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The Courtier Chronicles

From the Scrapbook.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09
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The Courtier Chronicles

It's been difficult, it really has, but THE SCRAPBOOK has read every last bit of triumphalist commentary on Barack Obama's election. The International Code of Punditry compels us. Some of the analysis, we are happy to report, has been sober and thought-provoking. And there's no doubt that the election of America's first black president is a historic milestone.

But most of the punditry has been--and we say this with as much understatement as we can muster--a bunch of bull. So we've been keeping a file of the over-the-top reactions to The One's ascendance. Here are some of the worst. Be prepared to gag.

"Some princes are born in palaces. Some are born in mangers. But a few are born in the imagination, out of scraps of history and hope. Barack Obama never talks about how people see him: I'm not the one making history, he said every chance he got. You are. Yet as he looked out Tuesday night through the bulletproof glass, in a park named for a Civil War general, he had to see the truth on people's faces. We are the ones we've been waiting for, he liked to say, but people were waiting for him, waiting for someone to finish what a King began. .  .  .

"Barack Hussein Obama did not win because of the color of his skin. Nor did he win in spite of it. He won because at a very dangerous moment in the life of a still young country, more people than have ever spoken before came together to try to save it. And that was a victory all its own."

--Time editor-at-large Nancy Gibbs in that magazine's November 17 issue.

"Yes, it is time to hope again.

"Time to hope that the era of racial backlash and wedge politics is over. Time to imagine that the patriotism of dissenters will no longer be questioned and that the world will no longer be divided between 'values voters' and those with no moral compass. Time to expect that an ideological label will no longer be enough to disqualify a politician.

"Above all, it is time to celebrate the country's wholehearted embrace of democracy, reflected in the intense engagement of Americans in this campaign and the outpouring to the polls all over the nation. For years, we have spoken of bringing free elections to the rest of the world even as we cynically mocked our own ways of conducting politics. Yesterday, we chose to practice what we have been preaching."

--Washington Post columnist
E.J. Dionne Jr., November 5

"We will have a President who can think and feel and speak; we will have a grownup who will treat us like grownups. The Bush era is over. And the Clinton era. And the Reagan era. And the 1960s."

--New Yorker staff writer George Packer, on his blog, November 5

Those are the more cringe-worthy reactions. Other Obama supporters were simply indecipherable.

"Youths literally run the world. Kids probably have the loudest voice together than anyone."

--actress Hayden Panetierre, quoted in the October 27 Washington Post.

"The social and political narrative of the last eight years, if you're a young adult, has been 'you are the first generation of the second half of the rest of human existence.' That's a huge psychological undertaking, and I believe it's one that will someday be diagnosed on a massive scale as having led to a kind of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Something has to explain away our premature obsession with 1980s nostalgia.) My generation has come to know itself as the generation that should have seen the good days, my, were they spectacular, now take off your shoes and place them on the belt.

"What Barack Obama says to me is these days are good for something."

--singer John Mayer in
the Huffington Post, October 29

"[Obama] stands on the shoulders of the crowds [in Grant Park] of four decades ago. .  .  . His rebellion takes the form of practicality. He has the audacity of reason."

--author Todd Gitlin, quoted
in the November 5 New York Times

Still others focused on the more, um, tangential aspects of Obama's victory.

"Over the coming days and weeks, there will be many 'I never thought I'd see the day' pieces, but none of them will be more overflowing with 'I never thought I'd see the day'-ness than this one. I'm black, you see, and I haven't gained a pound since college. I skip breakfast most days, have maybe half a sandwich for lunch, and sometimes I forget to eat dinner. Just slips my mind. Yesterday morning, I woke up to a new world. America had elected a Skinny Black Guy president.

"I never thought I'd see the day. What were the chances that someone who looked like me would come to lead the most powerful nation on earth? Slim."

--author Colson Whitehead,
"Finally, a Thin President," in the November 5 New York Times

We hope Whitehead was trying to be funny.

Thomas Friedman's Civil War

And so it came to pass that when Thomas (The World Is Flat) Friedman wrote his first New York Times column about the election of the first black president, he declared: "And so it came to pass that on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man .  .  . won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States."

