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The Wit & Wisdom of Barack Obama

Some of it may sound familiar.

Mar 24, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 27 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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There's still room for whimsy at the New Yorker magazine, I don't care what you've heard. Just the other day two of the New Yorker's bloggers (now there's a phrase to send Harold Ross spinning) were chewing over the widely noted eloquence of Barack Obama. They were struck by "Obama's wonderful line," as one of them described it, to the effect that "We are the ones we've been waiting for." Obama uses it as one of his signature refrains. Some of his followers even turned it into a music video.

So one thing led to another, as it does on blogs, and before long the bloggers began wondering, as they do at the New Yorker, what the phrase would sound like in French.

"You couldn't say it in French," blogged one of the bloggers.

"Are you sure about the French?" the other blogger blogged back. "Mine isn't good enough to know if 'C'est nous qui nous avons attendu' or 'Ceux qui nous attendons, c'est nous' would sound French to a French ear, or if it just would sound stupid." Oui, blogged the first blogger. It would sound très stupid. "My ear/memory tells me that it would be too weird to say, since I think there's a we/us thing that doesn't work."

Eventually a French journalist was consulted. He ruled summarily that, translated into French, "the Barack Obama sentence [le sentence de la Barack Obama] sounds weird to me."

So there you have it: You can't really say "We are the ones we've been waiting for" in French. The matter was closed. The bloggers moved on. Good times indeed.

But wait. There was something tantalizingly incomplete about this brief discussion of whether the sentence sounds weird in French: What was missing was an acknowledgement of how weird the sentence sounds in English. What, after all, does "We are the ones we've been waiting for" mean, precisely? My hunch is that the sentence is one of those things that no one will admit to being confused by, like the movies of Godard or the tenor-sax solos of John Coltrane, lest your peers think you're a loser or a moron. Certainly Obama fans won't admit how obscure the sentence is--though several have claimed that it's lifted from a prophecy of the Tribal Elders of the Hopi Indians. Hopi prophecies are famously obscure.

But this is just wishful thinking. The origins of the phrase aren't nearly so glamorous or exotic. Two years ago, before Obama even said he wanted to be president, the left-wing-radical-feminist-lesbian novelist Alice Walker published a book of essays and called it We are the Ones We've Been Waiting For. Believe me: If the line had come from the Tribal Elders of the Hopi nation, Alice Walker would have been more than happy to say so. Instead she said it came from a poem published in 1980 by the left-wing-radical-feminist-bisexual poet June Jordan. Neither Walker nor Jordan has said what the sentence means. But Walker did offer this hint in the introduction to her book of essays: "We are the ones we've been waiting for because we are able to see what is happening with a much greater awareness than our parents or grandparents, our ancestors, could see."

That's a clue, anyway. The sentence may not have any positive content, Walker seems to be saying, but it does have an indirect meaning, an implication, as a kind of self-referential gesture for the people who claim it. When Obama's supporters say "We are the ones we've been waiting for," what they mean is that in the long roll call of history, from Aristotle and Heraclitus down through Augustine and Maimonides and Immanuel Kant and the fellows who wrote the Federalist Papers, we're number one! We're the smartest yet! Everybody--Mom, Dad, Gramps and Grandma, Great Grandpa and Great Grandma, maybe even the Tribal Elders--they've all been waiting for people as clued-in as us!

Is this what Obama means too? No one who's wandered through an Obama rally and heard the war whoops and seen the cheerful, vacant gazes would come away thinking, "These are the smartest people ever." I'm sorry, they just aren't. What is unmistakable is the creepy kind of solipsism and the air of self-congratulation that clings to his campaign. "There is something happening," he says in stump speeches. And what's happening? "Change is happening." How so? "The reason our campaign has been different is about what you, the people who love this country, can do to change it." And the way to change it is to join the campaign, which, once you join it, will change America. Because this is our moment. The time is now. Now is the time. Yes, we can. We bring change to the campaign because the campaign is about change. We are the ones we've been waiting for. Obama and his followers are perfecting postmodern reflexivity. It's a campaign that's about itself. The point of the campaign is the campaign.

