The Roots of Lunacy
How not to understand Obama
Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
The Roots of Obama’s Rage
Barack Obama Sr., ca. 1965
I remember a press conference in 1993 got up by Empower America, a now-forgotten Republican think tank. The purpose was to mark the end of the first year of the Clinton administration. A murderers row of famous-for-Washington conservatives took turns denouncing the Democrats who had seized the White House after a dozen years of Republican benevolence. The upshot of the press conference was tersely summarized by Jack Kemp, a man not known for terseness: President Clinton, Kemp said, had brought to Washington something it had never seen before, the “first frankly left-wing administration in history.”
In retrospect, of course, the charge looks nuts. We know now that within another 18 months, playing defense against a newly elected Republican Congress, Clinton was triangulating his way to the most conservative Democratic administration since the great Cleveland was trundled back to New Jersey. Yet even then, in 1993, a few wise and dispassionate observers saw that Kemp’s alarm was wildly overdone. In that first year, Clinton had embraced economic policies that made him, as he privately lamented, an “Eisenhower Republican.” Inevitably he made a few wacky appointments (Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders) but overbalanced each with much saner and more significant choices (Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen). He modified but didn’t eliminate the ban on gays in the military. After a brief hesitation, he worked hard for the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
His most “frankly left-wing” idea, a nationalized health care system, was no more outlandish than the plan Harry Truman had pushed in the late 1940s. And by 1993 Truman was being lionized by Republicans as a tough-minded man of the people, far preferable, professional conservatives said, to the Clinton radicals who had lately made his once-noble party a crash pad for ex-hippies.
Now it’s 2010, and among his former enemies, Clinton is enjoying a Truman-like renaissance. Even such sweaty anti-Clinton paranoiacs as the investigative journalist Christopher Ruddy and the newspaper proprietor Richard Mellon Scaife have decided he wasn’t so bad after all. It’s almost enough to make you forget the insanity that gripped Clinton’s political opponents. Kemp didn’t know the half of it! Throughout the nineties I heard mainstream Republicans describe the president as a shameless womanizer and a closeted homosexual, a cokehead and a drunk, a wife beater and a wimp, a hick and a Machiavel, a committed pacifist and a reckless militarist who launched unnecessary airstrikes in faraway lands to distract the public’s attention from all of the above.
At gatherings of conservative activists the president was referred to, seriously, as a “Manchurian candidate.” Capitol Hill staffers speculated darkly about the “missing five days” on a trip Clinton had taken to Moscow as a graduate student. Respectable conservatives in the media—William Safire, Robert Novak, Rush Limbaugh—encouraged the suspicion that Clinton’s White House attorney, a manic depressive named Vincent Foster, did not commit suicide, as all available evidence suggested, but had been murdered by parties unknown, to hush up an unspeakable secret from the president’s past.
So what happened? How did the left-wing, coke-snorting Manchurian candidate become the fondly remembered Democrat-you-could-do-business-with—“good old Bill,” in Sean Hannity’s phrase?
Barack Obama is what happened. The partisan mind—left-wing or right-wing, Republican or Democrat—is incapable of maintaining more than one oversized object of irrational contempt at a time. When Obama took his place in the Republican imagination, his titanic awfulness crowded out the horrors of Bad Old Bill; Clinton’s five days in Moscow were replaced by Obama’s three years in that mysterious Indonesian “madrassa.”
We should probably be grateful for this psychological limitation. Without it the negativity of our politics would be relentless. Like Ronald Reagan before him, George W. Bush was reviled for eight years by Democrats driven mad by a sputtering rage—the “most right-wing president in history”!—but it’s only a matter of time until they rediscover him as a mild-mannered figure, the signer of campaign finance reform, funder of African AIDS relief, would-be grantor of amnesty to illegal aliens; an able if sometimes misguided man whose public service stands in stark contrast to whatever revolting Republicans have come after him. The Dubya renaissance will begin the moment President Christie takes his hand off the Bible and begins his Inaugural Address.