Friday, May 9, 2008

Land of Lincoln

Well, the chauvinist New Yorker in me who was hoping that we would see an end to the New York presidential drought--sixty years running and now, evidently, certain to be at least sixty-four--is certainly disappointed. Not since Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 has a New Yorker been nominated by a major party, and while the auspices certainly seemed favorable earlier this year, with both Clinton and Giuliani as plausible candidates, evidently this was not meant to be. At least California and Texas, which have produced five presidents since a New Yorker last lived in the White House, will be shut out this year.

I have long thought that New York State’s years in the wilderness as a consequence of the hubris of 1944, when two New Yorkers (FDR and Thomas Dewey, again) were the major party candidates for president. This has only happened twice before, in 1904, when
once again, there were two New Yorkers (with Teddy Roosevelt and the remarkably obscure Alton B. Parker), and in 1860, when two Illinoisans, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were candidates. (Okay nitpickers, yes, there were two other candidates in the race that year from the South. It was a complicated election.)

But should Barack Obama become president this fall, he will become the first Illinois president since Lincoln, and will almost certainly be the first from his state to run for president since the wildly overpraised Adlai Stevenson. (Until I truly understand why the Democrats twice picked this astonishing mediocrity I will never fully understand the 1950s.) If I were one of Obama’s campaign people, who have barely missed a trick this campaign season (Did I tell you that David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager, was in my class at Stuyvesant High School? I think I remember him in my Spanish class) I would emphasize the Lincoln rather than the Stevenson connection.

Lincoln is perhaps the best example in American history of our penchant, in times of crisis, to pick relative unknowns and outsiders to be president. I don’t know of any other country that does this, and I must say I prefer the British model, in which prime ministers ascend to the top of Disraeli’s famous greasy pole by first serving as foreign secretary or chancellor of the exchequer or some other high executive position. By contrast, the United States has always loved newcomers, who promise to cleanse the Augean stables of Washington, and start all anew.

Lincoln was hardly an unknown, and of course had run against Douglas for the Senate in 1858, and had some influence in Illinois Republican circles. But when all is said and done,it is rather remarkable that a man whose one important elective office had been a single term in Congress a decade before, was chosen to lead this country (or at least a part of it) at what clearly was its greatest crisis and hour of need.

Obama, like, Lincoln, and like Bill Clinton, and like our current Bush (in this to be sharply distinguished from his father) has only been on the national scene for only a few years before securing the nomination, and it has long fascinated me why we think relatively obscurities can make better presidents than those who had far more experience. Sometimes this works well (as with Lincoln) and sometimes it doesn’t (as with Mr. Mission Accomplished.)

Among other distinctions, Obama--if elected, as I fervently hope--will be the first president who will be younger than me. It seems to me, speaking up for the children of the 1950s, that we have just finished with two guys born in 1946, Clinton and Stupidhead, and we move right to a man born in the 1960s, leaving the great baby boom decade of the 1950s without a president to call its own. This seems unfair, but it is just an indication that those born in the 1950s are already passé. If we grew up with thoughts of democratic possibility dancing in our heads, we have been sobered by decades of political exile, and most of us are (I guess I should speak for myself ) either too cynical or too accommodating to accept the politics of transformation for what it is. When Obama says, as he did in a flyer I received the other day, that he didn’t merely want political change, but sought to change the nature of politics, I can only quote the reverend Jeremiah Wright, and say, this is indeed the audacity of hope, and in the end I am neither particularly audacious nor hopeful.

The problem with America in 2008 is that we cannot turn back the clock to Dec. 11. 2000, the day before the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore. We cannot undo the last eight terrible years, and we must live in the world that George Bush created. How a Democrat deals with this miserable inheritance will define the first years of a new presidency, and what Obama will do isn't all that clear.

Obama is a difficult man to read, and much like Lincoln, there are two souls at war in his breast, a deep moral sense of the possibility of personal and national renewal, twinned to an innate sense of political caution and reality. One voice tells him that America has to live up to the better angels of its nature, and that when the herald angels start to sing, a radical change is in the offing, and you better harken or get left at the wayside; the other voice tells him that is what wins is a Fabian strategy, an incrementalism, he gradual accumulation of small strategic gains. Obama is a cautious prophet of sweeping change. So was Lincoln. The problem with the politics of transformation is that once you sign up, you never know what you're going to get. Lincoln said he didn't want to free the slaves but but the logic of his presidency led him inexorably to such an action. Will Obama led us in a similar fashion to something that appears out of reach now, like single-payer health care? I hope we get a chance to find out.

I suppose that Americans are basically gamblers, and rather then taking a sure thing in hand, they would rather trade it in for what’s behind door number three. What is exciting about Obama is that we will not know, until he takes office, what sort of president he will be. Let us hope he can bind the wounds of his party, with malice towards none, and charity towards all, and get rid of the McClellans who will advise him to remain bogged down in Iraq indefinitely. (If Lincoln had enough courage to win a war, we need a president with enough courage to lose a war.)

So far, in terms of presidents, Illinois is batting 1.000. Let's hope it stays that way.

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