State Of The Union: In Name Only

My latest article on my blog at the Washington Times Communities, Public Square Today, is now live:

State Of The Union: In Name Only

Tonight, Barack Obama delivers his very first State Of The Union message to Congress. As is the custom with newly-inaugurated presidents, President Obama did speak to Congress last year, but that is not considered an official “State Of The Union.” The Constitution requires the President to make a report on how things are going “from time to time.”

Chart by Brad Rourke (click for full size)
Chart by Brad Rourke (click for full size)

As I thought about it, I found myself wishing that President Obama might take the tack Jimmy Carter took in in his last days in office in 1981 and mail it in — literally. It was a written report that year. In fact, while our first two presidents gave speeches, for a hundred years beginning with Thomas Jefferson the State Of The Union was a written report ranging from about 2,000 to about 24,000 words (Lincoln’s averaged 6,800 words). Woodrow Wilson ended that practice and ushered in the modern era of giving speeches.

I still think the first State Of The Union was probably the best. We don’t know how long it lasted, but we know that it was the shortest State Of The Union on record: George Washington’s first such address was just 1,089 words. I’ve written memos longer!

As I reflected on the fact that a speech would be inevitable, I then found myself hoping President Obama might take a page from Richard Nixon’s playbook and give a very short speech. Nixon gave a speech of just 28:30 in 1972. (The next year he sent a written report.)

But in the television era, we are by and large stuck with speeches that average about 48 minutes — long enough to take up an hour programming block, but short enough to allow time for pundit reactions. President Obama’s speech last year was right on the money in that respect, at 51:44.

For a political junkie, I have always felt guilty around State Of The Union time. I feel alienated from my fellow politics-watchers. Because I dread these speeches. It seems too short to say anything of value, too long to inspire, too worked-over to offer me anything new.

The state of the union is strong, I will hear. There will be shout-outs to “ordinary” people in the audience — a practice that has long since jumped the shark. There may even be a new initiative or two announced — perhaps a surprise.

But I know what the state of the union is, as does everyone from Skid Row to Main Street to Wall Street. Things are tough. There is little will from Washington to make the changes that we need. Political leaders are out of touch with the concerns of Americans.

A good friend told me earlier that he was despairing  that our political institutions could do anything anymore. This is the true state of the union: It sometimes feels a union in name only.

Yes, there are glimmers of hope. Each time I dare, though, my hopes are dashed. It’s not that my favored policies aren’t getting enacted, or that people I disagree with are in power. That’s just window dressing.

It’s that the structures aren’t working. We used to look to politics as the forum in which we solve the problems that arise when people live together and try to self-govern. Now we view politics as the problem and we try as best we can to live a life where we never encounter people unlike us.

Maybe I will hear something from this year’s address that lifts me.

But more likely, I will get over my funk. I will pull up my socks and get on with life, doing the work that must be done in our community irrespective of what messages drip down from the District of Columbia. That, after all, is the story of America.

In the end, when pushed up against the wall, we get to work. But just now, before the dawn, it’s quite dark.

What If It Were More Than An Infomercial?

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

If you are reading this, you are not the target of Senator Obama’s 30-minute media buy. Which surely means, since I am writing, that neither am I the target. Good thing, too — I was disappointed.

Oh, sure, my eyes teared up at the right moments, and I enjoyed the homespun blues guitar. As commercials go, it was fine. And as infomercials go, it was a knockout. What I am disappointed by, on behalf of the civic life of America, is the squandered opportunity.

Set aside, for the moment, whom you prefer to vote for (or have already voted for) in the upcoming “historic presidential election.” The fact remains that one candidate is so dominating the current electoral scene that he is able to insert a 30-minute unfiltered message into almost all of prime time. He is a candidate who looks and talks differently than most other political figures cluttering the landscape. His charisma is undeniable, recalling orators of yore. He’s smart.

At his best, this candidate preaches (and it is preaching) a kind of politics that rests on a partnership between the leaders and the led, where citizens aren’t customers of government but are citizens, who hold responsibilities as well as rights. This at times seems a revolutionary idea, coming as it does at a time when politics itself seems exhausted, the rhetoric ground down by the accretion of promise after promise.

Americans know that they themselves can do better, that they can be better citizens. I hear it as I talk to people throughout the nation. Most would grade themselves a “B” in terms of citizenship, if that. They’re waiting for an invitation to step up, and many observers see Obama’s candidacy as just such an opportunity.

