The Small Stuff

They say don’t sweat the small stuff. They, whoever they are, say lots of things. The small stuff is what makes you sweat.

 

You know what it’s like – you start a new job, and you can do the job. After all, they hired you because you know your stuff, what with your years of experience and extensive knowledge of the field, and your people skills and problem-solving ability and whatnot. But that’s never the problem. It’s the little stuff that drives you crazy – being overdressed or too casually dressed, and not knowing how the coffee-maker thing in the staff room works, or who takes a lunch break and who works through lunch, and whether you should – and whether working late into the evening is the mark of a real go-getter, or something only losers have to do.

 

It’s a matter of rituals and norms. Some kinds of kidding around are admired, and other kinds appalling, and you’d better figure out which is which in the new place – quick. Get it wrong one way and you’re a stuffy nerd, or the other way, a hapless buffoon, and neither will do. In the systems shop at the locomotive assembly plant in London, Ontario, some of it was easy – when others were discussing hockey or curling you told them to tell you more, because it was fascinating. But that was only some of it – the rest was, as it always is, the implicit hierarchy, who talks to whom, and how. In the systems shop at the offices of the chain of Catholic hospitals, in Pasadena, you knew there were some kinds of jokes that just would not fly, and some issues that would never come up at the water cooler, and you wore a tie, and you never ever loosened it, and you never rolled up your sleeves at your desk.

 

It takes time to figure all this stuff out. You’re always watching the ebb and flow of things, and attending to the details – and carefully pretending you’re not watching. But you are. It is absolutely imperative that you not be an outsider, and be left behind. That could end your career. It’s a wonder you get any work done at all in the first few weeks.

 

There must be some of this going on in Washington, now that Barack Obama actually seems to be president. The old guard – ultimate Washington insiders like Sally Quinn, who, when Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived at the top, suggested those two were just not the right sort of people (they were crude and graceless, and not from good families, you see) – must be dumbfounded, and popping Xanax (used to treat anxiety and panic disorder), when confronted with this:

 

The president’s elderly stepgrandmother brought him an oxtail fly whisk, a mark of power at home in Kenya. Cousins journeyed from the South Carolina town where the first lady’s great-great-grandfather was born into slavery, while the rabbi in the family came from the synagogue where he had been commemorating Martin Luther King’s Birthday. The president and first lady’s siblings were there, too, of course: his Indonesian-American half-sister, who brought her Chinese-Canadian husband, and her brother, a black man with a white wife.

 

Heads are exploding all over Washington, and the New Times here adds a bit of wry understatement:

 

When President Barack Obama was sworn in on Tuesday, he was surrounded by an extended clan that would have shocked past generations of Americans and instantly redrew the image of a first family for future ones.

 

If you’re going to deal with this White House, the rituals and norms of Quinn’s Washington seem a bit irrelevant. Bill Clinton may have been immediately designated a déclassé clown – as Quinn would say, not one of us – and the business with Monica Lewinsky may have both proved that and also justified his impeachment, on grounds of simple tackiness – but the Obama family simply blows away the previous norms, and makes those who tut-tut violations of those norms seem like social critics from another century: 

 

As they convened to take their family’s final step in its journey from Africa and into the White House, the group seemed as if it had stepped out of the pages of Mr. Obama’s memoir – no longer the disparate kin of a young man wondering how he fit in, but the embodiment of a new president’s promise of change.

 

For well over two centuries, the United States has been vastly more diverse than its ruling families. Now the Obama family has flipped that around, with a Technicolor cast that looks almost nothing like their overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly Protestant predecessors in the role. The family that produced Barack and Michelle Obama is black and white and Asian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. They speak English; Indonesian; French; Cantonese; German; Hebrew; African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo; and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Lowcountry. Very few are wealthy, and some – like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother who only recently got electricity and running water in her metal-roofed shack – are quite poor.

