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The Audacity of Comedy

The inside of the White House doesn’t have the luminous quality that you might expect from television or film; it seems well kept but worn, a big old house that one imagines might be a bit draughty on cold winter nights.

On a chilly January afternoon in 2005, the day before my swearing-in as a senator, I was invited there with other new members of Congress. At 1600 hours on the dot, President Bush was announced and walked to the podium, looking vigorous and fit, with that jaunty, determined walk that suggests he’s on a schedule and wants to keep detours to a minimum. For 10 or so minutes he spoke to the room, making a few jokes, calling for the country to come together, before inviting us for refreshments and a picture with him and the first lady.

I happened to be starving, so while most of the other legislators started lining up for their photographs, I headed for the buffet. As I munched on hors d’oeuvres, I recalled an earlier encounter with the president, a small White House breakfast with me and the other incoming senators.

I had found him to be a likable man, shrewd and disciplined but with the same straightforward manner that had helped him win two elections; you could easily imagine him owning the local car dealership, coaching Little League baseball and grilling in his backyard – the kind of guy who would make for good company so long as the conversation revolved around sport and the kids.

There had been a moment during the breakfast meeting, though, after the backslapping and the small talk and when all of us were seated, with Vice-President Cheney eating his eggs benedict impassively and Karl Rove at the far end of the table discreetly checking his BlackBerry, that I had witnessed a different side of the man.

The president had begun to discuss his second-term agenda, mostly a reiteration of his campaign talking points – the importance of staying the course in Iraq and renewing the Patriot Act, the need to reform social security and overhaul the tax system, his determination to get an up-or-down vote on his judicial appointees – when suddenly it felt as if somebody in a back room had flipped a switch.

The president’s eyes became fixed; his voice took on the agitated, rapid tone of someone neither accustomed to nor welcoming interruption; his easy affability was replaced by an almost messianic certainty. As I watched my mostly Republican Senate colleagues hang on his every word, I was reminded of the dangerous isolation that power can bring, and I appreciated the wisdom of America’s founding fathers in designing a system to keep power in check.

“Senator?” I looked up, shaken out of this memory, and saw one of the older black men who made up most of the White House waiting staff standing next to me.

“Want me to take that plate for you?” I nodded, trying to swallow a mouthful of chicken something-or-other, and noticed that the queue to greet the president had evaporated. A young marine at the door politely indicated that the photograph session was over and that the president needed to get to his next appointment. But before I could turn around to go, the president himself appeared.

“Obama!” he said, shaking my hand. “Come here and meet Laura. Laura, you remember Obama. We saw him on TV during election night. Beautiful family. And that wife of yours – that’s one impressive lady.”

“We both got better than we deserve, Mr President,” I said, shaking the first lady’s hand and hoping that I’d wiped any crumbs off my face.

The president turned to an aide nearby, who squirted a big dollop of hand sanitiser in the president’s hand.

“Want some?” the president asked. “Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds.” Not wanting to seem unhygienic, I took a squirt.

“Come over here for a second,” he said, leading me off to one side of the room.

“You know,” he said quietly, “I hope you don’t mind me giving you a piece of advice.”

“Not at all, Mr President.” He nodded. “You’ve got a bright future,” he said. “Very bright. But I’ve been in this town a while and, let me tell you, it can be tough. When you get a lot of attention like you’ve been getting, people start gunnin’ for ya. And it won’t necessarily just be coming from my side, you understand. From yours, too. Everybody’ll be waiting for you to slip. Know what I mean? So watch yourself.”

“Thanks for the advice, Mr President.” “All right. I gotta get going. You know, me and you got something in common.”

“What’s that?” “We both had to debate Alan Keyes. That guy’s a piece of work, isn’t he?” I laughed, and as we walked to the door I told him a few stories from the campaign.

It wasn’t until he had left the room that I realised I had briefly put my arm over his shoulder as we talked – an unconscious habit of mine, but one that I suspected might have made many of my friends, not to mention the secret service agents in the room, more than a little uneasy.

As I’ve been a steady and occasionally fierce critic of Bush administration policies, Democratic audiences are often surprised when I tell them that I don’t consider George Bush a bad man and that I assume he and members of his administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country.

After the trappings of office are stripped away, I find the president and those who surround him to be pretty much like everybody else, possessed of the same mix of virtues and vices, insecurities and long-buried injuries, as the rest of us.

No matter how wrongheaded I might consider their policies to be – and no matter how much I might insist that they be held accountable for the results of such policies – I still find it possible, in talking to these men and women, to understand their motives, and to recognize in them values I share.