But he played it safe, sticking to the well-worn talking points and really, it seems, just hoping to make his points through repetition. I guess it is hard to fault someone in Sen. Obama’s position for steering a course that minimizes mistakes. After all, he’s trying to close the deal, and that’s a job not yet done.

But imagine if Sen. Obama’s campaign had instead seen these thirty minutes as an opportunity — not for his own campaign, but for the American people. He might have taken a different tack.

He might have gathered ten Americans from different walks of life — including, especially, people with whom he disagrees — and had a conversation with them. During this conversation he might not have spent the time trying to sell his candidacy, but instead to give voice to ordinary people, to probe what they want the public square to look and feel like. He could have even asked them: What will you do, to make this a better nation? This could have been a moment in which to make manifest the very deal Obama seems to want between government and citizens, an equal partnership.

Or, maybe, he might have spent the time weighing the relative merits of his and his opponent’s world views. He might have asked a co-host to present opposing views not in a demonic way, but with their best feet forward. After all, Sen. McCain is a serious person and his proposals are worth taking seriously. Why not examine them at their best, and explain why notwithstanding their good points, Obama would go in another direction? And why not point out the downsides of Obama’s own proposals – for everyone knows that there are upsides and downsides. This would just be leveling with the American people and telling them what they already know in their gut: there is no silver bullet and no one answer is undeniably the right one. This could have been a moment when the American electorate were finally being treated as the grown-ups they are.

Instead, Sen. Obama’s campaign chose to sell us a grill and a set of knives. It probably did his campaign good and it’s unlikely that it hurt.

But it could have been so much more.

Main Street: Already Lost

I am not sure who is going to win this year’s presidential election campaign, but I already know who the loser will be. It’s the same sap who’s come out on the short end for the last two decades and more: the person on Main Street.

Wait, you say. Hasn’t this election begun to turn on “populism?” Isn’t Joe Biden the Working Man? Isn’t Sarah Palin the Hockey Mom?

Well, sure they are, but populism is not Main Street. Populism — the way it’s being practiced today — is all about anger and cultural warfare. Washington, Wall Street, bad. Wal Mart, Target, good.

A recent column by Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas in USA Today has them taking a stab at finding common ground. “The idea of a culture war seems so 1990s, doesn’t it?” says one. The other frets, “We’re in danger of heading down that pothole-filled road once again.” Having expressed their preference for reasonableness, the two spend the rest of the column bickering about whether Americans want more health care or less same-sex marriages. They argue over who started the “culture wars” and who is to blame for continuing them. Finally, almost an afterthought, they find something they seem to be able to agree on, and that is that a presidential election is not the place to find “quieter moments of reflection . . . with honest give and take.”

That, in a nutshell, is where we are at. Even people who are trying to find common ground can’t quite do so. We talk past one another, our rhetoric filled with anger and finger pointing, until finally we come upon a dispirited realization: that presidential campaigns are no longer designed around the idea of helping citizens make a choice as to who should lead, but instead are built on a foundation of warfare. I win, you lose. Just as war has evolved from arranged battles to guerrilla asymmetries, so too have campaigns shifted from debates to shin-kicks.

Where candidates used to “stand” for election, they now “run.” Where they used to seek to “govern,” they now say the seek office in order to “fight.”

Even within the campaigns (and, more stridently, the supporters) of Senators MccCain and Obama — of which each man can be made a strong case that they are willing and able to work across divides, placing results ahead of party interest — neither can seem to refrain from phony outrage and disgusting taunts.

Twenty years ago the political world laid hold of the power of organized fear in the image of Willie Horton which in part sunk Michael Dukakis’ candidacy for president. While not the first campaign ad to play on base emotion, it is widely regarded as the archetype. Since then, it’s gotten worse each year. Scare tactics are now the norm, not just in commercials but in almost every campaign communication. And they are not limited to one political party.

This leaves the folks on Main Street in the lurch. It literally perverts them by, playing on their base instincts of fear, hatred, and their urge to support their team at all costs. They see higher stakes, more dire consequences, more reason for outrage, than reality would dictate — all because the machinery of politics cynically eggs them on. My side is attacked – I must hit back and hard. People, under such pressure, tend to lose their equanimity and act more like face-painted sports fans at the Big Game. They’ve been ginned up, whipped into a frenzy.

