A guest post from Clark Judge:
By Clark S. Judge
As the Democratic National Convention gets underway in Denver, the media is full of profiles of the party’s soon-to-be nominee. Who is Barack Obama? they ask, an odd question. After 19 months of campaigning shouldn’t they know? But reading the stories, it is clear that those covering him-despite the worshipful reporting — are not finding the answer all that easy to pin down. Perhaps the reason is that, in surprising respects, Senator Obama resembles a certain similarly memorable but also enigmatic character from fiction, one who almost entirely invented himself-the Great Gatsby.
Every first-class politician must think hard about his public persona, including condensing his or her life story into a coherent account that implicitly says this person is ready to lead. Think of the two presidents I served under, Ronald Reagan and (as vice president) George H.W. Bush:
- Reagan: Son of lower middle-class Midwestern parents; his Irish father struggles with alcoholism; shortly after graduating from college, he moves west to a successful career in movies and television; during the Second World War he serves in the Army, on the home front because of bad eyesight; after the war, he stands up to communist infiltration of his union; when troubled times come, he answers the call of principle and enters politics.
- Bush: Son of privilege, he enlists on his 18th birthday for World War II naval air service; is almost killed in heroic action; after the war he moves with his new family to a dusty western town and becomes a highly successful entrepreneur; believing that public service is a personal duty, he enters politics.
Both Bill Clinton (the man from Hope) and George W. Bush (the irresponsible young man who grew up) had similar glosses on their life stories-as does Obama.
But here’s the difference: Obama’s story, while factually correct, is-how to put this-not what it seems.[# More #]
Most of us know the outline: The son of a white teenage single mother from Kansas and a Kenyan father who abandoned them, he is raised in part by his mother’s parents; he struggles with his identity, including experimenting with drugs; brilliant, he is admitted to a first-rate college, then, after time as a community organizer in Chicago, he enters a first-rate law school; there he becomes the first black president of the law review; he returns to Chicago, lectures in law at the University of Chicago and enters politics.
Telling his story on the stump, despite his mother being white, Senator Obama conveys a typical young African-American male from the inner city. With no husband present, his mother struggled. As with so many inner-city youths, Obama’s hope and, in his case, ultimate salvation came from that mother and the grandparents who lent a hand.
In other words, Obama presents himself as archetypal-or as he wrote in his first book in discussing his drug use: “Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed; the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man.” But as more is reported, it is becoming clear that his early life in no way fit the archetype.
Instead, he emerges as a child of intellectual and financial privilege. After finishing college, his mother remarried and, when that marriage failed, earned an advanced degree in anthropology. Throughout, she seems to have always been able to count on-though she didn’t always accept — the financial support of her parents, who took over most of the raising of Obama from the time he was ten. The grandparents were an early example of the two-earner upper-middle-class couple. They were affluent enough to send him to a very expensive prep school, then to the Ivy League for college and law school. They were the very kind of people he now wants to tax so heavily. Indeed, Obama seems to have had little or no serious contact with African-American communities at all until after college.
Fitzgerald writes of how James Gatz swims out to a Great Lakes yacht, casts off his past and turns himself into Jay Gatsby, a very different man from a very different place. Barack Obama is such a figure. He didn’t swim out to a boat. He went to Chicago and there, it seems, he reinvented himself. Much has been written of how he has cast off parts of his past-the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the one-time Capitol and Pentagon bomber Bill Ayers. In and of itself, walking away from problematic associates is not unusual for politicians. But his handling of Wright and Ayers is part of a larger pattern. Across the entire presentation of his personal history, he has nipped here and tucked there until the man in the camera looks entirely different from the man inside.
If, despite his populist rhetoric, people have-as polls tell us they do-a discordant sense of the elite in Barack Obama, it is because, while he may not own a bunch of houses, that’s how he grew up and that’s what he is.
Clark S. Judge is managing director of the White House Writers Group and was a speechwriter for President Reagan.