They don't put it this way, of course, which just confirms a suspicion that's been creeping up on some of us for months: As a speech-giver, a man who has wowed the nation with the power of his language, Barack Obama is getting away with murder. Rhetorically, he is a master of le baloney.

It's not clear that Obama himself is even aware of this. His sincerity is self-evident and is one of the qualities that draw people to him, along with those eloquent hands, the grin, that voice as smooth and rich as molasses. His speeches are theatrical events, not intellectual excursions. On his website the videos of his most acclaimed speeches have proved much more popular than the transcripts. As a candidate he fits a public that prefers the sensation of words to the words themselves. His speeches are meant to be succumbed to rather than thought about.

But what if you do think about them?

The first thing you might notice is how familiar Obama's speeches sound on the page. He ran into trouble earlier in the year when he lifted a rhetorical trope from his friend Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. ("Just words?" Patrick had said, before quoting famous lines from Thomas Jefferson, John Kennedy, and other big talkers.) The charge of plagiarism, made by Obama's opponents, was overheated, and also more complicated than the Clintonites probably realized. David Axelrod, Deval Patrick's campaign manager, came up with the "just words" refrain in 2006, as a way of rebutting charges that his candidate was all talk. Two years later, when Obama was hit with the same charge, he was lucky to have the same campaign manager. Axelrod dusted off the old locution and handed it to his new client. Obama was thus being accused of stealing lines that weren't his from a politician who took them from a ghostwriter who gave them to Obama. In the daisy-chain transactions between politicians and their consultants, there are no property rights.

Besides, the charge of filching betrays a misunderstanding of political speechmaking. Professional public speakers, whether politicians or stand-up comics, take stuff from each other, no matter who penned the words. The line between allusion and theft, between homage and plagiarism, is traditionally thin. When Abraham Lincoln spoke of government of the people, by the people, for the people, his listeners knew Daniel Webster's "Second Reply to Hayne," up to that time the most quoted piece of rhetoric in American history. In it Webster spoke of a government that was "made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people." Webster's phrase was part of the public memory, every literate person was familiar with it, and no one would have thought to accuse Lincoln of trying to steal it.

Obama's case is slightly different. When he does filch--notwithstanding the "just words" affair--hardly anyone notices. He lives in an era when the public memory has shrunk to a length of days or weeks. Especially in American politics, policed by a posse of commentators and reporters who crave novelty above all, the past is a blank; every day is Groundhog Day, bringing shocking discoveries of things that have happened over and over again. No politician has benefited from this amnesia as much as Obama. He is credited with revelatory eloquence for using phrases that have been in circulation for years. "Politics is broken," he says in his stump speech, and his audience of starry-eyed college students swoons and the thirtysomething reporters jot excitedly in their notebooks. The rest of us are left to wonder if he's tipping his hat to Bill Bradley, who left the Senate in 1996 because, Bradley said, "politics is broken," or if he's stealing from George W. Bush, who announced in his own stump speech in 2000 that "politics is broken." Obama could be flattering us or snowing us.

Or perhaps he's just guilty of a lack of originality. On the page, deprived of his baritone, without the prop of his steely jaw, his speeches limp from one shopworn phrase to another. When he tells his audiences they need "a president who will tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear," he might be quoting, gulp, Geraldine Ferraro, who as a vice presidential candidate in 1984 liked to tell audiences that "Leadership is not just telling people what they want to hear, it's telling them what they need to know." It's a timeless principle that can be found in dozens of pop business books, too--the kind read in his formative years by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who used it when he ran for governor in 2003.