 

English, Indonesian, French, Cantonese, German, Hebrew, African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo, and even a few phrases of Gullah – damn, George Bush had enough problems with just English.

 

But this is most telling:

 

“Our family is new in terms of the White House, but I don’t think it’s new in terms of the country,” Maya Soetoro-Ng, the president’s younger half-sister, said last week. “I don’t think the White House has always reflected the textures and flavors of this country.”

 

She seems to be saying this country isn’t primarily comprised of old, rich, angry white men, telling everyone who Jesus told them to hate. Who knew? But check the demographics.

 

Pat Buchanan has, and sees the reason the Republican Party is dying:

 

Demographically, the GOP is a party of white Americans, who in 1972 were perhaps 90 percent of the national vote. Nixon and Reagan rolled up almost two-thirds of that vote in 1972 and 1984. But because of abortion and aging, the white vote is shrinking as a share of the national vote and the population.

 

The minorities that are growing most rapidly, Hispanics and Asians, cast 60 to 70 percent of their presidential votes for the Democratic Party. Black Americans vote 9-1 for national Democrats. In 2008, they went 30-1.

 

Put succinctly, the red pool of voters is aging, shrinking and dying, while the blue pool, fed by high immigration and a high birth rate among immigrants, is steadily expanding.

 

He may have the exact figures wrong, but not the trends.

 

John Amato here (with an audio clip), covers Rush Limbaugh saying Limbaugh wants Obama to fail.

 

Amato:

 

Rush Limbaugh is not mincing words and showing the real face of Conservative ideals as he announces that he wants Barack Obama to fail. He is the worldwide voice of Conservatism, so the Republican Party has just gotten its marching orders. I dare any Republican to defy him.

 

What this means, of course, is that he hopes the economy crashes into a full-blown depression. His multimillion-dollar salary is safe, obviously, so to hell with the nation and its economy if the cost of saving the country is being guided by a Democratic President.

 

The clip:

 

Limbaugh: I’m happy to be the last man standing. I’m honored to be the last man standing. Yeah, I’m the true maverick. I can do more than four words. I could say I hope he fails and I could do a brief explanation of why. You know, I want to win. If my party doesn’t, I do. If my party has sacrificed the whole concept of victory, sorry, I’m now the Republican in name only, and they are the sellouts.

 

I’m serious about this. Why in the world, it’s what Ann Coulter was talking about, the tyranny of the majority, all these victims here, we gotta make sure the victims are finally assuaged. Well, the dirty little secret is this isn’t going to assuage anybody’s victim status, and the race industry isn’t going to go away, and the fact that America’s original sin of slavery is going to be absolved, it’s not going to happen. Just isn’t, folks. It’s too big a business for the left to keep all those things alive that divide the people of this country into groups that are against each other. Yes, I’m fired up about this.

 

Of course that’s not particularly coherent, but the idea seems to be that race is an issue, of some sort, and he is angry, as people think that all this race mixing, and cultural mixing, is cool – and it’s NOT, damn it. Or he may mean something else. It’s hard to tell. But he’s not happy.

 

Well, there is a lot to get used to. See Hanna Rosin:

 

This is the word that stood out for me in Obama’s list of values yesterday: “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” The rest have echoes in traditional and more safe political dialogue. But curiosity has a different sort of resonance. Curiosity is what led his mother on the many of what must have seemed like reckless adventures, that eventually created the motley family he has today. For a post-PC age, curiosity is a much better word than tolerance with its implications of holding your nose.

 

Okay, having the leader of the nation say curiosity is a wonderful thing is a shock. After all the years of faith, and unwavering conviction, and with-us-or-against-us, it seems so… refreshing. It’s now okay to be curious about others, and ideas, and the rest of the world? Maybe that was the most important word in the speech. There’s a lot to learn about what’s okay now.

