The Blog

Obama a Wimp?

Slouching towards disaster.

12:00 AM, Apr 30, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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IN HIS NEW YORK TIMES column yesterday, Bob Hebert became the latest pundit to lob a slew of hyper-charged code words at Barack Obama:

"A candidate who stands haplessly by as his former spiritual guide roams the country dropping one divisive bomb after another is in very little danger of being seen by most voters as the next J.F.K. or L.B.J. . . . The apparent helplessness of the Obama campaign in the face of the Wright onslaught contributes to the growing perception of the candidate as weak, as someone who is unwilling or unable to fight aggressively on his own behalf."

Obviously, these weren't racial code words, but for an aspiring president they were code words of an even more damaging sort. Hapless . . . Helpless . . . Weak . . . "Unable to fight aggressively"--they all add up to one inescapable conclusion: Barack Obama is a wimp.

FOR A BRIEF PRIMER on the damages of political wimp-hood, let's take a look back at the most successful political wimp of the modern era, George H.W. Bush. It's only fair whenever this topic comes up to mention that in reality, George H.W. Bush was no wimp. Bush served with considerable valor in World War II and led a meaningful life of leadership. Still, one can't deny the fact that Bush came by his reputation as a political wimp the old-fashioned way--he earned it.

Clearly, Bush's nasally voice and sometimes delicate patrician manners didn't help him when it came to the Wimp Factor. Still, the "Bush as Wimp" meme didn't achieve widespread media traction until his 1988 run for president, a full eight years after he had become a prominent national figure. Nevertheless, the wimp charge had its roots in Bush's 1980 shot at the prize.

In that campaign, Bush sought the Republican nomination against a slew of luminaries including Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and Howard Baker. After registering a significant upset in the Iowa caucuses, edging the heavily favored and better known Reagan by two points, Bush emerged with what he somewhat prissily referred to as "The Big Mo." The chattering class greeted Bush's victory with a spurt of eager speculation that they soon would be free of Ronald Reagan. Jack Germond and Jules Whitcover opined days before the New Hampshire primary that "Bush may achieve a commanding position within the next three weeks in the contest for the Republican nomination. And those with unresolved reservations about Bush are beginning to wonder privately if it is even possible to keep an alternative politically alive for the late primaries."

NBC's Tom Brokaw was pithier, labeling Reagan "the former frontrunner." Tom Petit, also of NBC, acidly commented, "I would like to suggest that Ronald Reagan is politically dead."

Reagan came back to life on February 23 at the debate where he uttered his famous "I paid for this microphone" line. While Reagan was a big winner that night, Bush was perhaps an even bigger loser. Originally, the debate was supposed to be a mano-a-mano duel between the two frontrunners, Reagan and Bush. But Reagan, who paid for the shindig while the Nashua Telegraph sponsored it, met with the four excluded candidates backstage and agreed that they should be allowed into the debate. Bush refused to even talk to the other four contenders.

When all six candidates hit the stage, Reagan made a passionate plea that they be included in the festivities. With Bush's insistence on the previously agreed upon two man format clear, the guy from the Telegraph threatened to turn off Reagan's microphone. Reagan then uttered the evening's famous line.

While all this was going on, Bush sat silently on the stage in a sullen rage. He didn't defend his position. He let events overtake him. While Reagan commanded the stage, Bush looked like--and here's that word again--a wimp. Eventually, the matter was settled, and Reagan and Bush did debate one-on-one. Of course, the results of the evening were clear long before the actual debating began.

Lest you think the happenings of that night have become irrevocably distorted into myth, the contemporaneous condemnation for George H.W. Bush's behavior that night was universal. Outraged at his exclusion, Bob Dole hissed at Bush as he left the stage, "There'll be another day, George." Even the genial Howard Baker was livid, calling Bush's actions that night, "The punkest political device I ever saw."

IN ORDER TO AVOID the dreaded wimp label, a politician has to stay in command of events. The most successful presidents (from a political perspective) of the modern era--Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton--made being successful look easy.