March 17, 2008
Generation Obama? Perhaps Not.
By WILLIAM KRISTOL
In this column, I cite a report that Sen. Obama had attended services at Trinity Church on July 22, 2007. The Obama campaign has provided information showing that Senator Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error.
Sunday evening, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner held a “Generation Obama” fund-raiser at Boston’s Rumor Nightclub. In case you’re not up on the Boston club scene, I should tell you that Rumor “brings together the sexiest and hippest people from around the globe” and “has raised the bar in Boston’s night life” (if Rumor may say so itself). Presumably, Ben and Jennifer raised the bar a notch further on Sunday.
Which is fine. Obama supporters are allowed to have fun. And celebrities are entitled to headline fund-raisers. But one has the sense that elsewhere in this great land the bloom is coming off the Obama rose.
For one thing, it’s becoming clear that Obama has been less than candid in addressing his relationship to his pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. For example, Obama claimed Friday that “the statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity.”
It certainly could be the case that Obama personally didn’t hear Wright’s 2003 sermon when he proclaimed: “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. ... God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”
But Ronald Kessler, a journalist who has written about Wright’s ministry, claims that Obama was in fact in the pews at Trinity last July 22. That’s when Wright blamed the “arrogance” of the “United States of White America” for much of the world’s suffering, especially the oppression of blacks. In any case, given the apparent frequency of such statements in Wright’s preaching and their centrality to his worldview, the pretense that over all these years Obama had no idea that Wright was saying such things is hard to sustain.
This doesn’t mean that Obama agrees with Wright’s thoroughgoing and conspiracy-heavy anti-Americanism. Rather, Obama seems to have seen, early in his career, the utility of joining a prominent church that would help him establish political roots in the community in which he lives. Now he sees the utility of distancing himself from that church. Obama’s behavior in dealing with Wright is consistent with that of a politician who often voted “present” in the Illinois State Legislature for the sake of his future political viability.
The more you learn about him, the more Obama seems to be a conventionally opportunistic politician, impressively smart and disciplined, who has put together a good political career and a terrific presidential campaign. But there’s not much audacity of hope there. There’s the calculation of ambition, and the construction of artifice, mixed in with a dash of deceit — all covered over with the great conceit that this campaign, and this candidate, are different.
Which brings us back to the “Generation Obama” event. If you go to the Obama campaign Web site and click on “people,” you’ll see 14 categories of people you can choose to hook up with — women, labor, people of faith ... and “Generation Obama.”
What is Generation Obama? It’s a “grass-roots movement led by young activists with a simple goal: electing Barack Obama the next president of the United States of America,” the Web site says, adding that “you and other members can utilize the many talents of our country’s next great generation in support of the campaign in a variety of meaningful ways.”
So in fact, “Generation Obama” is just a fancy name for young activists for Obama. But the (remarkable) conceit is this: The “next great generation” of Americans can appropriately be called “Generation Obama.”
Now I’m actually a believer in the next generation, which one might call the 9/11 generation. Many of its members seem more serious and impressive than we baby boomers were when our elders were foolishly praising us, 40 years ago, as the best-educated, most idealistic generation ever. Many of the best of this young generation are serving their country — either in the military or otherwise. Some are in politics, working for various causes, liberal and conservative, and for various candidates, Democrats and Republicans. But surely there’s something creepy about a campaign claiming them as “Generation Obama.”
With no particular dog in the Democratic fight, many conservatives have tended to think it would be good for the country if Obama were to win the Democratic nomination, freeing us from the dreary prospect of the return of the House of Clinton. Now I wonder. Might the country be better off with the cynicism of the Clintons than the conceit of Obama?