Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

07 November 2008

Meritocracy Restored

[For comment on President-elect Obama’s first news conference, click here.]

On Wednesday, exhausted, I wrote a short post on our presidential election. The best candidate won, I wrote. Not much remarkable about that; let’s get on with the task of restoring our nation. It was a pretty dry piece.

But that was my head writing. I concealed my heart.

I never let on that I filled up a whole grocery bag with wet Kleenex watching Barack Obama’s victory speech. I didn’t want anyone but my wife, who saw me, to know. The tears would not stop.

As I read the next day’s comments to on-line reports of Obama’s victory, my shyness dissipated. Hundreds of posts told me I was not alone. Comments poured in from every state and every corner of the globe. All reported the same thing: tears of joy and gratitude. Many writers were of African blood. But most were white like me. What I had felt was a worldwide phenomenon.

So I sat down to ponder why. Why should I—a privileged, upper middle class Jew—get so emotional just because the best candidate, who happens to be half black, half white, won the presidency?

My tears weren’t tears of triumph. My wife and I did a couple of joking fist bumps when Obama went over the top, but no tears came then. They weren’t tears of relief. God knows I don’t want to get old in a country run by fans of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, and Obama’s brilliant campaign saved me from that. (I don’t even want to live on the same planet with Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.) But those weren’t my thoughts at the time.

As I sat and pondered, images from the past rose unbidden. I thought of Julian Bond, who’s a few years older than I. Once everyone my age thought he would be our first African-American president. Yet he got lost in the mists of Georgia politics.

I though of Jesse Jackson—not the bitter man of today, but the dashing, optimistic fighter of his prime. I remembered watching his speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention and seeing him as the Democratic Party’s conscience. I wondered then how far he would go, but he didn’t get far enough.

I thought of Harvey Gantt, an amiable architect from Charleston, South Carolina, who ran to unseat that sleazy bigot Jesse Helms. He is nearer to my age than Bond and Jackson, and he came heartbreakingly close to his goal, within 4%. I didn’t know him; I just sent his campaign $200, from far away. After he lost, I got a nice note from him on fancy stationery thanking me for my support. It may have been machine generated, but it looked hand written. His was a class act.

I thought of Carol Mosley Braun. She’s a little younger than I. When she got to the Senate, I liked her a lot. Articulate and straight talking, she showed an abundance of common sense. She struck me as a strong, well-grounded mother figure in an exclusive boys’ club—a much-needed stabilizing presence. I looked forward to a new perspective in national debate. Yet where is she now?

I thought of Harold E. Ford, Jr. Much younger than I, he had and has great promise. Yet the oldest Southern dirty trick in the book kept him from a Senate seat in 2006: associating a “black” man with a blond woman.

Do you see a pattern here? I kept getting older. The candidates kept getting younger. And still they lost.

I didn’t and don’t know any of them personally. I didn’t study them anywhere near as much as I’ve studied Barack Obama. Yet I felt like a rube at a crooked card game. Everyone assures you the game is fair. But the dealer’s hands move so fast, and you can’t escape the feeling that you’ve been cheated. You wonder where all that talent went.

Then along came Barack Obama.

I’m a teacher. Merit and excellence are my credo. Identifying and nurturing talent are among the happiest things I do.

From the moment I began learning about Obama, his talent blew me away. He has analytical intelligence. He has emotional intelligence. He has strategic vision and perspective. He has savage but seemingly effortless discipline and self-restraint. He has a bottomless reserve of sobriety, decency, grace and confidence. And he has a kind of spirituality that we have not seen in our national politics since Abraham Lincoln.

Thinking of Obama makes me wonder what Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela could have accomplished as the leader of the world’s only superpower. He’s that good and that unique.

My mind told me no one that talented could lose. But my heart kept whispering, “the game is crooked.” My words and blog posts were confident, but inside I quailed. How could I stay sunny, at my age, if we failed to recognize such a talent at our hour of greatest need? If the game were that crooked, how long would our Republic last?

I think that’s what brought the tears on Tuesday. After so much heartache and so much trepidation, no crooked dealer could beat this hand. Such an outsized talent would prevail, and joy and hope could live again. That’s what I felt on Tuesday night, and that’s what I think the whole world felt.

