Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mark Penn, Obama's Past and the "Correct" American Life

The internet's been buzzing about this Atlantic piece by reporter Joshua Green. I'm not actually in love with the story. It's not bad, and if you're a junkie like me you'll want to read it, but Green promises in his first two paragraphs some fresh insights into Hillary Clinton's defeat. Instead he writes a fairly conventional piece that'll seem awfully familiar if you've been reading the various papers. Staff conflicts, philosophical failings, etc.

The appeal of Green's story is the in-house memos and e-mails he wrangled from the remnants of the Clinton campaign. You've probably seen the memo that's become the highlight of Green's article; it comes from "chief strategist" Mark Penn and is dated March 19, 2007. The money quote:

All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light.
Save it for 2050.
It also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.

OK, so Mark Penn is a world-class prick and either a racist or someone who's anxious to appeal to racists. That's abundantly clear.

But I am now more concerned with the idea he's expressing in that quote, the concept that there's something uniquely dark and un-American about Obama's biography, that there's something vulnerable there. I'm interested in that idea because it's become an unspoken part of the McCain campaign strategy. They've openly questioned Obama's loyalty and patriotism; see the previous post and McCain's "rather lose a war" comment a few weeks ago. In making that "argument," the McCain people never explicitly mention Obama's past or his race, but they are certainly counting on the idea that his biography makes him uniquely vulnerable to patriotism questions.

I started Distressed Reporter about a month ago, so I'm obviously late to a lot of these larger discussions. We all know about the "Obama's a Muslim" emails, for instance. And I know the facts of Obama's biography have been hashed out before.

But for all that hashing, Penn's basic assertions still seem to constitute the conventional wisdom on Obama's biography. I wonder if that says more about the people who sculpt our conventional wisdom than it does about Obama or the public at large.

I say that because, to my thoroughly biased eyes, Obama's is the kind of life that represents what we say the American Dream is about. He is, many ways, the best example we can point to when we tell our children that they can grow up to become president. In the past, there was a kind of unspoken, unacknowledged racial asterisk by that promise; if you were black, or, really, anything other than white, the line came off as trite and deceptive. Obama's biography should be enough to erase that asterisk.

And I wonder from where we got the idea that the American people couldn't connect to a man raised by a single mother dedicated to her son and his education. Yes, their life and that education spanned the world and involved some unfamiliar places. But in a country with a 50 percent divorce rate, it seems that there are at least as many voters who were raised in split homes, under difficult circumstances, with occasionally unavailable parents, as there are voters who were brought up in a Leave It To Beaver episode.

Let me invalidate a lot of what I've written by saying that I find "issues" like these beyond stupid, and put a candidate's biography in the same category as I do the answer to the "Which candidate would I rather have a beer with" question. But if we're going to talk about biographies, it's worth going at least a little beyond the surface. And it's worth observing that while there are more American flags waving in the background of McCain's life, Obama's personal history is, in its own way, as quintessentially American as anyone's.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, its 2103 and Obama has proven Mark Penns view,that he is UNAMERICAN in his values and his thinking. Obama will not be happy until he flat lines the country.God Bless America.