16 November 2007:

Andrew Sullivan on Barack Obama, in The Atlantic.

Now that the election is only a year away - you know the one I mean - I'm beginning to be ready to discuss the candidates in casual conversation. Casual conversation only! I refuse at this time to enter into serious discussion - whatever that might be. At the moment, such casual conversation as I have enjoyed has had a stylized air, because everyone I know is trying to sound sane and calm about the future of country. This imparts an almost hayseed bashfulness to the talk of the most sophisticated New Yorkers. (I'd say "cynical," but we have had cynicism burned out of us in these parts over the last seven years.)

There are only four candidates to talk about at the moment. There is Rudy Giuliani, who is regarded by the people I know with a horror even more violent than what the current President excites. Since we have already lived through two Giuliani administrations in New York, we Really Know what he'd be like. (I was afraid that Bush would turn out to be exactly the *(#)%(* that he has been, but part of me couldn't quite believe that anything so stupid could come to pass.) Rudy is mentioned, therefore, with a prophylactic shudder, as if to name him were to keep him at a distance, both from one's person and from the White House. Then one moves on to the Democrats.

Everyone is surprised, sort of, that Hillary is doing so well. Of course, Hillary has proved herself to be a very capable senator. This is so firmly established an article of faith that nobody bothers to try to remember how she got her good reputation; the fact that she's still in Washington means that she must be doing something right, because the voters of New York State tend to be picky about their senators - picky, or, in the case of Republicans, shameless (Buckley, D'Amato). The question about Hillary is whether she can triumph over the vaguely incomprehensible loathing of professional women such as my wife. And could she beat Rudy? We hope it isn't put to the test.

At about this point, I usually say that I like John Edwards. I like John Edwards because I thought he was great in the debate with Dick Cheney. (The Vice President, in contrast, behaved like an escapee from the ASPCA.) I like John Edwards because he seems very electable. He's thought to be slick, it's true, and nobody seems to know quite what to do with his rags-to-riches story (is he rags now, or riches?). But he seems sensible and he belongs what used to be called the masculine persuasion. Myself, I'm all for a woman in the top job, but I'm even more all for a President who isn't a Republican. We're not worrying about winning my vote here.

Eventually I express the wish that Barack Obama would "bow out" and run for governor of Illinois. Although whoever I'm talking to more often than not agrees with me, I was very surprised to read, in Andrew Sullivan's cover story in The Atlantic, that "many of his friends and admirers have urged him to wait his turn." I thought it was just me and the people I know.

Mr Sullivan's story, entitled "Goodbye To All That*," brought forth a great groan from me. There I am, wishing that Mr Obama would go away, and here is Andrew Sullivan, a man of the right last time I looked, urging me to reconsider. The article, appearing as it did in the already somewhat conservative Atlantic, looked like a stealth offensive: "Let's persuade the liberals to support someone who can't win!" When I read the piece, though, my suspicions abated.

Mr Sullivan's argument falls neatly into two pieces. (A) The United States requires a candidate who is unimplicated - because he is too young to be implicated - in the surreptitious civil war that has raged in this country ever since the Vietnam War became unpopular with some boomers while others went off to fight it. (B) Barack Obama is that candidate. Whether you agree with (B) is not particularly important, even if Mr Obama is the only candidate at the moment who meets the requirement, because it's the first part of the argument that resonates. What if Mr Sullivan is onto something?  

Andrew Sullivan is within days of being two years younger than Mr Obama. Both belong, technically, to the Baby Boomer generation, but to its last years. Both were young adolescents when Saigon fell in 1975. Both came of age during Ronald Reagan's first term. Vietnam was to them what McCarthyism was to me: something that the country spent all of childhood trying to fix. If Mr Sullivan were my age (1-6-48), I'd accuse him of self-hating sentimentalism, "self-hating" for obvious reasons and "sentimentalism" because to make such a recommendation at my age would be to express covert regrets for the innocence of youth. Coming from Andrew Sullivan, however, the proposition is worth considering. What if we do need a president who doesn't carry any baggage from Vietnam? In reading the following, simply replace "X," where X = any dark-skinned American born in 1961, for "Obama."

Perhaps the underlying risk is best illustrated by our asking what the popular response would be to another 9/11–style attack. It is hard to imagine a reprise of the sudden unity and solidarity in the days after 9/11, or an outpouring of support from allies and neighbors. It is far easier to imagine an even more bitter fight over who was responsible (apart from the perpetrators) and a profound suspicion of a government forced to impose more restrictions on travel, communications, and civil liberties. The current president would be unable to command the trust, let alone the support, of half the country in such a time. He could even be blamed for provoking any attack that came.

Of the viable national candidates, only Obama and possibly McCain have the potential to bridge this widening partisan gulf. Polling reveals Obama to be the favored Democrat among Republicans. McCain’s bipartisan appeal has receded in recent years, especially with his enthusiastic embrace of the latest phase of the Iraq War. And his personal history can only reinforce the Vietnam divide. But Obama’s reach outside his own ranks remains striking. Why? It’s a good question: How has a black, urban liberal gained far stronger support among Republicans than the made-over moderate Clinton or the southern charmer Edwards? Perhaps because the Republicans and independents who are open to an Obama candidacy see his primary advantage in prosecuting the war on Islamist terrorism. It isn’t about his policies as such; it is about his person. They are prepared to set their own ideological preferences to one side in favor of what Obama offers America in a critical moment in our dealings with the rest of the world. The war today matters enormously. The war of the last generation? Not so much. If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.

Sound fanciful? How about this: what if "your man" doesn't carry any baggage about Evangelical Christianity, either?

Here again, Obama, by virtue of generation and accident, bridges this deepening divide. He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity as an adult. But—critically—he is not born-again. His faith—at once real and measured, hot and cool—lives at the center of the American religious experience. It is a modern, intellectual Christianity. “I didn’t have an epiphany,” he explained to me. “What I really did was to take a set of values and ideals that were first instilled in me from my mother, who was, as I have called her in my book, the last of the secular humanists—you know, belief in kindness and empathy and discipline, responsibility—those kinds of values. And I found in the Church a vessel or a repository for those values and a way to connect those values to a larger community and a belief in God and a belief in redemption and mercy and justice … I guess the point is, it continues to be both a spiritual, but also intellectual, journey for me, this issue of faith.”

Enough about me. Let's think about what Mr Sullivan has to say.

* The cover is better: "Why Obama Matters."

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