Thursday, May 23, 2013
Purple State of John
Thoughts of a wordslinger…
by JOHN MARKS
Tonight is the true beginning of the presidency of Barack Obama. Historians will disagree. White House correspondents will wonder where they spent most of the last twelve months. Even bloggers will shake their heads.
Yet I think I can make the case. One year ago last week, Obama took the oath of office, but he didn’t become the President of the United States. He became the King of Wonderland. He was Alice in disguise, and he went right down the rabbit hole and right through the looking glass and met each and every one of the denizens of that bizarre realm.
There was the Cheshire Cat of the Republican Congress, a disappearing act that left behind only a huge and menacing smile, malevolent eyes and almost no opposition votes. Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi took turns at playing the ferocious and mercurial Queen of Hearts. Glenn Beck was the Mad Hatter, or the Mad Natterer, if you like.
But it wasn’t the cast of characters that clued me into the change of scenery. It was the set of fantasy assumptions about the country.
For instance, when he took the oath of office, Obama was under the impression that he would lead the most powerful and successful nation on earth. Yes, the country had big problems, he thought, but nothing fundamental had changed.
In fact, while clinging to this assumption in his rhetoric, he soon discovered that he’d inherited a broken and crazed domain, riven by ideological factions that are the surest sign of political decline and fall, economically on life support, culturally blind to its own deficiencies. The King of Wonderland talked one reality, but he experienced another, and the contradiction must have made his head spin.
Then there was the matter of bipartisanship between Republicans and Democrats, the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of his kingdom. In 2004, Barack Obama was already talking about the flawed vision of two Americas, red and blue. When he came into office, he reiterated his belief that the people of the nation must unite against divisive extremism to face their common problems.
To that end, he did something that the ideologically fanatical Bush administration never managed. In good faith, he appointed Republicans to serious positions to help fix the problems that they had largely created. In response, the party told him to go to hell, blocking every initiative on the grounds that any victory for Obama would mean annihilation for them.
They didn’t couch their resistance that way. Instead, Republican operatives called Obama a tyrant, a socialist, a destroyer of the American way of life, even a racist, and styled themselves as the last redoubt of patriots. They knew he was sincere in his efforts to reach across the aisle. They knew he was a brilliant and decent man who sincerely had the best interests of the country at heart. They knew that a majority of the public perceived him that way.
He had to be destroyed.
For their part, the Democrats in the House and Senate never believed in bipartisanship in the way the King of Wonderland did. They humored him and then proceeded to make their own kind of war against Republicans.They weren’t as egregiously cynical or extreme as their conservative counterparts. Progressives gave a lot of ground on healthcare, gay rights and even the stimulus package, for instance. In the end, though, Democrats used their 60-vote supermajority to turn their backs on the opposition and argue among themselves.
When they had the power to unify and pass sweeping healthcare legislation, they chose instead to fight their own internal partisan wars between right and left. In truth, the Democrats of Wonderland were never really members of a party. They were citizens of an imaginary country that has now ceased to exist.
Only through the looking glass does the world look so strange, so twisted, so funhouse, but the looking glass shattered last Tuesday. A combination of the Haitian earthquake and the Massachusetts special election did the trick.
Here’s the good news. Obama survived, and as he prepares to make his first State of the Union address tonight, the country may not have changed much, but he has. Haiti reminded him of why he wanted to be president. Massachusetts warned him that he might not be for very long.
The moment of truth came even before Republican Scott Brown won the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s seat in Congress. The King of Wonderland saw the tracking polls, and he knew. Recoiling in horror, angry at himself as the scales fell from his eyes, he realized Martha Coakley would lose the special election for the same reason that Senator John Kerry lost the general election for president in 2004.
She and her people had run the race on Wonderland time, as if the U.S. economy was really turning around, as if the season of fear and pain had passed, as if the Massachusetts of the last four decades was the Massachusetts in 2010. Wrong on all counts, Obama grasped.
In the wake of that debacle, at last, he is ready to be President of the United States. Tonight, when he addresses the country, no matter what the individual policies, he will have a grasp of the ragged ground beneath his feet. He will make proposals to a nation in shambles, unwilling or unable to unite, full of anxious people who understandably care a lot more about tomorrow’s job than a new vision of the future.
He knows that he bears a certain amount of responsibility for his long stay in Wonderland. His head was turned by the historic election in 2008. He may have thought he was something akin to a “Black Jesus”, the nickname given him by his staff in the Senate years. He no longer thinks that. You can see it in his eyes, you can hear it in his voice.
At the same time, while he will continue to talk about the need for bipartisanship, because he genuinely believes that neither side owns the truth, he won’t make the mistake again of trusting to the better angels of an opposition that seeks only to eradicate him. He will deal with them exactly as they deal with him. To do otherwise would fit the bill of madness, and the President of the United States is not mad.
The King of Wonderland was, ever so slightly.
It’s sad to come out of the world beyond the looking glass. The colors are brighter there. The characters are larger than life. There is real magic. If the people of this country were imaginary, if myth were everything, there is no telling how long we could all linger there, pretending to be something we’re not, enjoying the rich crimson vistas.
It’s not to be. The land of America can be found on the maps of this world. American debt is owned by real countries. American workers need real jobs. American soldiers shed real blood, and American predator drones kill real children. No matter what we want from our various ideologies and mythologies, no matter what we choose to believe about ourselves, there is a reality, and it is unavoidable and insurmountable. It must be addressed with cold and sober eyes by the President and the people of the United States.
Failing that, we can return like Alice in a sequel to Wonderland, but eventually the hole will close behind us, and we’ll be stuck, going out of our minds and losing all touch with the world in which the fates of nations are decided.
The Mad Natterer is already there, waiting for us.
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