This is not an easy posture to maintain in Washington. The stakes involved in policy debates are often so high that I can see how, after a certain amount of time in the capital, it becomes tempting to assume that those who disagree with you have fundamentally different values – indeed, that they are motivated by bad faith, and perhaps are bad people.

Outside of Washington, though, America feels less deeply divided. Spend time actually talking to Americans, and you discover that most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual. Most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are both more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows. Most Republican strongholds are 40% Democrat, and vice versa. The political labels of liberal and conservative rarely track people’s personal attributes.

All of which raises the question: what are the core values that we, as Americans, hold in common? One core value, individual freedom, is so deeply ingrained in us that we tend to take it for granted.

Barack Obama, Audacity of Hope

28 thoughts on “The Audacity of Comedy

  1. Because I studied history instead of rhetoric I don’t share your optimism. But for the sake of our country, I devoutly wish your hopes will be rewarded.

    From a realistic viewpoint, as a preview of the next four years, I give you Kipling:

    Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
    And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
    That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

  2. I have a Ph.D. minor in history too.

    And yeah, Kipling pretty much describes the McCain campaign, neoconservatism, and the Christian Right.

  3. beautiful, camille. i love living in a world where we’re all mistaken individuals in need of God’s grace. it’s so much easier that constantly having to stave off the darkness.

  4. I share The Watchman’s viewpoint. Both world history and Obama’s own history give me absolutely no hope of seeing the world you imagine. I have yet to see socialism work, and I have yet to see any evidence that Obama is anything other than a radical socialist.

    He is the most talented politician of our generation, and perhaps the most talented since Lincoln. He is also personally moral; I cannot imagine him stealing or cheating on his wife like Clinton. I have no doubt that he means well. His election is a historic moment, although not one I find surprising. For that I respect him. But with one look at the paving stones to Hell, any sense of optimism for America’s future vanishes.

    Fortunately, my future hope is not in America.

  5. Mike Murphy disagrees with you, the Bard. Obama’ll govern from the middle. I know that throws off your dispensationalistish, curmudgeon rant you’ve got going.

    And I’m not “hoping” in America. I’m choosing a better discourse.

  6. you know, camille, i could put a lot of other Obama qoutes in here that would be anything but “comedy.”

    By quoting this discourse you are saying that one man (obama) is showing himself to be more bipartisan than the other man (bush)? bush seemed a really nice “bi-partisan,” “collaborating” guy too in this story. not sure where you’re going.

    i’m not sure how you define “governing from the middle” either. I think the pres pretty quickly learns that he can make no one happy trying to please everyone. a mom knows that right well, too. so i’m not sure what your seeing as a middle ?

  7. Mike Murphy said it, Anne, not me. He is an outspoken conservative, and he’s the one that argued that Obama is not the rabid liberal that so many on the extreme right are bemoaning.

    Go ‘head, Anne. Put in the quotations that you say are not comedy. That’s still not the point. The point is that I *randomly* found these words, and they agree with what I’m after in a candidate and in my own actions. That’s it. Plain and simple.

    And yes, I understand that you don’t know where I’m going with this. 😀 That’s okay too. Bush isn’t evil! Not in the least.

  8. “The point is that I *randomly* found these words, and they agree with what I’m after in a candidate and in my own actions. That’s it. Plain and simple.”

    what i’m trying to say is, your trying to show what you want in one candidate is seen in another as well. i don’t see it as definingly different.

    i don’t know, what’s “news” in america is old news and bad news in much of the world already. ::shrug::

  9. what i’m trying to say is, your trying to show what you want in one candidate is seen in another as well. i don’t see it as definingly different.

    Good! If Burkean comedy is honestly everywhere, that’s a good thing.

    *I* didn’t hear it from McCain. I listened. Close.

    But I think we’re talking about two entirely different things here, Anne. I don’t think you’re understanding what I’m after. ::shrug::

  10. But I think we’re talking about two entirely different things here, Anne. I don’t think you’re understanding what I’m after

    explain it another way, with very small words and no terminology from any field of study.


  11. How do you treat your argumentative opposite? As an enemy you are compelled to hate and destroy or as your adversary with whom you argue and correct.

