Up until Obama gave his acceptance speech Thursday night, I'd been mentally composing a diatribe about how the Democrats seemed to place more of a premium on looking good in defeat than on actually gaining and wielding power. You're familiar with the syndrome, I'm sure, especially if you live in or near one of our latte-sipping capitals: people looking up from their copy of the Times or the New Yorker to deliver a pursed-lip sneer at "that idiot Bush" or "those red state morons" when in fact they are more interested in validating their own cultural and moral superiority than in actually doing the hardscrabble work necessary to effect an actual change in the way government works (or, as increasingly seems to be the case, fails to).
We saw Al Gore and John Kerry in turn throw away what should have been easy victories because of their petulant "I can do it myself, Mommy" refusal to wield the slightly tacky but still powerful weapon that was Bill Clinton, and by their slightly wonky, cerebrally aloof manner that alienated millions of potential Democratic voters who might have sensed that George W. Bush had little if anything in common with their interests, but nonetheless related to him because he came across like a normal human being instead of a computer-generated composite candidate.
I'm still concerned that Obama will manage to blow the election in a not dissimilar manner, even though - or perhaps because - he comes across as being at least twice as smart and ten times more eloquent than the disastrous Gore-Kerry diumvirate. Even though I don't particularly care for Hillary Clinton, I was astounded when Obama chose, with all due respect, an old hack like Joe Biden as his VP candidate when putting Hillary on the ticket would have virtually guaranteed him victory in November. That plus a summer of waffling and a few too many platitudes had me convinced that we had yet another presidential contender who was more concerned about looking good in defeat than doing what it took to win.
Obama's rousing football stadium performance went some way toward allaying my concerns, though I in no way thought it the masterpiece of oratory that the MSNBC and CNN talking heads seem to think it was. Are none of them old enough to have seen a Kennedy speech, I wondered (that's JFK, not Bobby, who in my opinion suffered from Obama-itis himself)? My criterion: if I'm watching something on TV, be it a political speech, a movie, a football game, whatever, and find myself gradually starting to poke around on the internet instead of paying full attention, then something's lacking. Granted, when as a young boy I listened to Kennedy speak, he didn't have to compete with the internet or much else in that pre-multimedia age. But what made his rhetoric so riveting was the way he could artfully blend the profound and the profane, mixing high concept political philosophy with down and dirty ward politics. Obama comes closer to that level of discourse than any politician I've seen since the days of JFK, but he's not there yet, and bear in mind that Kennedy barely won the election (some say it was just as surely stolen as was Bush's 2000 triumph) against an opponent considerably less attractive (though perhaps with a bit more substance) than John McCain.
Still, the Obama show was as impressive a spectacle as anyone has seen in American politics in recent memory, if ever, and if they'd gone whole hog and hired the Chinese architects of the Olympics opening ceremony to orchestrate it, the election might have been all wrapped up by Friday morning. Until, that is, wily John McCain took advantage of Obama's nixing-Hillary blunder to slip a fast one past the Democrats by nominating a VP out of far right field and instantly wipe about 90% of the orgy of wasn't-Obama-wonderful musings right off the media map.
True to form, Democrats laughed and sneered at the seemingly oddball choice of Sarah Palin, and you can't entirely blame them. While Obama's rally offered at least a whiff of Triumph Of The Will, McCain's unveiling of Palin was pure, unabashed Babbitry. To see McCain awkwardly pawing at the undeniably milfish governor was a bit like nervously watching grandpa at a wedding when he's had more than his customary glass of wine and has possibly forgotten to take his meds: part cringeworthy, part appalled fascination at the prospect of what he might say or do next.
But Palin herself, though far to the right of mainstream America, has a powerful presence that, even if it only energizes the previously uninspired or disenchanted evangelicals, is going to considerably strengthen the McCain ticket. Even though I strongly disagree with her on the great majority of issues, I found her very likable, and imagine she would be a heck of a lot more fun to hang out with than Joe Biden or perhaps even Obama himself. George Bush won his elections, despite also being ideologically out of step with most Americans, on similar grounds, even though his clownish wisecracks and self-deprecating humor never completely disguised the bullying frat boy that was also a part of his persona. Unless Palin does or says something incredibly stupid in the coming campaign (or if the thousands of researchers and bloggers already engaged in frantic archeological excavations of her entire life and career come up with some real scandal), she'll be a more formidable candidate than Bush ever was, to the point where Republican partisans might start to wonder why McCain is heading the ticket instead of her.
The election is still Obama's to lose, but none of this drama would have had to happen if he'd taken the obvious and common sense step of appointing Hillary as his running mate. Hey, JFK by all accounts could barely stand Lyndon Johnson, but he knew that all his high-faluting ideas about New Frontiers and torches being passed to a new generation would amount to zilch if he didn't first accomplish the task of winning the election. I'm not advocating an all-out Macchiavellian approach here, just a little old-fashioned pragmatism. Hell, I don't even know if Obama would turn out to be a great Kennedy-esque President, or a disastrous Carter-esque one (at this point I'd settle, albeit reluctantly, for a reprise of Bill Clinton), but in light of the crises and challenges facing the world today, I think taking a chance on Obama seems immeasurably more appealing than continuing with the dreary rendezvous with catastrophe that the Bush interregnum has proved to be. Now it just remains to be seen whether Obama wants it bad enough to make it happen.