We don’t yet know whether less stellar but still worthy talent also can prevail. The game may still be crooked. But Tuesday’s well-deserved win is big enough to sustain a hungry and skeptical world for a while. Maybe it can even preserve our Republic.

[For a mother’s poignant take on the events of this week, read Judith Warner’s moving post in the New York Times and some of the 513 comments to it. One thing that died during the ideological era just ended was human decency. Tuesday night it was reborn.]

Little Things Mean a Lot

Two posts ago, I swore I would take a break and stop blogging so much now that my principal aim for the last two years—seeing rational government restored—has been achieved. But reasons for joy and optimism just keep coming. So it was at Barack Obama’s first news conference as president-elect.

Reality-based governance. The last questioner asked whether taxes on the rich would go up. Obama didn’t answer directly, preferring to emphasize his plan to cut taxes on the middle class, i.e., 95 % of taxpayers. But he did say something I don’t recall Dubya ever saying. “[O]bviously,” Obama said, “over the next several weeks and months, we are going to be continuing to take a look at the data and see what’s taking place in the economy as a whole[.]” (emphasis added)

What a novel idea, taking a look at data! That might seem “obvious” to any doctor, lawyer, scientist, or other expert who daily relies on facts and evidence, i.e., reality, to reach conclusions. But we haven’t seen that “obvious” step for the last eight years. Instead, what we got was precooked answers to virtually every question, taken straight from the Republican ideological playbook.

We’ve been like the Chinese under Mao. Instead of the Little Red Book, we’ve had the little book of free-market fairy tales. Unlike Mao’s, our Little Red Book wasn’t in print, and it wasn’t red. But we didn’t need print because the book was so short and simple, and we all knew it by heart. Cutting taxes and regulation would solve any economic problem, and our “commanders in the field” would clean up any mess abroad.

Now we’ll get reality-based governance. What a concept!

Honest answers. When asked whether he’d learned anything in his first classified intelligence briefing that gave him “pause,” Obama said simply “I’m going to skip that.”

How refreshing! Our leader ducks a question honestly and moves on.

In so doing, Obama told us three things. First, he respects us, the people. He won’t waste his time and ours spewing useless verbiage or “spin” that every intelligent listener knows means nothing. He respects us enough not to elaborate a “no comment.” Second, he means business; he’s not about to make secret intelligence public, far less when he doesn’t yet have the big picture. He knows how to keep important secrets. Finally, he takes external threats very, very seriously. Those five words underscored something we all already know: despite his supposedly short résumé, this is no amateur we soon will have at the top.

Empathy and humor. A female reporter with her arm in a sling asked a softball question about the coming presidential pooch. Before responding, Obama first asked her what had happened to her arm. She replied that she had fallen on it rushing to cover the grand public celebration in Grant Park after Obama’s victory speech.

Obama commiserated, noting that her injury was the only casualty of that night. He subtly reminded us of the havoc in 1968, which helped destroy Democratic rule for two generations. It was a masterful display of both human empathy and political skill.

A bit later in the same answer, Obama explained the presidential daughters’ dilemma. They would like a shelter puppy, but one daughter has allergies. So they might have to get a purebred nonallergenic dog. “A lot of shelter dogs,” Obama explained, “are mutts like me.” The joke evoked a chuckle among the press corps and a brought smile to the face of every reporter on camera. The goodwill among the press was palpable.

Respect for limits. A local (Chicago) reporter asked how Obama would use “his probably pretty great influence” to affect the choice of an Illinois senator to replace him in his soon-to-be vacant Senate seat. Obama replied firmly, “it is the [Illinois] governor’s decision to make, not mine.”

With that reply, Obama showed his respect for the law. He will be president of the United States, but he will be subject to the all the duties, responsibilities and limits of that office. As a professor of constitutional law for twelve years, he knows those limits and how checks and balances work. Yes, Virginia, there may not be a Santa Claus, but we’re going to have constitutional government again.

* * *

These points may seem like small things. The news conference produced no headlines. But think again. We’ll have reality-based leadership, empathy and humor, from a president who takes serious things seriously, knows how to keep secrets, and knows the limits of his office even before he takes the oath.

Truly morning in America will come at noon on January 20.


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