Of Barack Obama's planned back-to-school national TV address this Tuesday to American schoolchildren, Mark Steyn, right-wing pundit, told Rush Limbaugh, "Obviously we're not talking about the cult of personality on the Kim Jong-il, Saddam Hussein scale, but I don't see that it's part of American education to get grade-school kids to write letters to themselves about things they can do to help the president."
The MSM and the blogosophere are feasting on "the school speech," leaving scant room to get a slur in edgewise. The link below nicely covers that waterfront.
In this Oval Office photo soon after the Jan. 20 inauguration, Obama reacts to the son of one of his staffers who asked if the new president's hair is similar to his own. Perhaps in part because he met his own father only once, Obama has a preoccupation with parenting, children and education. Parental responsibility is a theme running through many of Obama's speeches since he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. On Father's Day last year, Obama was critical of absent fathers. "Any fool can have a child," Obama told the congregation of a Chicago black church (below). "That doesn't make you a father." His usual formulation on this topic is, "It takes courage to raise a child." In his planned speech to schoolchildren this Tuesday, Obama will focus on this topic again, with a message that school work is of great importance; that parents must reinforce in the home the work in the school; and that teachers are "unsung heroes." Given that U.S. students rank about 20th in each of literacy and numeracy, it would seem appropriate that the best-known of Americans be an advocate of education's virtues. Yet self-described conservatives throughout the U.S. have demanded their children not be subjected to Obama's innocuous speech.
1. Barack Obama (a.k.a. "The One," "The Messiah," et al) has been dealing with this cult thing since his breakout DNC speech in 2004. He is young, telegenic, unusually articulate, self-deprecating, African American, the first president with young children since JFK. And he came to office amid a global financial crisis and economic downturn unmatched since the Great Depression, and U.S. wars in two countries to resolve. If Mark Steyn ascended to the U.S. presidency under those circumstances, he too would command more than the usual attention granted a chief executive in the early years of his administration.(1) (I should look it up, but I think the term is "honeymoon.") Obama has said, frequently, "I am a blank slate." He has observed, without complaint or pride, that "People project on me whatever they choose, quite different things, sometimes opposing hopes and values." Also, repeatedly, "I'm going to disappoint people." In his first presidential press conference last spring, Obama was asked about the apparent laggard progress in selecting the White House dog promised to Malia and Sasha. "We're looking for a rescue dog," Obama said. "Probably a mongrel, like me." (2) Oddly self-effacing for a cult leader.
2. A cult of personality develops around every U.S. president. In his first record album, in the 1970s, the brilliant stand-up comedian Robert Klein noted that the only thing Americans knew of James Abram Garfield, the 20th president, was that he was assassinated, dying of gunshot wounds six months after taking office in 1881. "There it is on the cereal boxes, 'George Washington, victor of the Revolutionary War, Founding Father, first president, pioneer in modern farming.' What does Garfield get? 'Shot by a disappointed office seeker.'" Garfield was not obvious chief executive material. He was selected as the G.O.P's presidential nominee on the 36th ballot as a compromise, the 1880 convention being deadlocked over Ulysses Grant, seeking a third presidential term, and James Blaine. Latter-day obscurity thus suits Garfield. Yet among my packrat possessions is a 768-page biography of the man to hold the White House for the second-shortest span (trailing only William Henry Harrison, who died 44 days into his presidency). Published 1881, it bears the title Our Martyred President. In the custom of the day, the title page offers an extended title that begins: "As a man, the noblest and purist of his times, as a citizen, the grandest of his nation, as a president, the idol of fifty millions of people." In truth, Garfield was barely known among Americans - not unusual for presidents prior to the era of mass media. Washington, Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, as war presidents, were rare exceptions as widely known figures.
