Saturday, January 30, 2010
The Honorable Barack Febreze Obama
Honestly, deep in my heart, I was dreading the State of the Union address. "All talk, no action": I could hear the words of his critics before they were even spoken. Not a willing participant in the huge "pinata" party of folks who seem to enjoy any opportunity to smash Obama with a baseball bat, I had become, myself, a victim of his difficulties. I tend to cringe at every miserable, vicious thing people say about him. And these days, it seems like whatever Obama says, whatever he does, incinerating attacks come at him with breakneck speed, whether from Republicans, Democrats, or Independents.
So much rubble has been heaped on this one man, it's as if he's become his own Haitian catastrophe. As a result, that night when I sat down in front of the TV with my friend Hakuin Rose, I was feeling the pain in Obama's earlier response to Joe Klein, a Time reporter, who had asked him how he managed to seem so calm in the face of all the stuff coming at him. "I have a confession to make here," Obama said. (It was the first time I'd ever heard him speak publicly about this.) "There are times where I'm not so calm...There are times when the words that are spoken about me hurt. There are times when the barbs sting. There are times when it feels like all these efforts are for naught..."
Klein wrote at the end of his piece that after a year of "think time," Obama would have to "go to battle, shedding his preternatural calm at times, and fight to regain the public trust." Would he be able to accomplish that with this speech? I wondered. (And meanwhile fingered my raw pessimism.) How does the wooden Buddha walk through the fire?
"He will have to understand that in the poisonous atmosphere of American politics, triumphs are no longer a realistic possibility: survival is as good as it gets," said Klein. Not an auspicious comment for someone like me, almost catatonic with worry already.
A weird image kept coming to mind--that of Lemuel Gulliver's shipwreck. Gulliver manages to swim to an unfamiliar shore where he falls asleep, exhausted from his efforts. When he awakes, he finds himself a prisoner, having been tied up by a crowd of Lilliputians who are extremely tiny (1/12th the size of normal human beings) and well-armed. Ultimately Gulliver aids the Lilliputians, but he is still resented by many of the Emperor's courtiers, who plot to accuse him of treason and sentence him to be blinded and starved to death. Just like the "Party of No," I think. And not unlike the way the Supreme Court suddenly blind-sided Obama (and the rest of us) by green-lighting the buy-out of government by corporate interests. How can a president live and do his work after this capture?
He can't, I thought. There won't ever be another Democratic president voted into office again. And then, Obama took the podium.
What I saw that night was not someone who had just had the stuffing knocked out of him, not a man embittered by what he has had to endure. He wasn't touchy or twitchy, and certainly not a victim--of earthquakes, Supreme Court screeds, or drowning (as he is pictured on the current New Yorker cover). The man I saw was a model of resilience--in the manner of that Buddhist saying, "Fall down seven times: get up eight." He was neither rhetorically bellicose nor afraid to offend--but simply sailed like a swan above the treacherous undercurrents of today's hideous politics. I'm not sure if this means he'll be able to make any notable improvements to what has become the Tower of Babel in Washington, but he appeared, himself, to be undaunted and unscathed, like a sled dog mushing through a blizzard with a vial of life-saving vaccine and a flask of brandy.
Don't be shocked by this, but what came to me after the speech was a completely different image from the one I'd been inhabiting, of Gulliver tied up by Lilliputians. It was, of all things, the TV ad for Febreze, in which a mother enters her son's bedroom, sniffs the smelly air, and insists he has to clean his room before friends can come in. The boy groans, but then she produces a bottle of Febreze: see, you just have to spray it on, and it will remove all the dirty spots. For me, Obama's speech was like Febreze: he spritzed, and everything suddenly felt fresh and clean again. Call me crazy, but that is how I felt. I wrote this to my friend Jane, who responded:
"I am so happy to hear that our president, The Honorable Febreze Obama, spritzed away your blues--along with the dour irritability of a whole chunk of independents, apparently, who remembered why they want to give him a chance."
"This was the president I supported and still support and will support because he alone is calling us away from the cynicism, the ideology, the rhetorical poison, and the red-blue divide that keep us from the reform we desperately need," Andrew Sullivan wrote, while live-blogging the speech. "I'm struck by how relaxed he seems. Smiling, confident, easy-going, and yet also deadly serious. He's certainly a lot calmer than most of his supporters, including me. I was a bit of a wreck before this after such a depressing couple of weeks. But he is managing to lift that gloom--not by dazzling rhetoric, but by a form of realism that is reassuring."
Other bulletins and writing on the walls from the Tower of Babel:
Arianna Huffington: "The speech, despite its charm, humor, and occasionally impassioned rhetoric, had the feel of being focus-grouped within an inch of its life. There was a decidedly paint-by-poll-numbers air about it."
Joe Klein: "The eloquence and sense of purpose was riveting...This was Obama at his best."
Sarah Palin: "There was quite a bit of lecturing, not leading."
John Boehner: "The American people were looking for President Obama to change course tonight, and they got more of the same job-killing policies instead."
Tim Kaine: "He hit the ball out of the park."
Suzi Gablik: "A big Molly Bloom Yes!"
As always, I like to remind everyone that beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.