All Too Human
Disappointment with Obama among young people is inevitable. Disillusionment doesn’t have to be.
To watch your son accept a major party’s nomination for governor ought to be a joyful occasion for any father. But not for Bernard Spitzer. It was late May 2006, spring was in full bloom, and I was driving Bernard and his wife Anne to the Buffalo airport, after the conclusion of the New York State Democratic Party convention. Their son, Eliot, had just accepted the party’s nomination for governor, and he was cruising to a blowout victory. Eventually, he would capture nearly 70 percent of the vote, a state record for a gubernatorial candidate. His advisers often whispered–sometimes rather loudly–about a future White House run.
But that afternoon, all Bernard wanted to know was why I, at such a young and ostensibly unspoiled age (I was 21), would want to work in an enterprise as unscrupulous as politics. I was taken aback; the answer seemed too obvious to articulate. But Bernard pressed, gently but relentlessly in his Austrian accent, for the roots of my decision to intern for his son.
I had spent the previous three years as a student volunteer for various Democratic candidates. I did so not because of immense affection for any particular candidate, but because I viewed the Democrats as a bulwark against the Bush Administration and the increasingly radical conservatism of the Republican Party. Eliot Spitzer was different. With his commitment to progressive principles, with his ethical certainty, he was, in no small way, my political hero.
And so I told Bernard that, when I began volunteering for political campaigns, I was comforted by the example his son had set. Politics, Eliot Spitzer seemed to demonstrate, could be more than a televised competition for a dwindling number of votes or a debate over micropolicies that would never affect the voters en masse. In the right hands, politics could be public service. The answer to Bernard’s question, in other words, was his own son. Eliot Spitzer had convinced me that, contrary to common wisdom–and even in this day and age–politics could indeed be ethical.
What I didn’t know at the time was that my hero was also Client Number Nine. Less than 18 months after his election, Spitzer suffered one of the most ignominious falls in recent political history–one that brought an early end to a hapless, corrupt administration. I therefore approach the rise of Barack Obama with a certain degree of caution. As young people get involved in politics in record numbers, we need to look beyond his surface appeal and the possibility of immediate transformation Obama offers. It’s not that Obama is somehow less impressive than he seems. But politics must be about more than any man or woman. It’s about the ideas that guide us, and the consequences those ideas can bring about. Hanging too much on one individual will either lead to disappointment or delusion, as we sweep problems under the rug to preserve our idealized version of the politician.
Comparisons between Obama and John Kennedy were made frequently throughout the campaign. The community blogs on Obama’s website were filled with gushing comments, including one that appropriated Lloyd Bentsen’s famous dig at Dan Quayle: “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a hero of mine. Senator, you are America’s new Jack Kennedy.” At least Caroline Kennedy had the genetic qualification to make the comparison, writing in her New York Times endorsement, “I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president–not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.” Among some of his most passionate supporters, Obama is seen less as a human being and more as a Great Leader, someone who will transcend the divisions of the past four decades and cure all that ails us. While alluring, this line of thinking is dangerous. It is not only ripe for parody, it is potentially harmful–not just to the Obama Administration, but to the creation of a long-term progressive moment.
Presidential hero worship requires convincing large swaths of the public that you can do no wrong. Even setting aside the post-assassination myth-building, Kennedy had it: At his lowest point, 56 percent of the nation still approved of his performance, the highest low point for any president since Gallup introduced the approval rating poll. Moreover, Kennedy electrified a generation of voters in a way unseen in modern times. His youth and poise gave him rock-star status before the Beatles ever went on Ed Sullivan. But focusing on Kennedy’s heroic visage obscures the real deficits of his presidency. He miscalculated on the Bay of Pigs. He was painfully slow on civil rights. His admirable commitment to defending democracy took America on a direct path to the Vietnam War. He was, in short, fallible, even if we remember him as a demi-god.
Kennedy was fallible in other ways, as well. Bernard Spitzer was on to something that spring afternoon: Politics is sometimes a sordid business, with only small and cramped quarters for the ethically pure. Kennedy, of course, understood this well, even if his followers didn’t. He stole (or allowed Mayor Richard Daley to steal) Chicago in 1960 from Nixon. He, too, had a complicated private life, to say the least, with details of his affairs and underworld connections coming out only after his death.
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