Politics & Policy

When Obama is graceless, &c.

Yesterday, I was writing a little something about Jim Jones and Tom Donilon: The one is leaving the post of national security adviser; the other is assuming it. And I listened to a clip of President Obama, talking about this development. You can find it here. There’s a video sort of embedded in the article I have linked to.

This is how Obama began his remarks: “When I took office, I pledged to do whatever was required to protect the American people and restore American leadership in the world. Over the past 20 months, that’s exactly what we’ve done.”

Did he really need to say “restore American leadership in the world”? He’s not a candidate anymore. He should not be campaigning. He should not be dumping on his predecessor. I think American leadership was plentiful when George W. Bush was in the Oval Office. Obama obviously disagrees.

But, when you’re president, doesn’t there come a time when you stop talking that way?

One of the things I find most off-putting about Obama is his gracelessness. We have seen it in the way he has conducted himself during Election 2010 — what he has said about the tea partiers, the Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove, etc. When he was running for president, some people praised him for a “first-class temperament.” I don’t know. I think even third class might be pushing it.

‐A little walk down Memory Lane? I thought of something when Jones announced his resignation. In the third and final presidential debate, between Obama and McCain, the question of Obama’s “associations” came up: Billy Ayers and all of those lovelies. (By the way, Rashid Khalidi has just become co-director of a new Palestinian center at Columbia University. It’s all done in honor of the late Edward Said. Great, great.) Candidate Obama said,

“Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed chairman Paul Volcker. If I’m interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden, or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or Gen. Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO.”

A very good answer — a very effective answer. Anyway, Jones is gone now. And in his place is Tom Donilon.

‐He is the ultimate Democratic politico, of course. He has worked for everybody, since he was about ten: Carter, Mondale, Biden, Dukakis, Clinton — the whole crew. And from 1999 to 2005, he was a registered lobbyist with one client, and one client only: Fannie Mae. Great, just great.

But you know what I find most bothersome? I learned this in a report found here. “Donilon played a key role in successfully convincing the Senate to defeat Bork’s nomination” — the nomination of the great Robert H. Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That Donilon has been a political hack — that’s an unkind word: political operative — for the Democrats is pretty much fine by me. But the disgusting defeat of Bob Bork: That I find hard to take.

‐A little language? The line I quoted went, “Donilon played a key role in successfully convincing the Senate to defeat Bork’s nomination.” (It’s maddening to read it again.) That “successfully” really does not have to be there. Clunks up the sentence, too.

‐I have heard people say, “The 2012 Republican presidential nominee will come out of the 2010 elections.” That’s a little vague. Someone elected to office for the first time in 2010? That seems a little . . . rushed. Even Obama, the meteor, had four years in the Senate before he became president. (Well, he started campaigning almost as soon as he got there, true.)

How about someone elected in 2009? I have a friend — very seasoned political observer and strategist — who’s looking at Chris Christie. Sure, he’s only been in office for a couple of years. Oh, excuse me — check that. He took office last January. But when you’re hot, you’re hot. You never know when your time will come again.

I said to my friend, “What about the John Engler problem?” John Engler was governor of Michigan, and often cited as a presidential or vice-presidential possibility. Extremely capable, impressive man. But he was girthy. People said it was a handicap, and they were probably right. My friend said, of Christie, “My slogan for him is, ‘A big man for a big job.’”

And I loved the way Christie handled the weight issue in his gubernatorial campaign. The opposing campaign, Corzine’s, was giving him hell for his weight: emphasizing it in an ad. Christie said — and I paraphrase — “Hey, it’s a bad economy. The people who work at Dunkin’ Donuts and the International House of Pancakes? They need jobs too.”

I think that’s when I first started being a big Christie fan.

Was having lunch with a friend — a different friend — over the weekend. He’s from Ohio, and he said, “What about Portman?” Yeah, what about Portman? We’re talking about Rob Portman, who looks like he’ll be elected to the Senate. He was a congressman, years ago. Then, under W., he was U.S. trade representative. And then director of the Office of Management and Budget. Very, very capable and appealing guy.

Time out for a second: Isn’t it interesting how we call House members “congressmen” and senators “senators” — even though House members and senators are equally members of Congress?

Anyway, I have told a couple of stories about Portman in this column before. I think I’ve told them twice. Can you bear a third time? I promise this will be it (for at least the remainder of 2010).

Way back in 1999, I was interviewing Gen. Barry McCaffrey. He was President Clinton’s “drug czar.” He had been a hero of the Gulf War. Talking about Republicans he admired, he brought up this young congressman, Portman. He said, “I hope he’s president of the United States in another twelve years. He’s one of the finest public servants I’ve met in America.”

Another twelve years? That would put us right at 2012, more or less. Kind of interesting.

Story No. 2? Well, I was at Davos, in 2004. There was this reception, and Portman and another Republican congressman were there. The second congressman — he was a little older than Portman. He’s out of politics now (not voluntarily). He said, “When you’re a politician, you say in the early stages of your career, ‘I’m not going to be president. I’m not going to be president.’ But you don’t necessarily mean it. Then there comes a time when you realize, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m really not going to be president!’”

The congressman then did something funny and memorable. He got down on one knee, clasped Portman’s hand, and said, “You’re my only hope. You could be president. Would you remember me for a cabinet position?”

Portman for President: We could do worse, we could do worse.

