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‘People, they like the poetry’

Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Barack Obama is a careful politician and a disciplined man. But when he’s on the West Coast, perhaps a little tired because of the jet lag, at a fancy fundraiser with his most glamorous and credulous supporters, he tends to let his guard down. The mask slips.

Photo of Robert Frost reading at Kennedy's inauguration

Robert Frost at the Kennedy Inauguration

Four years ago, speaking to rich San Franciscans, Obama infamously explained why working-class Americans were so mysteriously resistant to his charms: “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations.” Last week, speaking to the glamorati of Los Angeles, he explained that “Mario Cuomo once said that campaigning is poetry and governance is prose. .  .  . We’ve been slogging through ‘prose’ for the last three years, and sometimes that gets people discouraged. Because people, they like the poetry.”

In Obama’s imagining, the poetry is presumably a tonic for bitterness, an opiate of the masses, you might say. Not even real poetry, mind you, but the campaign sloganeering of Barack Obama. That’s what he considers poetry. And that’s what he will deploy again this year to pacify the embittered clingers in flyover country as they get ready to vote.

Will he succeed? Conservatives worry that he will. His poll numbers have ticked up as the economy has been improving, Republicans on the Hill have been floundering, and the GOP presidential candidates have been squabbling.

But this year, unlike in 2008, Obama has a record. It’s harder to fool the people when you’re an incumbent. The American people don’t approve of President Obama’s policies. A competent Republican candidate—who is of the people, who speaks with people not to them, and who wants to govern for the people, not condescend to them—such a nominee has a good chance to prevail.

Still, a little poetry wouldn’t hurt the Republican cause. The English poet Thomas Gray described poetry as “thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” The Republicans could use some thoughts that breathe. Soundbites and factoids only go so far. Speeches that paint a colorful but credible picture of our present situation, how things would continue to get worse under Obama, and how things might get better under a Republican, would be welcome. 

They could also use some “words that burn.” Republicans tend to ask, “Where’s the outrage?” instead of actually expressing justified outrage. Religious liberty under assault, the military being wantonly gutted, debt accumulating, free markets distorted to reward cronies, citizens being treated as wards of the nanny state—there’s plenty happening that calls for words that burn.

Obama is the master of words that cool. We hate to break it to their youthful supporters, but neither Rick Santorum nor Mitt Romney is going to be cooler than Barack Obama. Indeed, as Jennifer Epstein of Politico reported last week, the Obama campaign is working hard “to revive the cool appeal” he had in 2008. Scarlett Johansson cohosted a fundraiser recently at Theory, “a trendy clothing store in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.” She was hoping, she said, to “reintroduce that kind of cool factor to the reelection.”

Let Obama have the cool factor. Republicans can counter with some real poetry. In addition to defending American exceptionalism, for example, why not quote from Robert Frost’s poem “Dedication,” written for John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration—a time when liberals, too, believed in America?

So much those heroes knew and understood,

I mean the great four, Washington,

John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison

So much they saw as consecrated seers

They must have seen ahead what not appears,

They would bring empires down about our ears

And by the example of our Declaration

Make everybody want to be a nation.

And this is no aristocratic joke

At the expense of negligible folk. .  .  . 

Our venture in revolution and outlawry

Has justified itself in freedom’s story

Right down to now in glory upon glory. .  .  . 

Read the whole thing. It isn’t Frost’s best poem by a long shot—it tries too hard to be edifying—but it is (for some of us) moving poetry. It may not be cool. But it is better to be earnest than to be cool, and it is better to be a free citizen than a client of the Obama state.

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