3. Americans have a curious regard for their presidents. Jimmy Breslin said, "The office of President is such a bastardized thing, half royalty and half democracy, that nobody knows whether to genuflect or spit." Thus every president worth remembering has been a polarizing figure, and it's amusing to read that a Hillary Clinton or an Obama is somehow new in this respect. Worshipping fans and ardent enemies are every president's lot. Thomas Jefferson developed something close to a loathing for President Washington, whom the pamphleer Samuel Adams came to regard as a vile traitor. In the 1940s a photo or engraving of FDR had pride of place in kitchens and dining rooms of hundreds of thousands of American homes. On a 1945 business trip, my father expressed his sympathy over the recent death of FDR to the fellow next to him in a Syracuse, N.Y. tavern. "That bastard, may he rot in hell," was the response. Those who imagine that Obama seeks adulation have it wrong. The adulation has sought him, and in turn generated an inevitable backlash. What that has to do with the man's values, policies and methods might possibly be relevant, but only in the same degree as it has been for his 42 predecessors. (3)
4. Steyn is disengenuous in raising then dismissing his own comparison between Obama and two stock characters from the pool of world bogeymen. He obviously means for us to think of Obama as a ruthless totalitarian, possibly genocidal save that it's America he's running and not a developing-world nation vulnerable to the predations of a Castro or Pol Pot. This is the contemporary right's problem of the moment, how to take down a progressive president without being clumsy about it. Karl Rove had a knack for this, because he used puppets. Currently it's leading G.O.P. and other right-wing figures soiling the carpet for lack of surrogates of untraceable provenance and motive. What the G.O.P. and its Hate Radio enablers don't grasp is that 52% of Americans voted for this supposed kindred spirit of Saddam last Nov. 4. To malign Obama - certainly at this early stage of his presidency - is to insult the intelligence of the more than 100 million Americans who cast ballots for the Democratic nominee. Folks don't generally take to being told they were chumps. Steyn could so easily have made his point effectively by citing the personality cults of leaders widely admired in the West - Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan. Each of whom, as it happens, were far more calculating about their public personas than Barack Hussein Obama, who repeatedly rejected sound advice to change his name. And has since alienated pro-life zealots while serving in the Illinois senate with his lukewarm support of a woman's right to choose, organized labour with his qualified advocacy of free trade, teachers with his admonitions to school boards to weed out "bad teachers" (not "mediocre," always "bad"), and gays and lesbians with his rejection of same-sex marriage. That's a sizeable portion of the Democratic base - women, labour, teachers' unions, the LGBT community.
Americans chose Obama because at a dire moment it seemed that a thoughtful, nuanced and not easily caricaturized person was needed for the job. The right prefers not to dwell on the flaws in Obama's policies, which the president gives every indication of eagerness to correct, regardless of the source of criticism. Instead, the right defaults to character assassination, obliging progressives by giving the electorate the impression that conservatives are afraid of the future, doubtful of their country's ability to change with the times and even the widsom of trying to do so. And the right always makes it personal. In each of last year's three presidential debates, Obama lavished praise on McCain's war record and public service. If McCain had even one nice thing to say about his adversary I missed it. Pretty much the same hauteur George H.W. Bush revealed in his debates with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
And so conservatives will go on failing as they cater to their dwindling base. The demographics are against them. Americans for whom English is not their mother tongue, and who tend to vote Democrat, will be half the U.S. population before long. But the G.O.P. will have to be reduced to complete irrelevance, it appears, before the necessary reinvention commences. The self-parody in which the G.O.P. and the right are engaged should have run its course long ago, when Clinton, post-impeachment, left office with higher public-approval ratings than the sainted Reagan. America needs a vast right-wing conspiracy of intellectually vigourous and genuinely compassionate conservatives whose high card is visionary policies, not the knee-jerk trashing of imagined enemies of the republic.
1. Being foreign-born (Canada), Steyn would be disqualified from the presidency.
2. The Obamas ultimately received as a gift from Sen. Ted Kennedy a Portuguese water dog, named Bo.
3. Obama is the 44th president, but the 43rd person to hold the office. Grover Cleveland twice served in the White House, and is counted as the 22nd and 24th presidents.
* The Atlantic: Derek Thompson, "What's So Bad About Obama's Education Speech?"
"President Obama's planned Sept. 8 speech to the nation's students has sparked what I'd call an automated controversy. The controversy isn't that Obama has announced something controversial, but rather than he's announced something. Full stop. He would like to speak to children about "the need to work hard and stay in school," according the AP, and conservatives are screaming as though playing the tape backward will unveil the subliminal message "Capitalism is deeeaaddd" or "Organize your communityyyy" or something. I'm sorry, I've recently pledged to avoid offering caricatures of the opposition, but this time I'm really struggling to find an opposition that doesn't caricature itself."
For the purposes of this blog, the inception of the Great Recession in the U.S., the epicentre of the crisis, is taken as the start date for the global slump. The U.S. has been in recession since December 2007.