We thought this election would be a serious fight over the future of this country, but only one candidate showed up.
From Esquire Magazine
By The Editors
It was a day in February and the sun was little more than a gaudy accessory. The man stood on a bridge along Eleventh Street in Milwaukee. He was holding a sign. His breath rose in clouds. There was ice on his eyebrows. Beneath him, along Interstate 43, the traffic ran north and south in a great rattle. The cold made everything seem fragile, as though the cars would shatter if they collided. It was ten o'clock in the morning and it was 8 degrees, and the man held his sign while the ice formed on the edges of his face, trying to get the cars below him to honk their horns in support of Barack Obama.
He had been a classmate, long ago, before he'd gone into the Navy the way his family had wanted him to, a fellow student at a high school in Hawaii, where they had no mornings like this one. He had traveled the world and he had come to this bridge with the ice on his face because he was looking for something and he thought he'd found it. Hardly anyone looked up. Hardly anyone saw his sign. Hardly anyone honked their horn. But he stood there, holding his sign and waving at the drivers below as the sun rose vainly higher in the sky and nobody looked up toward it to see the sign and honk their horns.
"I'm working for him," the man said, "because a lot of what I believed, I don't believe anymore, and I want to again. Not in him, necessarily, but in those things."
Barack Obama had a moment, as fragile as thin ice, in which he could have defined "change," which he never truly has defined except as all those things encompassed by the phrase "Elect me." He could have defined change as a rejection of preemptive war, of torture, of black prisons, of warrantless surveillance, as a renewed embrace of our founding documents. He could have defined change as a condemnation of crony government, of incompetent government, of drowned cities, of conscious, greed-driven neglect that has turned the idea of "the general welfare" into a spiritless punch line. He could have defined change with the laws already on the books. He could have defined change simply as "change back," to an America in which so much of what the current administration has done was not merely un-American, it was unimaginable. He could have celebrated the people who never changed at all -- the heroic military lawyers of the JAG Corps, to name one conspicuous example -- and welcomed us all back to the better country they'd never left.
In August, for whatever reason, he went to the Reverend Rick Warren's Saddleback Church for a "forum" in front of people who have no more intention of voting for him than they do of erecting a statue to Baal. It is instructive to remember that forty years ago, when George Romney ran for president, hardly anyone mentioned the fact that he was a Mormon. This year, his son, the former governor of Massachusetts, ran for president and couldn't go ten minutes without being asked about the "issue" of his religion. The very notion that an affluent celebrity God-botherer like Warren should be allowed to vet presidential candidates is in itself a measure of how badly things have turned. At one point, Warren asked Obama: "At what point does a baby get human rights?"
The only proper answer to this question for anyone running for president is "How the hell do I know? If that's what you want from a president, vote for Thomas Aquinas." Instead, Obama summoned up some pale, faith-based flummery that convinced nobody and made him look like they had to tie him to the floor to keep him from floating to the ceiling. Warren responded by giving an interview after the forum in which he compared an evangelical voting for a pro-choice candidate to a Jewish voter supporting a Holocaust denier. And on we go.
"Change" is now whatever Barack Obama needs it to be at the moment. He is the change. We are the change. And there it ends. He thought it meant an end to "partisanship" without appreciating that democracies are supposed to be partisan, never more so than when a "bipartisan" consensus fits American military justice with a kangaroo suit. He thought it meant an end to "divisiveness" without appreciating the fact that there is much about this country now that ought to divide us, that it is time for a loud, impolite fight about what it means to be an American.
In truth, though, Senator Obama is the only one of the two candidates who seems to believe in the idea of a political commonwealth, that there are those things -- be they the guarantees in the Bill of Rights or mountains in Alaska -- that we own together. Barack Obama stands, however inchoately and however diffidently, for the notion that a common purpose is necessary for common problems, that "government," as it is designed in our founding documents, is our collective responsibility. It is this collective responsibility that built America into a great power without peer in the history of the world. And it is this collective responsibility that has succumbed to nearly thirty years of phony rightist populism, corporate brigandage, and the wildly cheered abandonment of a common American civic purpose. It is shocking that in America an argument for salvaging the common good is regarded as a radical notion by anyone, but that is where we are. And that is what Barack Obama seems to stand for. After all, as a young man with his potential, he could have headed straight to midtown Manhattan and made a fortune. Instead, he took a church job working for poor people in Chicago, and for his troubles, he and those poor people have been viciously jeered by the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin. Such is their regard for the common good. And such is Obama's promise. And in that, however inchoately and however diffidently, Obama stands not only against Bushism, but against Reaganism, which gave it birth. And that is more than enough.
