There is a famous scene in Casablanca in which Captain Louis Renault, searching for justification for ordering the immediate closure of Rick’s Café Américain, discovers it in a memorable line: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Of course, Captain Renault is not shocked at all, having long been a fixture at Rick’s backroom roulette table.
What’s old is new. We read in the New York Times that President-Elect Obama is now shocked, shocked to find that Americans are reacting so emotionally to his win. His aides, according to the Times, are “startled, if gratified, by the jubilation that greeted the news of Mr. Obama’s victory” and are “looking to temper hopes that [Obama] would be able to solve the nation’s problems or fully reverse Bush administration policies quickly and easily.”
Well, now. That’s odd.
Tough to recall other instances over the past two years when Obama tried so diligently to “temper hopes,” (inflaming hopes was his thing, I thought) or to communicate to the thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — who attended his rallies the honest truth that politics is a daunting and unglamorous field in which bone-dry policy papers, not soppy tears, are the true beginnings of change.
Instead, Obama stuck to bits like this: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” But today, his staff claims to be startled, startled that their man’s preaching hit home.
National Public Radio ran Monday — yes, the Monday after Election Day — a segment about hope in which Youth Radio’s Orlando Campbell examined the benefits and drawbacks of that particular emotion. Dr. David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, told Campbell that when “hope gets too far off the mark, it’s more likely to hurt you than help you.” He continued: Hope works “when the person who is promising you something is genuine about trying to deliver it.”
It is unquestionable that Obama inspired millions, but on what is their inspiration based? Is their hope perhaps “too far off the mark”? Campbell, at the end of his report, said, “Barack Obama inspired me. . . . His promise sits like a weight on his shoulders.”
This is a burden Obama apparently does not want, and that his staff is now hurriedly trying to shed. Because the president-elect, about as savvy a character as one could wish to ever meet, must know that the hope he has cultivated is largely baseless. Obama’s words always seemed to some of us to be disingenuous — it has always seemed unlikely that the undeniably shrewd and practical candidate actually believed the wispy sentiments (“In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?”) he offered. He must have known, all along, that he was deceiving the crowds of screaming, tearful admirers to whom he orated. He must have known that many of the words he spoke were, really, “just words.”
I thought recently to flip back through Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, and this remarkable passage is what I found on the first page that fell open: “When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House. . . . Change in the Congress. . . . Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed.”
Astounding, isn’t it? He didn’t know what to say then, so he just blurted out “change.” One has sufficient reason to wonder whether Obama didn’t employ this exact strategy, of evoking amorphous change in lieu of solid substance, throughout the past two years and thereby ascend to the highest office in the land.
In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay apposite for his time and ours. “Politics and the English Language” it’s called, and its subject is the depreciation of English — more specifically, how bad writing leads to poor thinking leading to more bad writing and, eventually, begets a society that cannot distinguish meaningful words from empty ones.
I was reminded frequently of Orwell’s essay during the 2008 campaign, especially when our new president-elect would so silkily twist meanings, offer up contradictions (e.g., giving a speech in which he delineated varieties of racial grievance and also claimed to be moving beyond racial grievance), answer substantive questions with pabulum and finish it all with that bright smile, confident that few were on to his linguistic litheness.
Evidence exists that Obama does not believe, and never has believed, much of his talk; his campaign’s latest backtracking on change is congruent with that. In a way, this is heartening, because a president who did subscribe to the fluffy worldview of Obama’s campaign speeches would be dangerous. But it’s alarming, too. We are right to wonder whether the president-elect, who columnist David Brooks once called the “Hope Pope,” simply spun a pretty tale for Americans’ eager ears, pocketed their votes, and will now meet their anticipation and eagerness with puzzlement: That is not what I meant at all.
Obama is selecting his staff and readying himself for the challenges he will meet when he assumes the presidency in January. These challenges will not recede before his rhetoric, and so Americans will soon see truthfully what type of president they’ve got.
But before Campaign 2008 recedes into history and is, as our modern way would have it, erased from our memories, it’s worth reflecting on the words of the man who will now inhabit the White House, on how those words inspired so many, and on whether the person who spoke them meant them — and whether the words actually mean anything at all.
– Liam Julian is a Hoover Institution research fellow and managing editor at Policy Review.