Books, Politics

The Icebox Cometh

September 15, 2016
White House

“It’s coming to America first,
the cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change
and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst…
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”
– Leonard Cohen

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[Note: I wrote this for a previous iteration of my website in September of 2008. Barack Hussein Obama and John McCain were neck and neck in the polls at the time, and the outcome of that year’s presidential election was anything but certain. The Sarah Palin ‘factor’, initially thought by Liberal hopefuls to have been the GOP’s Achilles Heel, had actually raised McCain’s chances in several polls. It was ‘crazy’ time and the media was having a field day. Eight years hence ‘crazy’ has taken on a whole new meaning. It seems like an opportune time to take a look back at what was, and reflect on the life of a man who had such a significant impact on Democratic rhetoric right down to public speeches and political discourse dating back to the campaign of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his run at the White House in 1960. – REW]

§ § §

As I write this, it’s exactly 53 days to the American presidential election. Republican Senator John McCain has been basking – some would say ‘wallowing’ – in the glow that is Sarah Palin. Democrat Barack Obama, meanwhile, has been huddling with his advisors trying to decide how best to counter the effect that having a female on the GOP ticket has had on McCain’s popularity – he’s on top in almost every primary tracking poll. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

About eight months ago some low-level political media darling who added ‘pundit’ to his resume suggested that “…a refrigerator could beat McCain this year…” But it was Howard Dean, head of the Democratic National Committee, former governor of Vermont and former presidential candidate in 2004 who said the following words on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart more than a year ago:

“The Republicans are the best campaigners. They know how to campaign – but they can’t govern. Democrats, on the other hand, know how to govern… but we have problems campaigning.”

Not a very soothing thought. Not a phrase that instills confidence in the left-leaning electorate.

sorensen_jfkWatching and listening to Senator Obama for the better part of nineteen months it’s tough to see how anyone could have launched, conducted and maintained a better-run campaign for the presidency, even if you forget the fact that he’s black and that his relatively rapid ascendancy to challenge for the highest office in the land is both historical and awe-inspiring. A comparison of his suggested policies and voting record opposite John McCain should leave no one in doubt as to who the better president would be. The last eight years alone should shave more than a few points off McCain’s chances with Vegas odds-makers.

And yet, here we are. Today’s Financial Times of London contains a banner headline, “Democrats On Capital Hill Fear Obama Fallout”. A wire story circulated to newspapers all across the United States last week stated that, privately, congressional Democrats are ‘suddenly’ concerned about Obama’s chances. Yesterday’s Gallup Poll on the congressional races was headlined, “Battle For Congress Suddenly Looks Competitive”. It would appear that the ‘refrigerator’ isn’t fully stocked. No, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

It seems so easy to have it all slip away. The brass ring, within grasp, is snagged by an interloper. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Perhaps a look back will help put some distance – literally – between the desire that was and the reality that is. Take that ‘sure thing’ and knock it off its pedestal so we can all get a better look.

counselor_sorenson_bookI’ve just finished reading Ted Sorensen’s autobiography, Counselor. Ted was President John F. Kennedy’s head speech writer, confidante, advisor, and friend. He was a policy wonk of the highest order when policy was everything. He wrote (or co-wrote) all of JFK’s speeches during his short presidency, and was on the front lines during all of Kennedy’s critical moments – the Cuban Missile Crisis chief among them. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Sorensen wrote it. Kennedy said it. America heard it and responded.

A lot has been said and written about Obama’s similarity to Kennedy, some of it even by Obama himself. There’s no question that the idealism Kennedy represented in the early 1960s is shared by the senator from Illinois almost fifty years later – the comparisons and connections are striking. And perhaps – perhaps – Ted Sorensen deserves some of the credit.

Ted was and is a proud liberal Democrat [Ted passed away in 2010. – REW] He’s been a supporter of Barack Obama from day one, and it’s been reported that he serves the campaign as an ‘unofficial’ advisor, sometimes writing sections of Obama’s speeches. During Obama’s Super Tuesday victory speech back in February – the now-famous ‘yes we can’ speech – Obama said the following:

“You see, the challenges we face will not be solved with one meeting in one night. 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. We are the hope of those boys who have little; who’ve been told that they cannot have what they dream; that they cannot be what they imagine. Yes they can.”