This year it's more than enough because we are not all in that enterprise together anymore, and we have not been for some time. For seven years, for the purposes of deceitful war-making and constitutional vandalism, the president chose to preside over "the base," and the devil take the common good. For several years, before the war soured, and New Orleans drowned, and he meddled grotesquely with how a woman's family in Florida chose to allow her to die, and mocked the very institutions he was to protect, this was praised as the height of political acumen. The incompetent president and his wolfish advisors were encouraged and enabled in their various schemes and praised for their cleverness into the bargain. Anyone who questioned what was going on -- any member of what was once memorably described to writer Ron Suskind as the "reality-based community" -- was of no consequence, their voices ignored, their concerns as foreign as those of a tribesman in New Guinea.
And now, with it all in ruins, it's time to move ahead, without recriminations or even without maintaining the simple clarity of the historical record? That is not change we can believe in. And that is precisely where Barack Obama is frozen. But make no mistake, in our view the senator from Illinois is the only possible choice to lead the country.
Obscured by Obama's dithering is the fact that his Republican counterpart is one of the first presidential candidates in history to run as a parody of himself. John McCain has decided on a cheap and dishonorable campaign. He has embraced the tactics with which he was slandered in 2000, and he has hired the people responsible for them. In so doing, he has become something of a mockery of everything he once purported to be. He has stated that he wouldn't now vote for his own immigration bill. He has operated in violation of the very campaign-finance law that bears his name. And even though his own body bears the scars of torture, he has silenced himself on the issue of the torture sanctioned and designed by the government he seeks to lead, so as not to alienate "the base." The most underutilized trope of the campaign is the notion that John McCain is running against John McCain.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the senator was leading a movement that had been exiled for decades and was now storming back to Washington to save the country from its oppressors. Of course, the truth is that it is the excesses of McCain's own party from which the country needs to be saved. That McCain is now attempting to seize the mantle of "change" for himself is profoundly absurd. And that he expects the American people to swallow it is profoundly insulting. History demands that this election be a referendum on the Bush years, and John McCain has tried desperately to change the subject.
There was a moment, in 2000, when he might have gone a different way. He gave a brave speech in Virginia, and he seemed genuinely interested in prying his party from the clutches of corporate avarice and theocratic lunacy. If he had held to the substance of that speech, instead of merely to its form, he might have been as transformational a figure on his side of the aisle as Obama has been on his. However, McCain has spent the past few years dancing like a monkey on a string, making brave noises in public that he later abandoned in private. And now he genuflects to Pastor Warren and a hundred other preachers who are a hundred times worse, people whom he called "agents of intolerance" eight years ago, when John McCain still had the soul he's sold off piecemeal to pay the salaries of the men he's hired out of Karl Rove's shop.
Then, of course, he picked an agent of intolerance to join him on his ticket. But it is not Governor Palin's religious beliefs that are of concern to us. More to the point, there is no serious debate to be had over Sarah Palin's preparedness to be president of the United States. Because in fact, she is stunningly unqualified, having never taken a position of consequence on an issue of consequence before she was selected in the last days of August. But she has now been put in a serious position to assume the presidency, and her selection is the clearest indication yet of the contempt that Senator McCain -- transformed into nominee McCain -- now feels for the process of governance.
More important still, however, is that nothing John McCain has done or said in this campaign would lead you to believe that anything the incumbent administration has done is simply wrong -- just badly executed -- and he's saying that now only because public opinion has turned so radically against Bushism and all its works. And the ultimate price of his capitulation is to continue Bushism, in all of its manifestations. Not even the presidency should be worth that.
Not even the presidency is worth what it's made John McCain do to himself.
