17 July 2008

The New Yorker: It's What's Inside That Counts

The infamous July 21 issue of The New Yorker arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Looking at Barry Blitt's cover more closely, it occurs to me that Michelle Obama's afro isn't necessarily generic but meant to evoke the image of Angela Davis, the once-notorious radical from the late '60s-early '70s, more recently a Communist Party candidate for national office. Of course, it's just a cartoon, so Blitt could just as easily have been invoking Pam Grier or any of her blaxploitation sisters.

As some media have reported, this is a sort of Obama-themed issue of the magazine. The lead article in the "Talk of the Town" section is bossman Hendrik Hertzberg's analysis of Senator Obama's alleged flip-flops. He writes:

Winning a Presidential election doesn't require being all things to all of the people all of the time, but it does require being some things to most of the people some of the time. It doesn't require saying one thing and also saying its opposite, but it does require saying more or less the same thing in ways that are understood in different ways.

Translated from pidgin-Lincolnese, this is an appeal for cynicism, urging people not to get worked up over Obama's every seeming deviance from his perceived primary position. He characterizes several alleged flip-flops as "tweaks," from the candidate's "refinement" of his Iraq policy to his deference to the Supreme Court in the recent gun-rights case.

Hertzberg is more troubled by Obama's capitulation on the FISA bill after promising to aid a filibuster against it. He attributes Obama's action to "worry about being branded as soft on terrorism," and comments that "perhaps Obama will now take a more compassionate view of Hillary Clinton's vote" to authorize the invasion of Iraq. But if Obama is driven to contradict past positions by a belief that he can somehow get Republicans to stop saying a Democrat is soft on terrorism, he's more a fool than a cynic.

Further along is Ryan Lizza's more substantive article about Obama's career in Chicago and Illinois politics. Echoing Hertzberg (or is it vice versa, since Hertzberg references Lizza), this article also tends to portray Obama as just another politician, albeit one particularly adroit at finding the right constituencies to promote himself. Having alienated black party hacks in Chicago by failing to defer to his elders, Obama bounced back from a humiliating loss in a congressional primary to claim a Senate seat by building relationships with proven fundraisers. He has left behind friends, mentors and advisers who still support him as a politician but seem to have reservations with him as a person.

Summing up, Lizza writes: "He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game." The article portrays a man who has had his eyes on the top almost from the beginning, but it gives us little insight on what he'll do if he gets there. If Barack Obama, like so many others, is only ever looking to the next election, and, like most people younger than John McCain, looks forward to two terms, we had better not expect much in the first four years, at least.

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