How could having a good 'story' make Obama a good president?
Friday, 29 August 2008

By Simon Heffer

Denver

There is an atmosphere over the Democratic Convention, and it is not merely the thin, dehydrating air of the Mile High City on the edge of the Rockies.

It is the barely concealed contempt that the supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have for each other, undiluted despite the Presidential Election being barely two months away.
 
"Hillary 12" is on the lips of many delegates here, as they look forward to their heroine having another attempt at the nomination in four years' time: an attempt that can, of course, take place only if Mr Obama fouls up now. Many Democrats assume, or rather hope, that he will do just that.
 
Others fear he may not now make the serene progress to the White House that looked assured a month or two ago. Hence the air of tension where Mr Obama's supporters had once hoped there would be one of confidence.
 
Hence a convention, so far, devoted to papering over cracks in the Democratic home rather than savaging and burying the Republicans for their years of misrule.
The delegates look forward with trepidation to his speech before 75,000 people at Denver's Mile High Stadium on Thursday night.
 
Some fear this is a hubristic act, that of a man drunk on his own mellifluous oratory and, as the old cliché goes, making the mistake of believing his own publicity.
 
He is a candidate accused of an obsession with image and of putting his distinct personal style ahead of any substance, distinct or otherwise.
 
Mrs Clinton's supporters are mainly bad losers who have taken further umbrage in the last few days that she was not picked to be his vice-presidential running mate; they are not the main danger to Mr Obama, however, even though a poll revealed that 27 per cent of them want to vote for John McCain.
 
The real problem is those who were open-minded towards Mr Obama but who now fear he may not be up to it; and they are not hard to find in Denver.
 
While we await his turn in the spotlight it was his wife, Michelle, who on Monday evening supplied the first keynote speech of the convention.
 
It is interesting how the Americans, having rejected the British Constitution in 1776, now seem entranced by the idea of what Walter Bagehot (explaining the appeal of monarchy) called the constitutional device of "a family on the throne".
 
We have had the Bush family ad nauseam, the Kennedys ditto (with old Ted yanked from his sickbed to endorse Mr Obama in a stunt that made On Golden Pond seem light on sentimentality), an attempt at the Clinton family, and now the extended family of the Obamas.
 
Mrs Obama, eloquent, charismatic, articulate, glamorous, felt obliged to make a speech outlining, among other things, the all-American nature of her parents and brother.
 
No detail of her father's suffering from multiple sclerosis was too intimate, no reference to her humble upbringing too cloying, to be shared with the American people. Mrs Obama has long since chucked in her job as a stratospherically highly paid lawyer to serve the public in more humble capacities: as she did not hesitate to tell us.
 
It was a pungent reminder of the differences that remain between our two cultures: any politician, or politician's spouse, who tried to push such a line in Britain would be laughed out of public life. Here, things are different, and it is felt they need to be different in order to find the right person to govern America and lead the free world.
 
There is an idealism, or at least a lack of cynicism, in American politics that will be incomprehensible to many in Britain. Family, and its use in politics to identify leaders with the led, is almost a taboo at home.
 
Here it is an essential part of the process. It is part of that property that every candidate for high office here has to have: what Mrs Obama called his, or her, own American story.
 
Mr Obama has rehearsed his story over and over again - the white mother, the rapidly absentee black father, the self-confidence that had him churning out his first volume of autobiography at the age of 32. Now it was Mrs Obama's turn. As stories go it is a good one.
 
Her humble parents did a magnificent job bringing up their children, they worked hard, they encouraged aspiration, they made the link between effort and reward and they explained the clear distinction between right and wrong. They were, in short, good conservatives, though that was not how Mrs Obama put it. They were good Americans.
 
As their daughter said - and given some of the slurs about her and her husband's patriotism in the past few months, she had to say it - they lived the American dream. And the Obama programme is to allow everyone to buy into and live that dream, by means as yet unspecified.
 
Mrs Obama continued the theme of sentimentality launched by Senator Kennedy, and perpetuated by various other speakers during the evening.
 
The general theme is this: Mr Obama is wonderful because he is wonderful. Or, if we want to be more rigorous, he is wonderful because he believes in "change". As with David Cameron's use of the word (though it appears to have dropped out of his vocabulary) this vacuous term is never defined: we are never told what is changing, and to what.
 
But the word only has to be mentioned on the floor of this convention for the delegates to be set off on yet more moronic whistling, hooting and clapping. Nobody wants to delve further into what it means; perhaps they will never have to.
 
The whole business of the personal "story" is the ultimate proof of the triumph of the politics of personality over the politics of substance. At this convention, one is reminded that people who become politically active do so principally because they have a grievance.
 
How that state of mind can ever be treated by the politics of personality is far from clear. So far, the Obama campaign, with its emphasis on the "story", has been largely substance free. He needs to start to redress that on Thursday in his speech, and in the three debates with Senator McCain in the coming weeks.
 
He feels he has solved part of the problem in his appointment of foreign policy "expert" Joe Biden as his running mate, but the real issue where substance is required is the economy.
Even a town as prosperous as Denver starts to look frayed at the edges, with cheap meal deals on offer at most restaurants and large lots of derelict land even in the heart of the city.
 
Some have wondered how Mr Obama would react to Iran bombing Israel in the first week of his presidency. A better question might be how he would react to a couple of investment banks going under, with defaults on a trillion or two of debt.
Having a good "story" may now be an indispensable part of the job application. Poor old Senator Biden is being lauded here more for having a wife and child killed in a car crash than for knowing where Kazakhstan is.
 
But this is the politics of soap opera and the pursuit of ratings, driven largely by a cynical mass media. It is no proof of a man's fitness to govern a superpower. If the Democrats are starting already to worry about their choice of candidate, that's why.
 Columnist Simon Heffer addresses the core concerns of middle England with savage gusto, covering politics, education, crime, immigration and our national institutions.

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