A sentence or two later Friedman suggests that the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Bull Run--actually, it was at Fort Sumter--but our point is that Barack Obama's electoral triumph, remarkable in itself, could benefit from slightly less breathless rhetoric. The American Civil War, which cost more lives than all other American wars combined, did not end in 2008 but in 1865--or, depending on your point of view, with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. It did not end with the integration of the armed forces (1948), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965), or even with Rep. Shirley Chisholm's presidential campaign (1972).

Let's retire this tired, and misleading, cliché.

And while it is true that Senator Obama is our first African-American president, we would counsel the Friedmans and other hyperventilators to tread lightly around that particular hackneyed thought as well. The press has a long and condescending history of overexcitement about (and overinterpretation of) racial "firsts" in our country--so much, indeed, that the meaning of these particular distinctions is lost.

Just in the past few decades in America we have witnessed the first black mayor of Newark, the first black CEO of a Fortune 500 company, the first black senator since Reconstruction, the first black coach of an NFL team, the first black cabinet secretary, the first black star of a network sitcom, the first black Ivy League president, the first black to be a candidate for nomination as vice president by a major party, the first black admiral, the first black governor since Reconstruction, the first black astronaut, the first black Supreme Court justice, and the first black winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress. And the list goes on.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president the first time, in 1984, he liked to say, "American politics will never, ever, be the same again." He was right, of course--but not in the way he meant. The effect of Jackson's candidacy was to transmute its significance from politics to race. Did Jackson's 1984 campaign influence the course of the Reagan presidency or the conservative political ascendancy which ended this year? Of course it didn't. And the election of the first black mayor of a major city (Cleveland, 1967!) neither transformed Cleveland nor much affected conditions in urban America.

It will not be Barack Obama's race, or his status as the latest in a long line of "firsts," that determines his place in history, but his policies as president, which will either succeed or fail. For as Thomas (The World is Hot, Flat and Crowded) Friedman ought to know, but apparently does not, it was another, earlier president--Abraham Lincoln (1861-65)--who ended the Civil War.

The Richard Nixon Sore Winner Award

The story was told, by his law partner Leonard Garment, if we recall correctly, that Richard Nixon's private reaction upon winning his historic 1972 landslide victory was not delight but a surly vow to get the SOBs who'd opposed him. In that spirit, THE SCRAPBOOK hereby inaugurates the Richard Nixon Sore Winner award, which we will bestow on a semi-regular basis on angry lefties who don't know how to take yes for an answer. This week we honor Paul Krugman, whose morning-after November 5 blog for the New York Times celebrated the end of "the monster years":

For the past 14 years America's political life has been largely dominated by, well, monsters. Monsters like Tom DeLay, who suggested that the shootings at Columbine happened because schools teach students the theory of evolution. Monsters like Karl Rove, who declared that liberals wanted to offer "therapy and understanding" to terrorists. Monsters like Dick Cheney, who saw 9/11 as an opportunity to start torturing people.

And in our national discourse, we pretended that these monsters were reasonable, respectable people.

That hilarious, feigned concern for "our national discourse" from a man who does his best to degrade it on a regular basis is what separates a Nobel Prize winner from a run-of-the-mill ranter at the Daily Kos and makes Krugman our first Nixon Sore Winner laureate.

Rather Enjoyable

Even with all the excitement of the presidential election, THE SCRAPBOOK is gratified to report that life goes on. For example, Dan Rather's $70 million lawsuit against CBS is still wending its way slowly through the civil courts in New York.

The suit, for those readers who might not be following the gavel-to-gavel coverage, contends that a panel of outside experts, convened by CBS to evaluate a (discredited) 2004 story on President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, fatally damaged Rather's career by making him the fall guy for the whole disaster, ultimately leading to his retirement as news reader for the CBS Evening News.

From THE SCRAPBOOK's standpoint, the most enjoyable part of the lawsuit is Rather's contention that CBS assembled the panel, and cooked its conclusions, in order to "mollify the right" and curry favor with George W. Bush, who was running for reelection when the phony story was broadcast. As they might say down in Dan Rather's part of Texas, if you believe that CBS ever breaks a sweat worrying about conservatives in America, or earning points with any Republican administration, we have a bridge made of squashed armadillo shells we'd like to sell you.

