Magazine April 20, 2009, Issue

The Bent Pin

Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure

As the Obama administration enters its third month I keep thinking of an old rhyming joke. It’s about an absent-minded girl who, being incapable of remembering her mistakes long enough to learn from them, gets herself into unbelievable dilemmas, each one worse than the last. I don’t remember the details but the punchline is running through my head: 

“Oh, my goodness! What have I done? I married the father instead of the son!”

America has awakened next to Obama, and if he’s said to be grumpy in the morning, we are grumpier. It’s been less than 100 days so technically we are still on our honeymoon, but considering the traumas we have already experienced, we are like the Victorian bride saddled with her mother’s advice on how to behave on a leisurely 19th-century honeymoon in Italy: “Be as pleasant and cheerful as possible, and remember to exclaim over the ruins.”

Millions of financially strapped Americans are now at the point Julie Christie reached in Doctor Zhivago when Lara sobbed, “This is an awful time to be alive!” But another trauma, more subtle but nonetheless powerful, is an unfinished feeling, an inchoate sense that something that was supposed to happen didn’t happen and now the moment has passed, leaving us suspended in that state of nerve-wracking peace and quiet known as anticlimax. When we elected a black president by a landslide we expected to be rewarded with some kind of new dawn, an instant golden age that would render us at peace with ourselves and as one with the world overnight. It was the American pursuit of quick ’n’ easy applied to epiphanies, and we bet the farm on it.

Obama is also caught in anticlimax. To Bill Clinton, the best thing about being president was campaigning because the crush of warm bodies satisfied his bottomless need to be loved. But Obama, who is much more standoffish than he would have us believe, would like nothing so much as to spend the rest of his life as a fly in amber in Grant Park on election night, because to him, the best thing about being president is being president-elect. Chosen but not yet Called. Is that a great gig or what? It must be: He invented it officially with a plethora of signs reading The Office of the President Elect and hung them on his lecterns whenever he went out to announce that America’s problems were indeed dire, but even though he knew how to solve them, at the moment he was powerless to do it.

A funny thing happened on the day he was plucked out of this glorious sinecure and thrust into the real job. The whole world expected his inaugural address to put Cicero to shame, but instead the Silver Tongue gave it a lick and a promise, delivering what amounted to a civic luncheon speech. Then came the State of the Union That Wasn’t, so weighted down by bureaucratic droning, list-making, and example-giving that he sounded as uninspired as the anonymous clerks who used to read the State of the Union to Congress back in the old days. After a campaign season throbbing with O Tempora and O Mores, all we got was a lousy T-shirt with a picture of O Bama advertising Oratory for Dummies. 

People felt betrayed without fully understanding why. His media claques were quick to make excuses for him (he had chosen, in his wisdom, to cut to the chase; he was so confident that he felt no need to repeat himself; etc.) but the spate of teleprompter jokes that soon made the rounds sounds like a dismayed bride being as pleasant and cheerful as possible while exclaiming over the ruins.

The ex-president-elect also demolished another one of his own images: the cool, efficient, No-Drama Obama. He might not have put Cicero to shame in his inaugural but the confusion he generated with his impetuous cabinet picks has so shamed the annexation of Schleswig-Holstein that it will never be able to show its face in a history book again. 

It was the running of the commerce secretaries hosted by Pamplona. The comic-opera figure in the whole who-struck-John is Tom Daschle, who was in and out so fast that the revolving door almost knocked him down. Certain to be the most memorable figure, however, is Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary with a Plan, or the Plan without a Treasury Secretary, we won’t know until they put an asterisk beside his name like Roger Maris and he becomes honored and disdained at one and the same time. Obama keeps assuring us that Timmy is doing a heckava job, but we can be sure of only one thing: He’s the very spit of Peter Sellers. One look at his dancing-peppercorn eyes, the puckish sideways smile peeking up from under his ducked head, the dismissive tant pis gesture when he rotates his wrist, and voilà! — it’s Sellers playing a French bookkeeper who accidentally destroys the entire global banking system by installing his tax software wrong.

How can someone as brilliant as Obama is reputed to be traumatize so many so fast? After all, he’s a reader, a writer, a thinker. He’s reflective, imaginative, inquisitive, subjective, sensitive — name your -tive, he’s it. It’s important to emphasize his -tives because we want to be able to stop exclaiming over his ruins without sounding racist. Is there someone we all know to whom we can compare him without regard to race so that we might understand him better? 

Yes, as a matter of fact there is:

“At first Scarlett was shocked and disappointed that Ashley did not immediately take hold and make the mill pay double what it had paid under her management. He was so smart and he had read so many books and there was no reason at all why he should not make a brilliant success and lots of money. [But] . . . his errors, his utter lack of business judgment. . . . Ashley could never make a quick estimate in his head and give a price that was correct, as she could. And she sometimes wondered if he’d ever learn to distinguish between planking and sills.”

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Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure As the Obama administration enters its third month I keep thinking of an old rhyming joke. It’s about an absent-minded girl who, being incapable of ...

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