Sunday, August 22, 2010
Sitting on the Fence
I'm not just a fan, it's worse than that: i'm pretty much addicted to Charlie Rose. His program of masterful nightly conversations on TV--with everyone in the wide world who is, as the police like to put it, "a person of interest"--normally airs right across the midnight hour, a time when I am most definitely asleep, all being well. However, I do watch reruns from the night before at 5 o'clock on the following afternoon--that is, until they vanished quite suddenly this summer from their usual slot on the airwaves. I was distraught. Charlie Rose keeps me savvy and sane. Because of him, I always have a handle on whatever matters most, whether it is the latest state of the Middle East peace process, the cultural import of "Avatar," President Ahmadinejad's current antics, what the guys from Politico think about the Obama administration, the significance of the new iPad, the death of John Updike, or the government bailout of the auto industry. Whatever is going on, Charlie is on it, and I get educated.
With the help of a friend, I recently discovered that reruns were still being broadcast, but at a new, ungodly time: 6 a.m. Now, most mornings during the week, you can find me glued to the TV between the hours of 6 and 7. No one in their right mind watches TV at 6 a.m. But what's a besotted girl to do?
This past week Charlie had two incredible interviews, one with NBC newscaster Brian Williams, and another with Thad Allen, the administration's point man for the BP oil spill. To my astonishment in each case, I found myself thinking the same thought: I wish this guy was our president. Maybe the country would be rendered sane again, if somebody other than Obama was running it.
I just couldn't imagine either of these men being subject to the insane levels of disrespect and abuse that Obama is subject to, every single day. I've thought about this a lot. Why is he becoming ever more misunderstood and, yes, villified? Finding the answer to this has become, in a way, my private Zen koan. How much of the prejudice and confusion has been stoked by poisonous Republican lies and the disgusting misinformation campaign spread by the media, and how much has been triggered by Obama himself, through his own, sometimes odd, responses and behaviors in the public arena?
Last week Obama announced his support for the constitutional right of any American to practice their faith freely--including the construction of the "Ground Zero mosque" at the site of the old Burlington Coat factory store in lower Manhattan. The "mosque," it should be pointed out, is not actually a mosque, but an Islamic cultural center containing a prayer room upstairs. Nevertheless, intense feelings have been stirred up across the public and political spectrums, from hard-right Republican Newt Gingrich, who declared that building a "mosque" two blocks from Ground Zero would be like putting a swastika outside the Holocaust Museum, all the way to left-of-center Democrat Howard Dean. who considers the building of the mosque as "an affront," not to forget Rush Limbaugh, who now refers to the president as "Imam Obama." Obama, it must be said, only added to the spectacle of disarray when he backpedaled the following day, claiming, after his initial show of support, "i was not, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That's what our country is about." So, to be more precise, it's constitutionally legitimate to do it, but maybe, on second thought, it's not such a good idea.
For me, that was a revelatory moment. I finally understood how Obama speaks freely when in defense of the constitution, and the constitutional rights it bestows on all citizens, but he seems much more constrained when it is a matter of sharing his personal views. It's almost as if he believes his personal views don't really matter. The constitution matters, and upholding it. After many repeats of this approach, on issues like the rights of gays to serve openly in the military, or to get married, or even his view of the public option during the health-care debate, a pattern of contrived impartiality has finally emerged: in controversial matters, it would appear that Obama prefers sitting on the fence. That is why, I think, people constantly criticize him for not standing up for things--for not being clear about what he really believes, and thus, for not being a good leader.
However, as my friend Ray Kass cogently pointed out to me, when you sit on the fence, you tend to lose both sides--which is exactly what is now happening to Obama. Definition of a fence-sitter: a person who won't take sides in a controversy. One who takes a position of neutrality or indecision. Out of this confusion, Republicans make merry. One in five Americans now believes that Obama is a Muslim. And that he was born in Kenya. How can this be? "You can have an opinion on the New York mosque, for or against," as Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times last week. "But there aren't two sides to the question of whether Obama is a Muslim." Many people have a confused view of Muslims, she adds, and the president seems unable to help navigate the country through its Islamophobia.
Ray says that Dems and liberals need to band together to beat the Republicans at their own game. They need to launch a counter-campaign of their own, gleefully spreading fear and disinformation about Republicans. I love the idea, for instance, of convincing 20 percent of the population that Mitch McConnell is really a closet Hindu. Or maybe a lesbian in drag. Or, dare I say it, a racist?
Please understand that I am not actually stating that the president is a fence-sitter, merely that it appears that way, in his understandable efforts to make himself less of a moving target. I believe that he does have strong convictions; but it also seems natural for him to acknowledge all sides of an issue, to give everyone an equal voice, and not to insist on only one opinion--his own--by coming down hard on one side or the other. Somehow, however, he has managed to miss the point here, which is that as the president, people expect and want to know what he thinks. Fence-sitting is ultimately working against him. Nobody much cares, for instance, what I think, except maybe a few friends. But then, I am not president of the United States--if I was, everyone would.
At this point, I think Obama needs to revisit the words of his mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke about his opposition to the Vietnam war and the role of moral leadership in times of controversy:
"I'm not a consensus leader... I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of my organization or by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. On some positions a coward has asked the question is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right, and that is where I find myself today."
PersonaIly I believe Obama is quite capable of this. The question remains, however, as to when he will decide to get off the fence and just go for it. The crucial sentence here is that a real leader doesn't search for consensus; he molds it.