The midterm elections are on deck, so this week and the next, no doubt, will see the media roll out its best Obama-time stories: we’ll read about the cataract plunge of his administration from its rocky campaign highs, and we’ll hear about the apparently bottomless disappointment of a country that can’t seem to find it’s depth, and along the way, all along the way, we’ll be Rorschaching our way towards electoral disillusionment. Peter Baker over at the NYT Magazine has one such story, and it’s a long one–in traditional NYT fashion–which I appreciate, because it keeps me from procrastinating in less “edifying” ways, like playing video games and buying ridiculously red Italian sneakers, which make me look like a vaguely threatening out-of-work clown. It’s worth a read.
Well, not being a Washington insider, or a political pundit, or a grizzled reporter with decades of contacts and a fact-check-gal, I can’t offer any cutting-edge political analysis, but what I can offer is a little literary intuition. Obama’s problem isn’t enthusiasm, introversion, or the economy; it’s setting. He is not, in fact, a “blank slate” upon which we write our visions and revisions, as so many pundits, both conservative and liberal, tell us. No, he is, undoubtedly, for better and worse, a principled character. The protagonist in an unfriendly scene.
He believes that the answer to Cain’s rhetorical challenge to God is, “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper.” He wanders Arlington Cemetery without reporters; he reads briefing papers himself; he intends to do one thing and then finds out he has to do another. No, he isn’t the inscrutable figure “anonymous aides” claim him to be–who are always, oddly, predictably scrutable in their common wisdom in spite of their ghostly identities. Indeed, I find him to be the least confounding political leader in my lifetime. Obama’s problem is that he is President of the United States in the early part of the 21st century.
Like I said, the setting is all wrong. We know, we all know, that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Sure, the analogy isn’t exact, thankfully: Hamlet loved his mother a little too much, and he wore too much black, and he really should have sent Ophelia flowers instead of trying to refund her virginity, but he was faced with a real problem: “Something [was] rotten in the state of Denmark,” and he didn’t know what to do about it. What is the right action in a country that has gone mad? I’m not sure, but I, too, might find myself waxing philosophic to a skull, if the dead were walking the earth and a murderer was nailing my mom in the house my father built.
The idea of mass insanity is not new, by the way; countries of crazies and legions of lunes can be found throughout our collective human history. The German Historical Museum, in fact, is hosting an exhibit on the collective responsibility of the German people for the “difficult solutions” that brought on the mass murder of millions–nothing like tough economic times to bring out the SS in all of us. But madness need not be quite so heinously efficient; Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a 17th century example of scientific journalism, was all about the Vulgar Errors of the masses. Literally Greek for “The Widespread Disease of False Appearances,” or better, “The Disease of Mass-delusion,” Browne’s work confronted such widespread beliefs as, “That the Salamander lives in the fire,” and “That a diamond is made soft by the blood of a goat.” It’s not difficult to imagine where I’m going with this. A planet barely 6,000 years old, peopled with yogis who live on sunlight and love, Mormons who dress for their piece of the planetary pie, and bankers who really believe that bankers make the best referees for bankers playing at banking, can be hard to live on, let alone govern.
So, as we’re preparing the President’s November 2nd progress report, forgive me if I don’t take the results too seriously, or listen too closely to the cable chatter or the anonymous aides: salamanders don’t breathe fire, diamonds don’t drink blood, and I’m not prepared to judge someone for talking to a skull when madness is the rule.