Timelessness may be the key here: You begin to wonder, listening to Obama's rhetoric, whether anything has changed in 20 years. "This is a defining moment in our history," Obama likes to say; but that's what Elizabeth Dole said when her husband ran for president in 1996. (They're both wrong.) In 1992, Bill Clinton was complaining that "Washington" was a place "people came to just to score political points." Eight years later Bush was complaining that "Washington is obsessed with scoring political points, not solving problems." Now, in 2008, "Washington has become a place," Obama says, "where politicians spend too much time trying to score political points."

What's to be done about all this Washington point-scoring? Bob Dole's solution, 12 years ago, was to strongly favor "the things that lift this country up instead of dragging it down"; today Obama opposes "the politics where we tear each other down instead of lifting this country up." Because Howard Dean failed in his promise in 2004--"we're going to take this country back"--Obama revives the pledge, word for word, today. But like Gerald Ford, running against Jimmy Carter in 1976, he believes "we can disagree without being disagreeable."

Onward they plod, these old warhorse phrases, until Obama climbs to the climax of his stump speech. Head bowed, brow furrowed, eyes flashing, he announces that we "will choose unity over division [Jesse Jackson, 1992]. We will choose hope over fear [Bill Clinton and John Kerry, 2004]. And we will choose the future over the past [Al Gore, 1992]." In so doing, we will overcome our "moral deficit [Bush, 2000; Gore, 2000; Newt Gingrich,1994]" by "bringing people beyond the divisions of race and class [Clinton 1992]" because the "story of our country [Ross Perot, 1992]" or the "genius of our country [Bush 2000]" or the "wonder of our country [George H.W. Bush, 1988]" is, as Obama says in 2008, "ordinary people doing extraordinary things [Perot, Bush, Bush, and Ronald Reagan, 1984]."

Talk like this is the elevator music of politics, soothing and inoffensive and unavoidable. Obama has had the unbelievable luck to attract listeners who seem to think he's minted it fresh. Indeed, among his opponents, the most common criticism of Obama's speeches is not that they are hackneyed but that they are short on detail--details of policy in particular. This isn't completely true; a few proposals can always be picked out from the texts, like seeds from a clump of cotton. In nearly every speech I've read, Obama mentions withdrawing troops from Iraq, raising marginal tax rates on "all the wealthy people," dropping poor old people from the tax rolls, and giving every college student $4,000 a year in return for a pledge of community service. He always mentions eliminating tax subsidies that encourage U.S. companies to build plants overseas, while offering tax subsidies to companies that don't do that. How each of these would work as a practical policy is left to his audience's imagination--could you really have a federal program that gives money to every company that stays where it is?--but there's nothing new about that, either: People don't come to a rally to hear a candidate read a white paper from the Brookings Institution, unless they work at the Brookings Institution.

The truth is that Obama's speeches are full of engaging detail--just not policy detail. With his first book, the memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama proved he was a literary man of great skill, and he knows that the details that catch the attention are personal. So in his best speeches he offers quick, arresting portraits of individual Americans he has met in his travels. Taken together they help him execute a rhetorical pivot that only the greatest populist politicians--FDR in the 1930s, Reagan in 1980--have been able to pull off. You could call it optimistic despair. The overarching theme of Obama's speeches, and of his campaign, is that America is a fetid sewer whose most glorious days lie just ahead, thanks to the endless ranks of pathetic losers who make it a beacon of hope to all mankind.

Here's a partial list of the people that Obama has met lately. All of them are unhappy, and no wonder: Ashley, who grew up eating mustard sandwiches because her mother contracted cancer, lost her job, went bankrupt, and lost her health insurance; the "girl who goes to the crumbling school in Dillon"; "the mother who can't get Medicaid to cover all the needs of her sick child"; a New Hampshire woman who "hasn't been able to breathe since her nephew left for Iraq"; "the teacher who works another shift at Dunkin Donuts after school just to make ends meet"; a young woman in Cedar Rapids "who works the night shift after a full day of college and still can't afford health care for a sister who's ill"; "the Maytag worker who is now competing with his own teenager for a $7 an hour job at Wal-Mart." And beyond these dim, huddled figures lies the American landscape, unbearably bleak: "shuttered factories," "crumbling schools," "a planet in peril."