John Paul Stevens was born on April 20, 1920, into a family of hotel magnates in the city of Chicago who, when Stevens was still young, lost everything in the Great Depression. In 1936, when John Paul Stevens was a student at the University of Chicago Laboratory School and preparing to enter the University of Chicago proper, Barack Hussein Obama Sr. was born on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya. In 1941, when John Paul Stevens was graduating Phi Beta Kappa and preparing to go and break Japanese naval codes and help shoot down Admiral Yamamoto in the South Pacific, Ann Dunham was born in Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. In 1961, when John Paul Stevens was practicing law, Barack Obama and Ann Dunham married and had a son, whom they also named Barack Hussein Obama. In 1975, when President Gerald Ford named John Paul Stevens to replace William O. Douglas on the United States Supreme Court, the elder Obama was long gone and the younger Obama was a freshman at the Punahou School in Honolulu. In January of 2009, if and when Barack Obama is inaugurated as the forty-fourth president of the United States, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens will be closing in on his thirty-fourth year on the Court and his eighty-ninth year on earth. And there, really, you have it. The best argument for the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States is written quite clearly in the peaks and squiggles of John Paul Stevens's EKG.
More than any other recent election, we are voting this year not merely for a president but to overthrow two governments. The one we can see is the one in which constitutional order has been defaced, the national spirit degraded, and the country unrecognizable because so much of the best of itself has been sold off or frittered away. The other one is the far more insidious one, a doppelgänger nation of black prisons, shredded memos, and secret justifications for even more secret crimes. Moreover, the current administration has worked hard not only to immunize itself from the political and legal consequences of the government we can see, but it has also worked within the one we cannot see in order to perpetuate itself.
For the past several months, it has worked to make extricating ourselves from the catastrophe it has wrought in Iraq as hard as possible. It has sought to make permanent the culture of corporate brigandage and predatory incompetence that it has made a hallmark of its stewardship of the country and its government. Salted throughout the vast bureaucracy are dozens of little homeschooled land mines, the products of a dozen cheapjack diploma mills selling patent-medicine history to the spiritually gullible. The fantastical hiring practices that only recently have come to light in the Department of Justice are only the most visible example of this, but the poisonous philosophy that has guided this administration is in all the institutions of the government Barack Obama hopes to lead. It is not dormant. It is there, replicating itself like a virus does in the cells of the body, waiting until it can erupt and debilitate him and his administration.
And nowhere is it more clearly visible than in the federal courts. It is in the courts where the depredations of the past seven years can become permanent. It is in the courts where the un-American legacy of George W. Bush can live forever -- or, at least, as long as most of the rest of us do. The Supreme Court already is dangerously close to an extremist conservative majority, and Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito were both born after John Paul Stevens already had passed the bar, and it was Stevens who, as recently as last June's Boumediene decision, helped create a thin 5 -- 4 majority in favor of reestablishing the right of habeas corpus for those people being detained by the administration in places like Guantánamo Bay. The decision threw out a key provision of the 2006 Military Commissions Act, a bipartisan piece of legislative cowardice that sank the Great Writ into a deep mire of euphemism and deceit. One vote, to uphold the right that En-glish nobles wrung out of King John in 1215. One vote, on the Supreme Court of the United States of America. One vote, from an eighty-eight-year-old man who'd already founded his own law firm when the chief justice under whom he serves, and who predictably voted in agreement with the president who'd appointed him, was born. One vote, on one of 107 federal courts.
There is no evidence at all that anything will change under a President John McCain, who has already identified Roberts and Alito as his beau ideals of Supreme Court justices. He has made brave noises about torture and the extraconstitutional prerogatives of the executive, but President Bush and his men went on and did what they wanted anyway, and McCain walked away, begging for votes from fundamentalists who hate him, meeping his displeasure in ways that were barely audible. The virus will gestate and spread on his watch, all throughout the federal government. Bushism must be ripped out, root and branch, everywhere it has been established, or else the presidential election of 2008 is a worthless exercise in futility. Barack Obama may not be the man to do it, but John McCain, for all his laudable qualities, clearly is neither willing nor able to do so.
To continue to govern ourselves this way is unthinkable. It is unsustainable as a democracy to continue to mock so egregiously in secret what we continue to profess in public. That is the task for the next president. That is the main reason to vote for Barack Obama of Illinois. We strongly encourage you to do so.
thanks to nebris