I recently had the opportunity to eavesdrop on a political conversation between adolescent children. Depending on who was talking, each candidate by turns would “stop terrorists,” “end global warming,” “lower gas prices,” or “stop the war.” Neither candidate can actually do any of these things. Yet these comments are exactly in line with what we hear daily out on the street, as we circulate through life.

Gone is the sense that we are making a decision, weighing options. In its stead is the building-up of our team and the eviscerating of their team.

People on Main Street, meanwhile, are left with little else to do but go along with the mob, or check out of public life.

Little wonder so many pick the latter option.

Google Me.

This article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

Senator John McCain’s campaign has “abruptly canceled” a fundraiser that had been set to take place at the home of a Texas oilman. The host, Clayton Williams, had run for governor against Ann Richards back in 1990 and, during the campaign, unfortunately at one point compared the weather to a rape — “as long as it’s inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” He was trying to be funny. It wasn’t. These words were picked up by the media and by Richards’ campaign and Williams lost.

In canceling their fundraiser, McCain’s campaign spokesman said, “These were obviously incredibly offensive remarks that the campaign was unaware of at the time this event was scheduled.”

Now the questions begin: Should he give back the money? How will this affect the campaign? What will Obama do? Shouldn’t he have known?

That last question is, perhaps, worth thinking about.

There’s a long and proud American tradition of political figures getting torpedoed by words and deeds from the past. Often it is some sort of nominee whose inane or insane remarks from their youth get unearthed. Or weird academic writings that had been read by maybe seven Ph.D.s come to light. Or the figure has a vulgar sense of humor (like our man Williams). Or a family member has a checkered past.

Opponents pounce on such things, and that’s understandable. But in the past, the test in people’s living rooms has been: how does the principal deal with the revelations? For some high-profile nominees, such as for positions that require Senate confirmation, we are dumbfounded that the offense had not come up in the background checks, but for less weighty things there’s this sense of sympathy. You can’t know everything about everybody.

But now that’s changed. Really, it’s hard not to know more about most people than they would like to have known.

Take that fellow who ran for Texas governor and tripped up the Senator from Arizona. One Google search yields his Wikipedia entry as the #2 hit. Wikipedia (and this was current as of March 27), highlights the offending remark. OK, some purists say Wikpedia is prone to manipulation, so follow one more link to the source article. There it is, the remark and the ensuing controversy. That “research” took sixty seconds, including reading time.

Yet, the McCain campaign treats the remark as if it was some obscure thing they could not have possibly known. The only way the campaign could have been “unaware of” the remark “at the time the event was scheduled” would be if no one actually looked into who this guy was. Probably a better response from the Straight Talk Express would have been: “We were moving too fast and just didn’t do our homework.”

This isn’t just McCain’s problem. Senator Barack Obama’s campaign has been plagued by similar Google-blindness and tin-ear moves. James Johnson, the consummate insider, reviewing the Running Mates of Change? Please. Tony Rezko, radioactive fundraiser and neighbor selling a strip of vacant land to the senator from Illinois? He was “glowing” at the time of the sale, under investigation by Federal prosecutors. And for intemperate, embarrassing remarks, see the entry under Rev. Wright.

Senator Obama’s response to criticism that he should have known about Johnson’s sweetheart mortgage deals was: “[E]verybody . . . who is tangentially related to our campaign, I think, is going to have a whole host of relationships. I would have to hire the vetter to vet the vetters.” This is a classic line. If there is justice, “vetter to vet the vetters” will enter pop culture and get screened onto American Apparel basic T’s. At least it deserves something on the Colbert Report.

But he does have a point. Johnson’s apparently too-cozy Countrywide mortgages came to light (through an article in the Wall Street Journal) only after he was named Chief Vetter.

While there are many things that a campaign ought to know, there are just as many things about supporters that campaigns can’t know. And the means for many of these things to come to the fore are firmly entrenched in the landscape. Look no further than sites like Pajamas Media. The only certainty, then, is that things will come to light.

Candidates need to both up their game and prepare for the mistakes they will definitely make. It won’t pass muster to say you didn’t know something anyone can find out in less than a minute.

But, as former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed out (and for which wisdom he was unfairly ridiculed), there are known unknowns. That is to say, candidates can bet on embarrassing revelations about their supporters, even if they do not yet know, and cannot yet know, what they are.

