Robert E. Lee never understood the man against whom he found himself fighting—the man whose reputation as a failed tanner and a drunk removed all air from the balloon of wary respect. I think the same thing of John McCain. A spirited man and a real fighter, he did not know or understand his opposition and fell most decisively by choosing to have his campaign managed and advised by the wrong people.
Though I have never been able to muster admiration of Robert E. Lee, I have admired John McCain and thought it more than a measure tragic for this man to go down using tactics handed to him by the same sort of blackguards who had nastied and defeated him during the South Carolina part of the 2000 Republican primary. Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt are descendants of Lee Atwater through Karl Rove, the butcher of the Beltway. Atwater, the great maker of slime pellets, had a revelation once death started mashing a foot of cancer down on his windpipe. For those who would listen, Atwater repudiated the sputum-covered tactics that had made him a success. Sometimes we need most to listen to the dying and not the greasy promises of the living.
Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt are descendants of Lee Atwater through Karl Rove, the butcher of the Beltway.
Because of its tragic resonance, yet another tale of a Faustian bargain, I find myself thinking as much about McCain as I do about the generalship that Barack Obama brought to his campaign. Obama knew whom to hire, whose advice to follow or adapt, and most of all he knew what to do. Just as Grant did much to invent modern war, Obama did much to reinvent the modern campaign. In John Ford's The Last Hurrah, he parodies Nixon's "Checkers speech" and warns us that electronic media will do in the tradition of going out among the people. Electronic imagery will become preeminent in politics; blips on a screen will replace flesh and blood and the human voice rousing the masses in the air of the world. Ford was correct, but the truth of what he said was limited. The final ongoing fact of American existence is that all innovative instruments can be defined by the user, just as the scalpel was one thing in the hand of a doctor and another in the hand of Jack the Ripper.
Barack Obama resolved through example the understandable misgivings about technology that go back to the end of the eighteenth century in Europe and had found a great symbol in the Frankenstein monster, in John Henry, and all of the doomsday films inspired by nuclear weaponry and now by the rapacious destruction of the ecology. Obama did this by playing new melodies and rhythms through our electronic media the way jazz musicians have played the saxophone, turning a dull, colorless marching band instrument into a marvelous labratory in which as many magic potions as poisons are brewed. The Internet, which is far more dominated by the insipid, the eccentric, the paranoid, the narcissistic, and the profoundly smug and stupid than anything else, became, for Obama, an instrument that I first recognized when he gave his remarkable Philadelphia speech as the fires about Rev. Wright were threatening to fry his campaign in a skillet of black nationalism.
I wrote an editorial in which I pointed out that Obama had taken a big chance by choosing to give a 40 minute speech in our sound bite era when the public's attention span is supposedly limited to about the twelve minutes television uses to program its commercials. He was right because he recognized his presence in a technological moment that, due to YouTube and C-Span, had liberated the public address from the sound bite, the distorting edit, and anything the viewer wants to avoid by downloading an entire speech. Obama seemed to also sense that Americans wanted to hear something about race that did not avoid its levels of complexity. Correct again. We should never forget, and few will, that this man also used the Internet to revolutionize campaign financing, to refute smears, to put up campaign ads and attack, to create his own narrative, and to do whatever else was needed. In this era of ever more present technology, he was perfectly aware of the fact that Internet postings were available 24/7 to whomever needed to know what Obama thought, what his campaign was doing, and what had to be straightened out for those who might be confused. Yes, the Internet was his saxophone and its flexibility continally moved to new areas of communication that he never failed to comprehend in their importance to precisely and perpetually getting his message beyond everything that had ever been possible.
Of all that will be said about him, Barack Obama is most purely a man of his time, seemingly sensitive to so much that is human and that is not, each element defining our moment. John McCain is a man made tragic in terms of all times but, we can never predict what kind of a team he and the new president will make in Washington, where the Republican Party needs to be remade and where alliances across the aisle are essential to our future. I hope that we see such an alliance, both because of what it would do for the country and the world but also because it would allow a sincere but misled man to redeem himself in the way that he does best: moving beyond barriers.