Thursday, September 06, 2007

The 46-Year-Old Virgin

Published: September 5, 2007


Barack Hussein Obama squinted into the New Hampshire sun to read a new speech on his teleprompter Monday and turned into William Jennings Bryan.

It isn’t a good fit. Obama is many things, but the Great Commoner ain’t one of them. Bryan gave a Cross-of-Gold speech, and Obama gave a Cross-of-Media speech.

The urbane young senator who rules over Chicago society with his wife, Michelle, the glamour boy who has graced more fashionable magazine covers than Heidi Klum, the debonair pol who has wowed crowds at white-tie and black-tie press dinners in D.C., suddenly started ranting about Washington pundits and other jades on the Potomac who don’t appreciate the thrilling loftiness of his message and purifying minimalism of his résumé.

Suddenly, the candidate who had so consciously modeled himself and his wife on J.F.K. and Jackie was a simple rube, fighting the system.

“There are a lot of people who have been in Washington longer than me, who have better connections and go to the right dinner parties and know how to talk the Washington talk,” he told an audience in Manchester.

The smooth jazz senator claiming no facility with “Washington talk” struck a false note. In the traditional Labor Day kickoff to a campaign that has already left us weary of the inauthentic, the shopworn and the hyper-prepped, Obama told voters: “Now, when the folks in Washington hear me speak, this is usually when they start rolling their eyes, ‘Oh, there he goes talking about hope again. He’s so naïve. He’s a hope-peddler. He’s a hope-monger.’ Well, I stand guilty as charged. I am hopeful about America. Apparently, the pundits consider this a chronic condition, a symptom of a lack of experience.”

Actually, the only thing we regard as a symptom of a lack of experience is a lack of experience. This pundit, for one, needs hope as much as any American these days. But the only time I roll my eyes is when my hope is dashed that Obama will boldly take on Hillary, making his campaign more than cameras and mirrors and magazine covers.

The Obama promise was a fresh approach to politics, and now he pulls out the oldest trick in the playbook — the insider-who-pretends-to-be-an-outsider bit, the tactical populist, the sophisticate desperately shedding his sophistication.

I expected more of him than the same outsider routine I’ve heard from other beltway familiars, like Pat Buchanan and Bush senior.

Poppy took off his striped, preppie watchband and talked about his alleged love of pork rinds. (He really liked martinis and popcorn.)

When he ran for president in 1992, Mr. Buchanan claimed to be an outsider, even though he was a Washington native, an aide to three presidents and a D.C. pundit who lived so close to C.I.A. headquarters that his cat kept setting off the security sensors buried in the woods.

Obama doesn’t understand that his new approach — obliquely attacking Hillary by dismissing “those who tout their experience working the system in Washington” — cedes ground to her by admitting she has more experience working the system.

He allows Hillary to present herself as having the experience to be president just because she was married to one. He should be making the opposite case, that Hillary — go ahead, use her name, she won’t bite you, or even if she does, you’ll get over it — knew from nothing about the system.

In the White House, she botched health care and bungled dealing with special prosecutors — remember that talent she had for losing critical files? And in the Senate, she played it safe and became a Democratic Senator Pothole while helping W. launch his disaster in Iraq.

Obama relentlessly recited his credentials to voters in New Hampshire, talking about being a community organizer the way corporate lawyers remind you they were in the Peace Corps.

It’s not his experience that excites people, but his brainy élan. We don’t know about his judgment: good on Iraq, bad on Rezko.

The joke on Obama is that the only experience that has served Hillary well has been the experience of raw, retail politics — the kind he turns up his nose at — which has allowed her to seem authoritative and professional and singularly unwhiny in speeches and debates.

She first tripped up Obama by making him think that every time he fought back he was falling off his pedestal. As one of the Washington pundits Obama has scorned put it, with a grin: “That’s why you have two hands, one to graciously greet your opponents and one to stick the shiv in.”

By conjuring a scenario where Hillary is the deft insider and he’s the dewy outsider, Obama only plays into her playbook again.

To borrow Oscar Levant’s old joke about Doris Day: We knew Obama before he was a virgin.


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