January 29, 2008


Bill Clinton was right for a change. He used the phrase "fairy tale" to describe something Barack Obama had said. He should know. The Clinton story was one of the great fairy tales of our time, created by a pair of the most cynical politicians in American history assisted by a gullible press.

Clinton even tried the JF Kennedy shtick. Remember the photos of Clinton shaking Kennedy's hand at the White House as a kid at Boy's Nation? It didn't work and perhaps part of Clinton's resentment against Obama is that the latter has made the shtick stick.

In fact, contrary to the fable, during the Clinton years life got worse for many blacks and women, a stunning number of Democratic offices were lost at the state and national level, the country's social welfare program began being dismantled and a social democratic tradition of the Democratic Party going back to FDR was tossed aside for a GOP Lite philosophy that still dominates the party's thinking.

Of course, Kennedy was a fairy tale, too. Aside from the Peace Corps and getting people excited about serving the public good he was a pretty run of the mill. And he made some crummy decisions including the Bay of Pigs and starting the Vietnam conflict. In fact, the only presidents to get really excited about in modern times were Johnson (and only on the domestic side) and Roosevelt. And both are hardly mentioned by the fairy tale tellers.

There are two big problems with political fairy tales:

First, they usually turn out to be false and dangerously so. If the media fails to warn you of the insecure machismo of the Harvard types who surrounded JFK, you can find yourself in Vietnam. If it doesn't tell you the easily available evidence of Clinton's corrupt and drug trade connected politics in Arkansas, you can end up with the Whitewater scandal. And if all it tells you about Barack Obama is that he's for hope and is a JFK clone, you may end up with. . . . Stay tuned.

Second, these fairy tales reduce the supporting constituency to the role of rock star groupies rather than active participants. These groupies are used for the candidate's ends rather than the constituency using the candidate for their ends. This is what happened in the Clinton years. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party, even before the primaries were over, had reduced itself to a servile sycophant of Clinton and never recovered. There was no greater betrayal of the liberal tradition than how its professed observers caved to the destructive Clinton machine.

In fact, Obama's greatest service to date is that he has already started to replace the rotten Clinton fairy tale with a new one. The criticism of the Clintons that has started to crop up recently from formerly obeisant liberal quarters is something that hasn't been seen in 16 years. We can't underestimate the importance of closing the dismal chapter of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years with something, even if it isn't everything we would like. At no time in American history has so much damage been done to our reputation, Constitution and economy as during the RBCB era. It is long past time to say good riddance.

That said, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by turning a fairly ordinary Chicago politician into a saint. For one thing, he isn't. And for another, groveling at the feet of any politician is the worse course for a constituency. It is far better to keep politicians humble, to know their faults, and to know how to work around them when you need to.

A good place to start is to stop talking about hope. Obama talking about the audacity of hope is like a musician telling an audience that we need the audacity of applause. . . before he plays anything worth applauding.

Besides, Obama has no copyright on hope and, even if he did, as has been pointed out, hope don't pay the rent.

For Obama to put so much emphasis on hope suggests that he is either a con artist or deeply policy deficient.

It is fine for a politician to offer us hope, but for it to be real it has to be the byproduct of proposed policies or past actions and not the beginning and end of one's platform.

There are two good reasons for voting for a candidate. One: the candidate has done something for you. Two: the candidate promises to do something for you.

No candidate meets the first criteria and only John Edwards meets the second.

But Edwards is up against two competing fairy tales, which the media much prefers to reality politics. Besides, if Edwards were to win, the rules of the game would change and neither Washington nor the media would like that very much. That's why they've been so hard on Edwards from the start.

Far better to feel like something's going to happen because the candidate is black or a woman. And so much easier.

In fact, if you want change in policies, including toward those that would better favor the average black or women, you support Edwards. If you want to change the gender or ethnicity of the person in the White House without much change in policy, you support Obama or Clinton. It's sort of like buying a car. Some people read Consumer Reports; others think all they need is the hip brand.

Is there a definable difference between Obama and the Clintons? Absolutely. Obama is more honest, decent and thoughtful as well as less hypocritical by far. If you disagree with Obama, you'll get a parsimonious argument and be mad. If you disagree with a Clinton, you better watch your back.

Besides, there's always the Mae West principle: when faced with a choice of two evils, she always picked the one she hadn't tried before.

But that doesn't mean there is anything to be gained by wagging your tail every time Obama says the word "hope." In the end, those little treats he gives you for your obsequiousness may be all you get for lunch.