Friday, January 23, 2009

Post Opinions I - Michael Gerson

The reviews of Inauguration Day are still coming in, as columnists who had yet to make their views public finally get their say. It is well that this is so, even if those views I will be looking at here are odd precisely because they seem so out of tune with the general national spirit of joy, of confidence in our new President, and relief that the era of Bush is now in the rear-view mirror.

Michael Gerson, whose one claim to fame was being a speech writer for former Pres. Bush, exhibits what I can only describe as a split-personality in his column. After recognizing the historic character of the inauguration of our first African-American President, he then asks a series of questions that show a remarkably tin ear to our historic moment.
If the outcome had been different in November, would John McCain's inaugural coverage have been quite as worshipful as President Obama's -- during which the "shiver" up the leg of journalists finally became full-fledged convulsions? Why were the biblical references in Obama's inaugural speech not considered a coded assault on the Constitution, as George W. Bush's were sometimes viewed? And I can only imagine the cascades of hilarity and derision that would have come had Bush messed up the inaugural oath, no matter the cause.

To the first, one can only say that, had John McCain won in November (not likely, but certainly technically possible), no, in all likelihood there would have been very little jubilation and celebration, for a variety of reasons. I'm not sure where "worshipful" enter in to the picture, except for the odd, fact-free notion that liberals and others "worship" Obama as a "Savior". As to messing up the oath, the fault lies totally with Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, who could have read the thing off a tiny card.

It is this double-mindedness that haunts the entire column. He wants to be magnanimous. He wants to celebrate. Yet, like many on the right, he just cannot except that Barack Obama is our President, and that many, many people, including many people who voted for John McCain, are happy at the fact. He makes this double-mindedness a bit more clear further down, explicitly celebrating the racial nature of the day - he discusses a meeting he had with Rep. John Lewis on the matter of our first African-American President - yet, hinting at a certain disgruntlement over the new ideological bent, not just of the Administration, but the country in general.
But there was a second, less sympathetic, Obama enthusiasm at work. In a Newsweek essay, Michael Hirsh mentioned Obama's racial achievement. But he went on to say that "there's something else that I'm even happier about -- positively giddy. . . . What Obama's election means, above all, is that brains are back." Hirsh declared that the Obama era means the defeat of "yahooism" and "jingoism" and "flag-pin shallowness" and "religious zealotry" and "anti-intellectualism." Obama is a "guy who keeps religion in its proper place -- in the pew."

There is much not to like with Hirsh's assessment, I will grant Gerson at least that much. Yet, one cannot disguise the fact that the Bush Administration, from its first days until its last, was hardly a beacon of enlightenment or intellectual depth. Not that these are prerequisites for Executive office; indeed, the only true "intellectual" to ever hold the office, Woodrow Wilson, had a mixed record at best.

Yet, the lack of intellectual curiosity, of seeing the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as a joyous adventure, and the hardened anti-science of so much of the specialized executive areas - from "abstinence only" sex education to dumbing down speeches park rangers were allowed to give at national parks so creationists wouldn't be insulted by scientific facts - stand in such stark contrast to one simple, outstanding quality of our new President. Barack Obama is not just intelligent; he is not just intellectually curious; he has a knack for using diverse knowledge and understanding, and integrating it in to practical ideas. His faith, certainly, lies at the heart of his life, yet he does not allow that faith to tie his hands, or blind him to realities he must face. Or, perhaps better put, precisely because his is a humble, rather than exultant, faith, it recognizes its limits. In many ways, Barack Obama is a model of a new kind of Christian statesman.

For all that he wants to praise Barack Obama, and celebrate with the vast majority of Americans, and support our new President as he helps us help ourselves through all that is to come, I believe Michael Gerson suffers from the same sadness many liberals felt in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, and 2000. Not just a party, but an entire set of ideas, principles, and guides for practical governance have been handed a defeat of historic proportions. One cannot help but feel a little sympathy for the Michael Gerson's of this world, even if we should all wish he could set aside his grievances for the day and celebrate with us.

Virtual Tin Cup

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