Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spiderman's First One Hundred Days

Profiling the French climber, Alain Robert, in a recent New Yorker, Lauren Collins describes him as "The Vertical Tourist." Others have referred to him as "The Wall Crawler" and the "French Spiderman." When he was a boy, Alain Robert liked climbing on rock piles with his friends, pretending they were Himalayan peaks, and scampering up frozen waterfalls. These days he traverses the world mounting its tallest buildings like a monkey--scaling sheets of glass and steel, which he does without the help of ropes, implements, harnesses, or parachutes. Safety contrivances, in his view, are a form of bondage.

Previously I blogged about his French counterpart, Philippe Petit, known as the "Man on Wire" who, in 1974, suspended a steel cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked across it. I likened Petit's sure-footed balancing act to Barack Obama's calm aplomb on the tightrope of the campaign trail, as he staved off constant vicious assaults from both Republicans and Hillary Clinton, always managing to fight back without ever seeming as if he were fighting at all.

Alain Robert, by contrast, gets vertigo he says, when walking horizontally. Now in his upper forties, he began climbing the world's tallest buildings in 1994. On June 4, 2008, he scaled the north face of the New York Times building, all 52 stories of it, bearing his green banner on which these words were written: "Global warming kills more people than 9/11 every week." So far, he has climbed some 80 buildings around the world, including the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Opera House, and the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. Hoping at some point to climb the WTC, he received an unexpected reprieve when it was destroyed. As he told Lauren Collins, it was "like a long-time nemesis dropping dead before a duel."

With all the assessments now pouring in about Obama's first one hundred days in office, most pundits are grading him by comparison with former presidents like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and FDR. Personally, I prefer an analogy that is more out-of-the-box for this unique man, whose ideology is proving hard to pin down, and whose leadership defies easy labeling as either liberal or conservative. Since taking office, Obama has faced rising unemployment and foreclosure rates, a federal deficit looming as high as a skyscraper, and the necessity of climbing over the traditional wall between government and business.

So, rather than the high-wire balancing act demonstrated during his campaign, these first hundred days in office have shown Obama more in vertical ascent a la Spiderman, as he struggles to make the steep climb out of global economic recession, failing health care, unpopular wars, climate-change threats, and now, a potential flu pandemic. So far, he has been an awesome president, rising up against all difficulties in ways that are amazing to watch--that are every bit as skilled and thrilling as Alain Robert's bare-handed climbs up the sides of tall buildings. In short, what is most impressive about Obama is his absolute fearlessness.

You could say he is the very opposite of that man in the Sufi tale who was terrified of snakes. While visiting a mountain resort, the man became frightened when someone casually mentioned there were poisonous snakes in the area. Suddenly every shadow seemed to conceal a snake, and when he returned to his darkened room that night, he saw a coiled snake on the floor ready to strike. Overwhelmed by fear, he had a heart attack on the spot and dropped dead. The next morning, a housekeeper found his body lying next to a coil of rope. (Having had snakes in my house more than once, I can definitely relate.)

So, if I were being asked, along with the media pundits, what it is about Obama that impresses me most, I would have to say: the fact that, unerringly, he can tell the difference between a live snake and a mere coil of rope.

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