How will the campaigns respond? Circle the wagons? Or — perhaps too much to ask from the Candidate of Believable Change or from Camp Straight Talk — with straightforward candor?

Change, The Real Thing

There is another race that Senator Barack Obama has won hands-down.

He’s the only one with a decent logo. The Obama campaign has developed a contained, clear graphic that conveys just about everything most folks feel they need to know.

People know Obama’s got good design on his side, too. Next time there’s news of an Obama speech, take a look at the photo: often, it’ll be a stark image of the Senator against a dark background, so he stands out. Hovering, a bit out of focus, behind the Senator, will be that logo.

The fact of this logo’s existence says more than you might think about his candidacy. No other candidate has one. Sure, other candidates may say they have a logo — but it’s all just little wavy flags or bold stars surrounding their names. That Obama logo marks that the campaign, in part, has been about building a “brand.”

But we are not in an ad campaign; we are in an election campaign. The competition is far different than that between soft drinks. If I buy The Real Thing today, I can turn around and Do The Dew tomorrow. But the act of voting is more than simply stating a preference.

We go to a special place in order to vote, having in most cases waited in a line with others who are about to do the same thing. Tension mounts; we see our neighbors. The American flags and officious posters on the walls, the intent poll-watchers skulking about, the earnest volunteer election judges — it all adds to the seriousness. Even if I was not really focusing last night, or the week before, I sure am now, in line.

As I enter the booth, the import of my task strikes me. (I hear a similar thing happens among juries.)

On some level, I begin to realize I am not just saying who I “like” more, or who I would more rather go to Applebee’s with. Nor am I “hiring” someone for a “job.” I am, instead, making a choice that I believe ought to be binding on my fellow citizens. I am choosing for them as much as I am choosing for me.

Veteran political consultants know that the rules of the commercial world do not fully apply in election campaigns. While the two worlds use many of the same tools, they are different in important respects. Candidates who consciously proclaim “a different kind of message” run a risk when it comes to be crunch time. Because, for all of our complaining that campaigns have become a beauty contest — it’s not exactly so. Buzz, as we saw during Howard Dean’s candidacy, does not necessarily translate into votes.

But, from observing the Obama campaign’s mien over the last weeks, it seems the Senator or his strategists do indeed know the difference between ads and elections — you see that logo less and less these days.

The Clinton campaign now has a slim reed on which to hang, which is that the hard work that has gone before will pay dividends and allow her to hang on into the spring. But it is not a foregone conclusion that the slogging work of politics can overtake the undeniable allure of a powerful message and a charismatic messenger — which has now begun to focus like a laser on closing the deal.

I am a bit hopeful that the primary season will wear on, tiresome as it can be. I do know it may well be over soon. But the fight does the candidates good, and pays dividends to us citizens at home: Watching the repeated primaries, I am invited to check my own opinions — Who would I have voted for last Tuesday? How about the Tuesday a few weeks before? My thoughts become clearer week by week and, eventually, along with my neighbor’s and fellow citizens across the country, they build up to a collective judgment of who ought to be the nominee. Such judgments are improved by age.

I may be old-fashioned, but I am glad there is still an area of public life that we continue to keep closed off from the marketers. When we draw the curtain in the voting booth, even if we may not articulate this to ourselves, each of us stakes our own tiny claim for the seriousness of the task before us.

(Images from campaign websites.)

Please Don’t Run

obamaDear Sen. Obama:

Just a few days ago, on one of many Debate Days, I saw that photograph of you and your daughter, Sasha, in the bumper cars at the Iowa State Fair. You are both so happy, sharing the simple joys of the lurch and heave and jolt. Looking at the photo, I imagine you to be running in a large circle around a knot of cars, preparing to swoop down onto an unsuspecting driver. You know the move I mean.

Looking at the photo, the thought came to me unbidden: Please don’t run. It was both an expression of hope for you, as a man, and also for our country.

I want, as a fellow human being and fellow father, to see you stay just the way you are: able to experience the joy of parenthood and the simple thrill of the state fair midway.

As a fellow citizen of the greatest nation on the globe, I want you just as you are, right now. Though it is long past time that there be an African American in the White House, you yourself are too important to lose to the Presidency.

Your candidacy has galvanized many and given them hope. You speak a language that has long been out of favor among the professionals in public life. How can you let down the people who look so longingly toward you? For whom your very existence as a viable candidate gives them hope that, maybe, something can change?

