phenomenon being based on something superficial, it's just not true. He's not that good looking. It's not about dramatic flair, it's about the substance of what he has to say.

One of the Hillary arguments is that you can't create change if you don't know how the system works, if you have no experience in it. But the presidency George W. Bush belies her statement. He had little experience, little knowledge, even little curiosity to gain knowledge, and whatever you think of him, he effected a revolution in Washington. He effectively overturned our system of government, stripped it of its last remaining trappings of constitutional democracy, nullified checks and balances, privatized the whole system. Detestable in my opinion, but you can't say his lack of knowledge stopped him from making changes.

The only choices we have now are Obama, McCain and Clinton. And in that range Obama looks pretty good. Hillary's problem is her message itself. For all her talk about experience, it ultimately doesn't count for that much. Everyone has some experience during a lifetime. She's been a senator for eight years. Yes, she worked in the Clinton administration, but there is little evidence that her contribution was very successful. Yes, she's done other work of note in her life, other activism. She was a young lawyer working on the Watergate hearings. She's been around. She says she's accomplished a lot, but who knows what exactly? She doesn't seem to have the necessary qualities of leadership. Her ideas are very pedestrian. She's not been daring and can't come up with anything very original now. It's just that repeating mantra about experience. She doesn't inspire, she doesn't stir. She has not been a profile in courage in the senate. She makes excuses that she didn't know enough to oppose the war authorization. Not very heroic. Not very inspiring and I'm afraid not what we desperately need in this desperate time.

The hope in Obama is that the man can live up to the hope that is being put into him, that he will be transformed through the movement he has become identified with, that he will rise to the occasion, follow his better instincts and become the instrument of the hopes and deep discontent of the people as he has now already become the voice that articulates those aspirations. And no one knows if that will happen. Whatever happens, as Noam Chomsky says, democracy is not just about casting a vote and then going home and forgetting about it till the next election. Whoever enters the White House next, it is important to keep up the vigilance and the pressure to do the right thing.

-- David Cogswell

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