It's not exactly Walt Whitman. But Obama wants us to know that the picture he paints with his pointillist precision is comprehensive: He's leaving nothing out. He drives the point home when he concludes his litanies of despair by saying: "I have seen what America is." In this sense Obama truly is the unity candidate. There is no white America or black America, as he says; no blue states or red states, in his famous formulation, but only the United States of America. And what unites all these people--what unites us--is our shared status as victims.

Unfortunately, this raises the question of who the victimizer is. It's an uncomfortable question for a candidate who, having drawn such a depressing picture, wants to pivot toward the positive and upbeat and hopeful. Suddenly Obama's gift for the identifying detail leaves him. With unaccustomed vagueness he refers to "lobbyists" and "overpaid CEOs" but never names them. It's a world without human villains, improbably enough. Who are the agents of this despair? By whose hand has the country been brought so low? Whoever they are, they vanish in the fog of sentences like this: "We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents instead of coming together to make college affordable or energy cleaner." So not even politicians in power are responsible; it's decades of bitter partisanship that has forced them into demonization, and the demonization has in turn prevented them from getting things done.

This is a murky place. Cause and effect are blurred. Bad things happen though nobody does them. Instead we face disembodied entities, ghostly apparitions. "Make no mistake about what we're up against," he will announce, with what sounds, for a moment, like clarity; but then he goes on to say what we're up against: "the belief that it's okay for lobbyists to dominate our government"; "the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington"; "forces that feed the habits that prevent us from being who we are"; "the idea that it's acceptable to do anything to win an election."

Some agents of despair these turn out to be! A belief, a way of thinking, an idea, forces that feed habits, and decades of partisanship. He won't even bring himself to blame Republicans.

Why does Obama choose to conjure up these disembodied spirits as the obstacles to "change"? There are a couple of explanations. One possibility is that he won't credit actual, nameable persons with holding these beliefs because no actual person does hold these beliefs. Imagine a candidate whose platform said: Vote for me and I'll guarantee that "our government is dominated by lobbyists." Who's on record saying that it's okay to do anything to win an election? And it's hard to find anyone who subscribes to the "conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington." Four of our last five presidents have been governors who never worked a day in Washington. And look where that got us.

But this is not the best explanation for why Obama won't specify his opponents. He is partisan enough to believe, and certainly many of his supporters believe, that some villainous figure--Karl Rove, I suppose--does believe these things. But if Obama named anybody, the cat would be out of the bag. It would at last be plain that his politics of unity, his politics of "addition not subtraction," is simply another way of recasting the old "politics of us versus them" that he says he disdains.

Leave aside the disembodied forces; forget the beliefs and ideas that no one really holds. Somebody somewhere has to be preventing Obama's kind of health care reform, and sending kids to underfunded schools, and shipping jobs overseas to increase profits, and standing in the way of medical research, and downplaying climate change out of skepticism or general orneriness. Put them all together and it's likely to come to a fairly high number of people: stockholders, employees, and managers of globalized companies; insurance claim adjusters, guys on oil rigs, hog farmers, pro-lifers, moms in SUVs, taxpayers who decline to float bonds for local schools, voters who pulled the lever for President Bush and are still kindly disposed toward him. People who make red states red and blue states purple. Lots and lots of people.

If Obama made this explicit, if in his speeches he dared to wrap bodies around those disembodied forces, if he began to trace effects back to the agents that cause them, then his campaign would suddenly appear to be what it is: a conventional alignment of political interests, trying to seize power from another conventional alignment of political interests--just one more version of a tussle that's gone on since the country's founding. His fans, it turns out, aren't the people they've been waiting for; they're just the same old people, like everybody else.

Of course, they're drawn to his campaign precisely because they refuse to believe that this is so. Maybe Obama refuses to believe it too. He seems to be a sincere man, as I say. But he's also a very smart one.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.