Location: Fairfax, Virginia, United States

Monday, March 26, 2007

Why We'll Have to Wait for a Woman President

Grandpa Gazette No. 5 March 2007

The women in my family will hate me for saying this, but I don’t think Hillary is going to make it. Of course it’s silly to make any kind of prediction this far in advance, and I vividly remember what a sure thing Howard Dean seemed to be, up until the first voters got a chance to have their say. But I’m going to go out on the limb anyway. My reasons:
--She doesn’t seem to have that kind of relaxed, easy connection with an audience that successful politicians have. It always looks as if she’s trying too hard.
--She’s had three years since John Kerry to get her story straight on Iraq, and she doesn’t have it. It looks like she’s going to be stumbling through the next year trying to explain her position on the war.
--She has tried to escape it, but she will continue to be seen as a polarizing figure – even by those who are sympathetic to her politics and to her husband. They will feel that voting for her runs a risk of further polarization in a country that everyone thinks needs deep healing.
--Prejudice in this country runs deeper against women, in positions of power and leadership, than it does against blacks. At least partly for this reason, she is and will continue to be an unrelenting target of jokes, cartoons, and snide remarks, in a way no one would dare against an African-American.

Which kind of tips my hand, doesn’t it? The fact is, whatever her handicaps, Hillary would have been unbeatable for the Democratic nomination if Obama hadn’t entered the race. No one else had the money, the name recognition, the star power. Veteran politicians must be used to it, but it still must be hard – to have it all appear to be within your grasp and then something totally unexpected snatches it away.

Obama seems to enjoy politics, in a way that Kerry, Gore and Hillary don’t. Fred Hiatt wrote in The Washington Post, “Maybe it was just an unlucky shot, but a photograph from Selma appeared to capture it…a band of politicians and civil rights leaders linking arms…, with Bill Clinton on one side looking over at Barack Obama on the other, each grinning and apparently having the time of his life, and Hillary between them, apparently grimly determined to walk on.” Of course Obama could stumble, a la Dean or Muskie or Hart – Muskie seems the most likely parallel, if there were going to be one – but I’m not certain that Clinton would be the beneficiary. The voters might then turn to one of the other candidates. Edwards of course is a strong contender, although I think weakened, not strengthened, by voters’ concern about his wife’s health. Richardson is a fresh face to most people, well-financed, and no vote on Iraq to explain.

However it goes, the campaign will be vicious, even if the Republicans nominate someone decent. (Yes, Virginia, there are….) People like Cheney and Rove will be desperate to win the kind of vindication that a Republican victory would give them, and the Swift Boat Veterans will reemerge under whatever name seems most effective, whether the Republican candidate encourages them or not. In this respect it doesn’t make any difference who the Democrats nominate. The purveyors of smut will invent any story necessary to smear whomever.

And the Republican candidate? Darned if I know. My gut tells me that McCain, like Hillary, is not going to make it, primarily because of the war, which I think already is turning off Republican primary voters and will turn off even more by next January and February. His age will also be a handicap. Giuliani is a phenomenon, and I’m not ready to write him off despite his obvious negatives with GOP voters. But if they decide a flawed hero isn’t good enough, then who? Brownback is obviously unelectable, even to primary voters. Romney? Maybe, although I just cannot imagine the evangelicals voting for a Mormon, whom they regard as non-Christian. (Falwell’s and Dodson’s worst nightmare? An electoral choice between a Mormon and a “Muslim.”) Hagel, Thompson, Gingrich – non-starters. And if none of these, then who?

Decline and Fall of the American Empire?

History repeats itself, we are told, and all empires have eventually fallen, decayed, disintegrated or been conquered. So therefore, we must assume, will the American. A loose hegemony may be more sustainable than a rigid imperial structure, but there is no reason to suppose that it will be sustainable forever. So are we close to 410 AD and the arrival of the Visigoths in Rome? Or to the period after WWII when Britain voluntarily gave up almost all its colonies?

Not yet, I think, although there are some disturbing signs and portents (that is, disturbing if you enjoy being on top – those on the bottom may have a different view). The problem remains what it has been since the Fall of the Wall – that no one else wants the job. That’s my answer to the question, “Why does America have to police the world?” Somebody has to step up and deal with the nasty situations like Afghanistan, Darfur, Rwanda. A number of countries will contribute men or money, but only if someone else takes the lead. (Remember that case where the French were willing to supply the largest number of troops to some peacekeeping operation or another, but adamantly refused to be in charge of it!)

Most Americans are still not comfortable in that role, despite the enormously greater involvement we have with the rest of the world compared with 50 years ago. That’s a major part of the problem – we keep wanting the world to go away and leave us alone. (Compare to the British sense of entitlement and pride in running the world.) In consequence our leaders, Democrats and Republics alike, are forced to engage in foreign affairs behind our backs, half-concealing what they are up to.

So we don’t do it well, at least not lately. Clinton, in so many ways the quintessential American, reflected the national ambivalence toward world power. Bush is an extraordinary case (in so many ways) of a convert – someone with no apparent interest at all in the world who became after 9/11 an internationalist of the worst sort, a true Ugly American. He and his cohorts fundamentally misunderstand what policing the world means. A policeman doesn’t reform the neighborhood, turn everyone into saints – he tidies up the mess, tries to keep the streets reasonably safe. He’s under no illusion that there is ever an end to his job, a day when he can say crime is over and done with.

This incompetence in global law enforcement is wearing the world’s patience thin. So they may eventually look around for a replacement, or, more likely, a replacement will gradually push its way forward. (China? Stranger things have happened.) But for now, there’s no one else around who wants to wear the uniform. So the world waits impatiently for 2008 and hopes we do a better job of picking our leaders then we did in 2000 and 2004. Of course, if we really are so monumentally stupid as to attack Iran – then the Visigoths will be at the gate.


The big news in my part of the world is that in late January WGMS-FM, which has been one of Washington’s classical music stations for decades – I listened to it when I came here in 1955 – dropped its classical format and became something called (I’m not making this up) “George 104.” I had heard this was going to happen, and felt twice betrayed, since WETA-FM, the public radio station, had switched from classical to all-news two years ago. Which meant getting in-depth analysis of the mayoral race in Kuala Lumpur and the public sanitation crisis in Nairobi, but no music. This left me with only one classical station, WBJC-FM in Baltimore, and that gets scratchy in some parts of the Virginia suburbs. In other words the Washington-Baltimore area went from three classical stations, probably more than other city in the country, to one. Imagine my surprise when I returned to the area in March to find that WETA had dropped its all-news format and gone back to classical, leaving the news junkies feeling betrayed. But I’m happy, and that’s all that counts.

Otherwise, not much to report. While on vacation I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which managed to be hilariously funny one moment and depressingly sad the next, mostly because it was about a married couple in their seventies with three children who reminded me all too much of us.

Best thing currently on TV is the most unlikely program, “Friday Night Lights.” Never thought I would enjoy a TV series about high school football, even after enjoying the movie of the same name. Kyle Chandler is wonderful as the coach, all the acting is first rate, the story line is absorbing, and it’s one of the few serious programs on TV.

You may recall that about the time they issued two movies about Truman Capote, they made two about 19th century European magicians. If you are one of those who, like myself, went to see “The Prestige” because The Washington Post swore it was the better of the two, and found it, as I did, incoherent nonsense, then you may be relieved to hear that I finally rented “The Illusionist,” with Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti and enjoyed it immensely. Great period drama, great mystery story, fun movie.


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