 

Jessica Grose noticed that Obama also listed “non-believers” as okay people:

 

There’s been much talk of Obama’s ushering in a “post-racial” America, but will he also be welcoming a post-religion America? Doubtful, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

 

Well, that may be taking things just too far, as Chris Bodenner notes here:

 

It’s just one anecdote, but: I stood with mostly African-Americans during the speech and the only time I ever heard booing of Obama, from many directions, was his shout-out to “non-believers.”

 

But those of us who are non-believers can dream, can’t we: And he did say that.

 

It would be like that old day, as Matthew Yglesias notes in Inauguration Trivia, as it seems John Quincy Adams didn’t get sworn-in on a Bible:

 

John Quincy Adams, according to his own letters, placed his hand on a constitutional law volume rather than a Bible to indicate where his fealty lay.

 

Yglesias:

 

The symbolism of the oath-on-bible is interesting. In some respects, you can take it as symbolizing the fact that even though in our system “no one is above the law,” including the president, in practice it’s actually extremely difficult to fully hold the chief executive to that standard. We’re putting our faith in the idea that the person occupying that office to be guided by the higher law, God’s law. It makes a certain amount of sense but I can’t help but feel that the faith is often misplaced.

 

Hey, Matt, get over it. John Quincy Adams had it right – and these days he’d be stoned to death on Fox News. But Obama did say non-believers are okay by him. There’s going to a be a lot to figure out in the coming years.

 

And like at the new job, where some kinds of kidding around are admired, and other kinds appalling, and you’d better figure out which is which. You have to deal with the new guy at the top. And that’s hard now, or so says Chris Rock:

 

Obama is just one of those guys, you know, like Will Smith. There’s no Will Smith jokes. There’s no Brad Pitt jokes. You know, what are you going to say? “Ooh, you used to have sex with Jennifer Anniston. Now you have sex with Angelina Jolie. You’re such a loser.” What do you say? “Ooh, your movies are big. You make $20 million.” There’s nothing to say about Brad Pitt. …

 

With Obama it’s like “Ooh, you’re young and virile and you’ve got a beautiful wife and kids. You’re the first African-American president.” You know, what do you say?

 

Yep, that’s a problem.

 

And everyone is scrambling. All sorts of conservatives like Jim DeMint have now decided that they’re noble freedom fighters saving the world from the grip of socialism, or something:

 

“We have to have a remnant of the Republican Party who are recognizable as freedom fighters,” Mr. DeMint said. “What I’m looking to do as a conservative leader in the Senate is to identify those Republicans, and even some Democrats, and put together a consensus of people who can help stop this slide toward socialism.”

 

Okay, it’s that movie, Red Dawn – “It is the dawn of World War III. In mid-western America, a group of teenagers bands together to defend their town, and their country, from invading Soviet forces.” Yeah, right.

 

And the small stuff just keeps getting more unsettling:

 

A photo of President Obama in the Oval Office this morning making phone calls to foreign leaders is especially interesting because it’s clear he’s instituted a new dress code: The new president is not wearing a suit jacket.

 

It was a rule during the Bush administration that no one ever enter the Oval Office without a jacket.

 

The unstated dress-code is something you need to know!

 

And there’s this:

 

Stacy Kerr from Speaker Pelosi’s office was standing by the coat rack, trying to stay out of the way, when the congressional leadership was greeting then-President Bush on his arrival at the Capitol. All of a sudden, the President came over, holding his coat. When Stacy realized no one was taking his coat, she asked, “Mr. President, may I take your coat for you?” He responded: “No, thanks. I’m tryin’ to learn to do things myself.”

 

Damn, the hardest thing is always the implicit hierarchy, who talks to whom, and how. That’s changed too.

 

Sure there are all sort of big changes coming – closing Gitmo, no more torture, no lobbyists allowed, science people in the science jobs, competent lawyers and not Jesus people in the Justice Department, and all the rest. But it’s the small stuff that is really making Washington sweat. And it’s a good thing.

 

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Getting Used to Obama, Obama and the Washington Establishment, Obama's Family, Race and America, Race and Politics, Religion and Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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