Frank Rich is perhaps the most reliably splenetic op-ed writer in America. He is chronically disenchanted, seemingly happiest when seething, and always in search of people to demonize. To put it another way: He is the print version of Keith Olbermann. Rich’s latest column criticizing Rick Warren, then, is par for the course. But it also illustrates something else, and something important, Barack Obama will find out soon enough. Changing the tone in Washington is easier said than done.
George W. Bush came to Washington hoping to do the same thing, and he had reason to be hopeful. As governor of Texas he worked well with Democrats and had no real stake in the bitter partisan battles of the 1990s. As president, Bush himself, if not perfect, was consistently civil and did not engage in personal attacks against his critics. That is in part because Bush is himself a man of admirable grace. Yet the president became a polarizing figure, hated by the Left, and gave rise to a politico-psychological phenomenon: Bush Derangement Syndrome. It turned out President Bush could control what he said, but he couldn’t control what others said about him.
My sense is that like Bush, Obama is a man of core decency. But sometimes even a president, driven by the best of intentions, cannot alter certain habits of mind and heart, or other people’s rage.
It turns out that some people in politics are perpetually angry. Their opposition to certain policies quickly and easily transmutes into the politics of personal destruction. And the dust-up over Rick Warren is evidence that contrary to the conventional wisdom, more than a few liberals have an investment in fueling the “culture wars.” They are even intent on ensuring that Obama’s inauguration becomes the latest battlefield in that clash. Obama, in trying to build a symbolic early bridge to conservative evangelicals, has been unable to keep his supporters from adding to the divisions in our nation.
It should be added that political divisions and acrimony are part of American history and typical of politics in almost every other nation. Political debates often ignite passionate feelings. And comity in politics, while certainly something worth striving for, is not the highest good in politics. Pursuing justice and advancing human dignity are more important — and sometimes championing justice and human dignity can create deep divisions within a society. Think of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ronald Reagan, to name just three of the more polarizing figures in American history.
In any event, Barack Obama remains a wildly popular figure among liberals. Yet one can sense how the unease they have about his Cabinet picks increased with Obama’s choice to have the Reverend Warren participate in his inauguration. Even before Obama has taken the oath of office, unalloyed joy has given way to a very slight but detectable fear: Obama isn’t going to be the embodiment of all of their hopes (and fury). As those concerns harden, they will begin to lay out their demands, which they will insist be met.
In addition, important Democratic figures like Barney Frank are making it clear that he will pursue politics his way, regardless of what Obama might like. Based on his comments, Representative Frank seems to view Obama as naive and far too confident of his capacity to change how politics in practiced in Washington. I suspect there are many other veteran Democrats on Capitol Hill who are not going to march in lock-step with Obama, even assuming he wants to change the nature of political discourse in America.
If Obama can succeed in his effort, more power to him. But I suspect the road ahead is fraught with far more obstacles than he imagined. And if the tone of politics does markedly improve in the next four years, it will be in large measure because Republicans decided to treat America’s 44th president with more civility and class than Democrats treated America’s 43rd president. I hope Republicans do, for the sake of our politics and our country.