But, how can you not let these same people down? I fear you won’t be able to keep up your humanity, stuck there in the West Wing. It seems to suck the soul out of those who work there for any length of time. I think of how old Jimmy Carter seemed as he left, of how tired President Bush seemed, of how tired President Bush now seems. Your approach to public life takes energy — energy to work against the status quo. Day in, day out, I worry the apparatus of the Oval Office will grind you down.

From your seat in the United States Senate, you have the clout to be heard and the safety that gives you room to maneuver. You do not have to calculate every statement against a global backdrop of ill will. You are free to speak truths that a president might not be able to say, but that must be said. You do not have to carry on your shoulders the burden of what our erstwhile allies and friends have begun to think of us, the burden of repairing broken relationships and strained friendships.

Were I a Democrat, you might say I was in the pocket of some other candidate angling for the nomination that will come months too soon. Were I a Republican, you might say I was trying to stall the candidacy of one of the freshest figures to come along in a long while. But that’s all just static. I do not know whether you are the most viable candidate, I do not know whether you really have a snowball’s chance, I do not know whether others, right or left, would do a better job. None of that is my point.

My point is this. Senator Obama, you’ve said that people seem to project their hopes onto you. That’s your burden to bear, no matter what. My hope for you is that you can remain the man you are now, the man who inspires a new hope.

Maybe it seems unfair to say such things openly. The time to make such a statement is long past. The die is cast.

But it was that photo, Senator, that moved me to write. That smile, on you and on Sasha. I want to see it again.

Thank you for your service, now and in the future.

Sincerely yours,

Brad Rourke

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty, by way of Andrew Sullivan

Please Don't Run

obamaDear Sen. Obama:

Just a few days ago, on one of many Debate Days, I saw that photograph of you and your daughter, Sasha, in the bumper cars at the Iowa State Fair. You are both so happy, sharing the simple joys of the lurch and heave and jolt. Looking at the photo, I imagine you to be running in a large circle around a knot of cars, preparing to swoop down onto an unsuspecting driver. You know the move I mean.

Looking at the photo, the thought came to me unbidden: Please don’t run. It was both an expression of hope for you, as a man, and also for our country.

I want, as a fellow human being and fellow father, to see you stay just the way you are: able to experience the joy of parenthood and the simple thrill of the state fair midway.

As a fellow citizen of the greatest nation on the globe, I want you just as you are, right now. Though it is long past time that there be an African American in the White House, you yourself are too important to lose to the Presidency.

Your candidacy has galvanized many and given them hope. You speak a language that has long been out of favor among the professionals in public life. How can you let down the people who look so longingly toward you? For whom your very existence as a viable candidate gives them hope that, maybe, something can change?

But, how can you not let these same people down? I fear you won’t be able to keep up your humanity, stuck there in the West Wing. It seems to suck the soul out of those who work there for any length of time. I think of how old Jimmy Carter seemed as he left, of how tired President Bush seemed, of how tired President Bush now seems. Your approach to public life takes energy — energy to work against the status quo. Day in, day out, I worry the apparatus of the Oval Office will grind you down.

From your seat in the United States Senate, you have the clout to be heard and the safety that gives you room to maneuver. You do not have to calculate every statement against a global backdrop of ill will. You are free to speak truths that a president might not be able to say, but that must be said. You do not have to carry on your shoulders the burden of what our erstwhile allies and friends have begun to think of us, the burden of repairing broken relationships and strained friendships.

Were I a Democrat, you might say I was in the pocket of some other candidate angling for the nomination that will come months too soon. Were I a Republican, you might say I was trying to stall the candidacy of one of the freshest figures to come along in a long while. But that’s all just static. I do not know whether you are the most viable candidate, I do not know whether you really have a snowball’s chance, I do not know whether others, right or left, would do a better job. None of that is my point.

My point is this. Senator Obama, you’ve said that people seem to project their hopes onto you. That’s your burden to bear, no matter what. My hope for you is that you can remain the man you are now, the man who inspires a new hope.

Maybe it seems unfair to say such things openly. The time to make such a statement is long past. The die is cast.

But it was that photo, Senator, that moved me to write. That smile, on you and on Sasha. I want to see it again.

Thank you for your service, now and in the future.

Sincerely yours,

Brad Rourke

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty, by way of Andrew Sullivan