  12. its just written in academic code 🙂 so this is your basic reasonign for backing obama as a president.

    at least it’s now stated in a way i can start to dialog with

  13. “How do you treat your argumentative opposite? As an enemy you are compelled to hate and destroy or as your adversary with whom you argue and correct.”

    ok, so this has been your bottom line in deciding your vote. not truth-telling or any moral issue. just how a political candidate expresses himself in regard to his opponent.

    or maybe fairer to say, all things considered, this is what you decided to major on in this election.

  14. That’s all I’ve got is “academic code.” Er rather, I’ve made it pretty accessible on this blog. As accessible as I can.


  15. really, i would read more closely if i could understand half of what you’re saying 🙂 i mean, i’m the one who didn’t know if burke was dead or alive, remember?

  16. Never heard of Murphy. But to show that, contrary to something you insinuated about me on a prior thread, I do read people who disagree with me. Take Eugene Volokh, a libertarian 1st Amendment law prof whom I respect. He has a similar take to Murphy although perhaps for a different reason. See here: http://volokh.com/posts/1225904800.shtml

    Of course, the first question is who defines “middle.” Defining *your* position as in the middle is one of the most important tactical victories you can acheive in American politics.

    I disagree, as I I’ve said before, everything Obama has *done* in his political career belies the (admittedly wonderful) quote you found. I was dead right about how the election would turn out, getting all but one state (Missouri) and one or two Senate races right. So I’m feeling pretty confident fight now. But if the Leopard changes his spots over the next eight years, I will be delighted to be wrong and you have my full permission to use my words against me.

  17. Mike Murphy is anything but conservative. He’s just barely Republican at all. He’s the one who designed McCain’s 2000 nomination bid running against the GOP.

    And the selection of Rahm Emmanuel as White House Chief of Staff is a big indicator if you know anything about his history in the Clinton White House and Chicago politics. It’s not conciliation and collaboration that’s being promoted there.

  18. It is exciting that we see real evidence of racial change in America. While I disagree with Obama in many areas I’m thrilled with the thought that our children must might live in a world that looks at character rather than color. We must keep a sense of context- it was less than 50 years ago that MLK marched on Washington.

  19. keith, i couldn’t agree more. as a future “early americanist” i was on the verge of tears all day yesterday. the saddest thing about the ‘curmudgeons” is that they’re missing out on the beauty of the moment. i mean seriously, how cool was it seeing jesse jackson crying during obama’s speech? gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

  20. This is such a great book. It’s the reason I first got interested in Obama back in late 2006. I even wrote a review about it on 1 Jan 07: http://exploration.typepad.com/my_weblog/2007/01/brief_review_th_2.html

    My experience, Camille (since I don’t think I know any of your commenters personally) is that people made up their minds about Obama long ago, whether they’re interested to hear what he has to say, or whether they’re always going to interpret him as saying something devious, evil & un-American. Commenters, please note that this entire last statement is based upon “my experience” – as such, it needs no defense, because I’m not commenting on any of you directly, just my interactions with dozens of other friends & acquaintances over the last several months.

    I think it’s an interesting move to jump directly from one statement from a person (i.e., jumping from your clipping about the politician’s need for humility given his imperfections) to a pasted-on criticism that’s completely outside the context of the passage (i.e., socialism). If I were grading the reading comprehension skills here, I would have to give it a failing mark.

  21. “It is exciting that we see real evidence of racial change in America. . . .”

    “keith, i couldn’t agree more. . . . i was on the verge of tears all day yesterday. . . . they’re missing out on the beauty of the moment. . . . how cool was it seeing jesse jackson crying during obama’s speech? gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”

    Keith and Justin, the racism thing is only a “victory” on one level. If Obama’s book is as well-reserched and thought out as Will says, Obama himself is racist, in a sense. You have to understand the irony of the first black president being pro-abortion. Planned Parenthood, which Obama rabidly supports (no middle-governing, collaborating spirit there), targets blacks for genocide thru abortion. if you google “black genocide abortion,” you will find a ton of info. do it, read, support black america truly.

    So while in once sense, i can agree with you, in a much larger sense, I think Obama’s election is a cruel and ironic blow to african americans. I for one support blacks; don’t abort them. that is one reason i am “rabidly” pro-life.

    grace, peace, and life

  22. I was optimistic about the change. I was hopeful. But this is destroying my hope: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/08/AR2008110801856.html


    As a Mom of a child with Cerebral Palsy, I am very concerned that it will be easier during the next 4-8 years for women all over the world to terminate the lives of beautiful children that need their love, attention and care. I am very discouraged that he is so quickly (he’s not even President yet) positioning himself to govern from the far left, not the middle. At least the other ticket would have protected life a bit more. Change indeed!

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