The problem for THE SCRAPBOOK is not the particulars of the case--it has long been settled that the Bush/National Guard story, presented by Rather, was a lie based on lies--but which side to root for. Of course, we expect to see Dan Rather lose his preposterous lawsuit--and how nice it would be for him to pay the defendants' legal costs as well--but it sure is tough to conjure up sympathy for CBS. It was the self-styled Tiffany network, after all, that chose Rather to succeed Walter Cronkite in 1981--in preference to, say, Roger Mudd, who would have been a far less catastrophic choice--and it was executives at CBS who stood solidly behind Rather during earlier, equally outrageous, episodes of bias and misreporting. The network's current problems with Dan Rather are entirely its own fault.

So maybe we should settle for strict neutrality. Let CBS's ankles be pecked ad infinitum by Dan Rather, and let the 77-year-old Rather continue broadcasting on the HDNet cable network to his dozens of loyal viewers. The two parties to this ludicrous litigation deserve each other.

Erica Jong's Fear of Losing

Überfeminist author Erica Jong must be breathing a sigh of relief. In an interview in Corriere della Sera, and as noted in the New York Observer, Jong's fear was that "if Obama loses it will spark the second American Civil War. Blood will run in the streets, believe me. And it's not a coincidence that President Bush recalled soldiers from Iraq for Dick Cheney to lead against American citizens in the streets." Highlights, provided to the Observer's Jason Horowitz by Christian Rocca of Il Foglio include:

 "My friends Ken Follett and Susan Cheever are extremely worried. Naomi Wolf calls me every day. Yesterday, Jane Fonda sent me an email to tell me that she cried all night and can't cure her ailing back for all the stress that has reduced her to a bundle of nerves."

  "My back is also suffering from spasms, so much so that I had to see an acupuncturist and get prescriptions for Valium."

 "After having stolen the last two elections, the Republican Mafia .  .  ."

  "Bush has transformed America into a police state, from torture to the imprisonment of reporters, to the -Patriot Act."

Jong, who fancies herself and novelist Michael Chabon as the intellectual heirs to Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer, must be counting the days until the Inauguration--and the end of war, hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, and fascism.

A Dictionary of Political Clichés, Postelection Edition

In our last episode two weeks ago ("Flaubert Gets Updated for 2008," by Matthew Continetti), we encouraged readers to send in their contributions to our ongoing dictionary of political clichés. Here's what you came up with:

Change We Can Believe In. "A selective suspension of disbelief by a potential voter, which allows him to believe the message of a candidate that is specifically tailored to positions they already hold." (David Mayes,
Columbus, Ohio)

Folks. "A term that the Beltway/NYC crowd has picked up from the Obama campaign, apparently to refer to those whom they presume to be the great unwashed, and who are deeply in need of their spiritual guidance." (Mary Daly, Littleton, N.H.)

Swing State. "A geographical jurisdiction whose residents are forced to endure endless negative political advertisements and significant logistic hassles, including waiting in long lines of traffic while Secret Service and other police block off key arteries several times each day for presidential candidates or other politicos passing through to appeal for the six or seven votes that are actually up for grabs in the state." (Mason Blaich, -Albuquerque, N.M.)

And here are some more entries from the staff of THE WEEKLY STANDARD:

Close the Sale. The signing of papers that allow the guy from Illinois to take possession of the presidential limo, White House, and Air Force One.

Closing Argument. A lawyer's final summary of his case. Joe Biden's can last for hours and has been known to drive juries into mild catatonia.

First Class Temperament. Used to describe, well, you-know-who. The phrase comes from Oliver Wendell Holmes, who used it to describe FDR. If you use this phrase, you get Double Pundit Points: Not only is it the same thing that everyone else is saying, but it also suggests deep historical knowledge.

Green Jobs. Jobs held by the Jolly Green Giant, Oscar the Grouch, that chick from the original Star Trek, Pete's Dragon, the Green Lantern, Greedo, and the Green Arrow. We need more of these.

Ground Game. Marbles, hopscotch, jump rope, tiddly-winks, etc.

Mandate. When two straight guys go out to dinner and a movie (not that there's anything wrong with that!).

Resonate. Your argument needs to do this. It's no longer enough to persuade, cajole, or reason with voters. What's important is that you resonate. Here's how: Hold all campaign events in Luray Caverns, Va., an empty concert hall, or in the Alps.