‐Some readers have asked whether I would comment on the Nobel Peace Prize. I have done so — at the Corner, our group blog (as you well know). My “archive” — so grand and serious a word! — is here. Last Friday, October 8, I had six items (“blogposts,” I guess). Three of them are on the Nobel Peace Prize. A glorious development, the award to Liu Xiaobo. As Impromptus readers know, I have written about this dissident — now jailed — for quite a long time. We have followed the campaign to get him the peace prize. Even Tutu endorsed it!

I will have an article on the prize in the next National Review. And I will discuss it some more in a future Impromptus. (Have a lot to say.) Right now, I’d like to go back in time — and say something about the Nobel Peace Prize of 1992. I was thinking about it yesterday. Why? Because it was Columbus Day, and that is very much relevant.

In 1992, the prize went to Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan “indigenous rights” celebrity. How did she happen to win? I don’t think it could have happened in any year other than 1992. You see, it was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America — or “encounter with America,” or “rape of America,” or whatever they’re teaching the kids to say now. The Nobel Committee wanted to make a statement: a statement against Columbus and everything he means. So they gave the prize to the most famous “American Indian,” loosely speaking, there was.

That is an interpretation, anyway.

At the ceremony in Oslo — December 10, 1992 — the Nobel Committee chairman said to Menchú, “Welcome to this little wintry country in the far north, so far from your own country and your own world.” Speaking to the audience generally, he said, “It is 500 years this year since Columbus ‘discovered’ America, as we have been brought up to say, or since colonization began. The celebration of the anniversary has at least produced one benefit, in the spotlight it has so effectively focused on the worldwide problem of the rights of aboriginal peoples.”

So, was Menchú being given the prize specifically in response to Columbus? The chairman said, “For the Norwegian Nobel Committee it was a happy coincidence that it was precisely in the year of Columbus that she emerged as such a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Many in Norway also thought there was something local behind the 1992 selection: a touch of guilt over the Norwegians’ treatment of their own “Indians,” called the Sami, formerly known as the “Lapps,” a term that somehow fell into disrepute. Political correctness produces zigzags in language.

Anyway, I could go on and on, but won’t. (The Menchú phenomenon is fascinating, and also somewhat appalling.) I know that Columbus Day is terribly uncool now, except as a day off. Some of us, in America, celebrate “Indigenous Peoples Day,” rather than Columbus Day. I know that Brown University removed Columbus Day from its calendar a few years ago — and started to refer to “Fall Weekend.” I like ol’ Chris: a brave, imaginative, and, of course, adventurous man. The American spirit, as some of us understand it, owes a lot to him.

‐Care for a little music? This is a piece published in City Arts — it is chiefly on a new Wynton Marsalis work, Swing Symphony, which the composer also designates Symphony No. 3. It opened the new season of the New York Philharmonic. (You may have seen this concert on television, under the heading Live from Lincoln Center.)

‐A friend of mine sent me a review of a Metropolitan Opera performance of The Tales of Hoffmann. It had kind of a beaut in it: “Returning from last season, mezzo Kate Lindsey was again excellent as Hoffmann’s devoted but cynical muse, Necklace.” That character is named Nicklausse. Why the mistake? I think that SpellCheck — or however we should render that — didn’t recognize “Nicklausse” and suggested “Necklace” instead. Whereupon someone, by accident, hit “Change.” I don’t know. Kind of funny, though.

“Necklace” reminds me of a short story by Maupassant and a form of murder in South Africa. “Nicklausse” reminds me of golf — and Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

‐A cute-kid story, which happens to relate to music? My little nephew is having his violin lesson. He has already learned about sharps. The teacher asks him, “Now, what is the opposite of sharp?” My boy says, “Dull.” Brilliant.

‐“Talk about Joan Sutherland!” readers have said. I will, just a bit. “La Stupenda” died in Switzerland on Sunday. She was Australian, of course. Funny that Australia, with such a small population, has contributed two legendary sopranos: Dame Nellie Melba and Dame Joan Sutherland. I’ll say about five things.

1) I did not hear her live much. When I was a kid, I heard a recital. (As an instrumentalist, I was not all that interested in vocal music — but I knew enough to know that I should hear Sutherland. Or a teacher did.) I don’t remember much about the recital. I remember that she used music, sitting on a stand, which I thought was odd. I later learned that it was for the words, not the music — that’s what Sutherland said. She was worried about forgetting the words. I remember that she sang “Let the bright seraphim,” the Handel showpiece.

And I heard one of her last Normas — the penultimate one. Those final performances were given in Detroit, oddly enough. She did not have much voice or technique left. But she had an artistry that could not be hidden.

That reminds me: This summer, I heard Edita Gruberova, age 63, sing Norma, in a concert performance — that was in Salzburg. A comment on this opens my “Salzburg Chronicle,” in the current New Criterion (go here).

2) The remarkable thing — one remarkable thing — about the Sutherland voice was that it was a big voice that was amazingly flexible. You usually get one or the other — size or flexibility, not both. Sutherland was almost a Wagnerian coloratura. Again, remarkable — actually, stupendous (as in “La Stupenda”).

3) She was once asked how she learned to trill. She said she never really learned: “The birds in the trees trilled, so why couldn’t I?”

4) I have twice had the privilege of hearing Regina Resnik tell a Sutherland story. (Resnik is the fabled American mezzo.) She is a great storyteller — and the Aussie accent is spot-on. I don’t remember the details of the story. But I remember the accent, and the spirit. I hope I get to hear it a third time!

5) I’m sorry she’s gone. Joan Sutherland was a big, big personality in musical life. And she left a zillion recordings! Pick an anthology, any of them. She was famous, legendary, for a reason.

#JAYBOOK#

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