Is that pure Sorensen…?

One of the significant aspects of Ted’s autobiography is the way in which he places campaigning, specifically presidential campaigning, into context. With the media reporting on every little mistake, misplay and gaffe the candidates make during this election cycle, I found it fascinating to read Sorensen’s ‘take’ on the subject. His insight is peppered throughout the book, but two of his viewpoints are specifically appropriate, and I wanted to quote them both. I think they help in putting this election, and the way in which it is being reported, into perspective.

“As hard as it is on the speechwriter and staff, a presidential campaign is even rougher on the candidate. It is impossible for him to remember the names of all the people whose hands he shakes, to remember the time of day, the day of the week, the town in which he is speaking; to remember his own previously stated positions on issues, much less those of his opponents. But if he sounds temporarily inconsistent, the press calls it weakness; if he is ambiguous, his opponent calls him a coward. Through it all, he must appear sincere and self-assured, smile through the rain and pain, protect his hand from being crushed and his suit from being torn, freeze in an open car, perspire in a stuffy banquet hall, smile at those who curse him, listen patiently to those who repeatedly advise the obvious, and repeat his own positions until he tires of his own words, restrain his natural candor, be cautious about his humor, and exude enthusiasm about the ordeal he is enduring and every person he meets. All day, the press is outside his door and window, the rooms are full of sweat and smoke, his hand is bruised, scratched, full of calluses…. Everyone you meet wants something from you, your time, your endorsement, your support for some local project or measure; and then you move on to three more stops in three more states before you fall into bed. It is an exercise best suited to fanatics, egomaniacs and superbly fit athletes.”

From: “Counselor” by Ted Sorensen – Chapter 15
Senator Kennedy’s Quest For The Presidency – pp. 186-187

Later in the book, he admits to having given advice to many presidential candidates and would-be candidates over the years. Considering the debate that still rages between the McCain and Obama camps (and in the media) over the ‘experience’ issue (or lack of it), I found this section especially appropriate. “For those future presidential candidates among my readers who want my advice, the following is a condensed compilation of all the related memos I’ve written to would-be presidents who approached me for advice over the last several decades – including Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Mario Cuomo, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry and Barack Obama…”

To: Presidential Hopeful
From: Theodore C. Sorensen
Subject: So You Want To Be President

“…am I smart enough to be president? I suggest you review that question in three contexts: First, compare your intelligence, judgment, courage and ability to lead with those of the others who have recently held, sought, or will be seeking the presidency. Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln is running this time. Experience is relative. No office provides meaningful preparation for the unique responsibilities of the presidency.”

From: “Counselor” by Ted Sorensen – Chapter 32
My Continuing Involvement In Politics – pp. 480

No office provides meaningful preparation for the unique responsibilities of the presidency. One assumes he means previous experience as mayor, governor OR senator.

sorensen_obamaI’ve never pretended to be ‘fair and balanced’ in my political views; I dress to the left, so to speak. Were I an American I would not only be voting for the Obama/Biden ticket, but I’d also be campaigning for it. My view of American politics has been shaped by decades of watching, listening, comparing and assessing American policies at home and abroad, mostly abroad. It’s why I believe that this election is the most important election of my lifetime – the most important election in the world, for the world. I say that because American foreign policy is one of its cornerstones, and it impacts not just Americans but everyone that its policy touches regardless of country. The Republican administration of Bush/Cheney is the perfect example of how NOT to govern, and Senator Obama’s mantra of ‘change’, while simplistic, has hit fragile nerves from Bakersfield to Berlin. And yet, here we are.

I’m hoping that the addition of Governor Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket energizes the Democrats anew. That on the heels of that idealistic ‘first wave’ of ‘change’ – a mantra now co-opted by the McCain camp – there occurs a ‘second wave’. One of firm opposition, surgical confrontation, adroit campaigning and unfettered optimism in the future with a Democratic administration led by Barack Obama, Joe Biden and a laundry list of the best and brightest minds in America that becomes contagious.

Clock’s ‘a tickin’!

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