It Takes Strength to Be Gentle and Kind

Obama's speech, "A More Perfect Union," is here, if you'd like to see it. Ben Smith has the transcript here. I've only read it, I haven't watched the whole video yet, but it's very good—precisely the kind of eloquent and hopeful speech we've come to expect from Obama; I agree with a whole lot of it, and have some minor quibbles I don't feel inclined to detail.

There's one significant (to me) issue I have, and it's his failure to mention Clinton (at least in the prepared text), at whom some of Wright's invective was personally directed. It probably wouldn't bother me except for the fact that Obama's been a little ungracious to her on a personal level during this campaign. Clearly, they and their surrogates have provided plenty of reason for them not to like one another, and maybe they don't—but they are still colleagues and ideological allies at the end of the day. And, call me old-fashioned, but I still would like my president to treat people, even people with whom s/he has disagreements, with respect, despite Bush having spent the past seven+ years trying to make that expectation an antiquated notion.

I don't like it when I see Obama turn his back on Clinton, or refuse to look at her during debates. I don't like that he has failed to say he expects his supporters to vote for her if she gets the nomination, and has generally ignored issues of sexism—which I strongly suspect is not because he doesn't care about it (he is the father of two daughters, after all), but because he worries that its mention will remind people of his opponent.

It's an attitude that really rubs me the wrong way. One of the things I always really liked and admired about John Edwards was the fact that he was demonstratively respectful of his opponents. Even when he debated Cheney, who is arguably one of the most loathsome political figures in American history—but was also the vice president, the office of which deserved respect, even if the man who held it did not—Edwards looked at him when he spoke.

That says more about Edwards, ultimately, than it does about Cheney—which is something I feel like Obama hasn't quite grokked yet. He looked utterly contemptuous of Hillary when he would give up only "You're likeable enough," again, without looking at her save for a sideways glance, after she graciously noted how "very likeable" he is.

It's a decidedly unkind moment—and because, as Morrissey once so eloquently put it, "it takes strength to be gentle and kind," it also whiffs of weakness. I had the same feeling reading Obama's speech today, when he references "the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling" and seems to be casting that sideways glance at Hillary, without actually looking at her.

The reason this is worth bringing up at all is because Obama is very likely to be the Democratic nominee, and, if he is, he'll be going up against John McCain, with whom he shares a long-running, mutual grudge. (Michael Crowley's got more in the current TNR.) McCain, despite being an enormous, belligerent asshole, is extremely well-liked—having, according to the latest Gallup polling, an incredible 67% favorable rating (!) among potential voters. Treating McCain with the same disdain Obama has been treating Hillary won't work. Cue the same complaints about haughty elitism that accompanied Gore sighing his way through debates with the thick-skilled Bush and Kerry treating the same intellectual slob four years hence with the contempt he deserved.

Bush wasn't as well-liked as McCain, and he's a war hero and an elder statesman, to boot—and that counts for something, sometimes more than it should, especially among the moderate demographic over which McCain and Obama will be fighting. Obama's got to be able to appear to like and respect McCain as a person, even if he doesn't. That's a political reality, even if it's a stinky one.

I'd love to see him get some practice by starting to treat Hillary the same way. It wouldn't kill him to note that she's more than "likeable enough." Actually, it would make him a lot more likeable, too.

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