It’s almost as if it was planned. May Day, Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reviewed Janny Scott’s new book A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother – Scott used to work for the Los Angeles Times. And the same day, the New York Times Magazine featured an excerpt from this new biography of the mother – and that would be Stanley Ann Dunham. Scott most recently worked for the New York Times. And then Scott was being interviewed everywhere, and article after article followed.
But of course this was background stuff. Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, was quiet, and brilliant, and no one really knew her very well – and she liked it that way. She was a private person, and thus, given the news cycle these days, damned boring. So the story should have faded quickly – the stuff of footnotes.
Yes, Dunham moved with her six-year-old son Barack to Indonesia in 1967 to live with her new husband – Barack Obama Sr. had cut out soon after the kid was born. But the New York Times’ excerpt is important – covering those four years in Indonesia, the future president from six to ten, in the formative years. One of Dunham’s closest Indonesian friends says of that time that “this was where Barack learned to be cool.”
It’s an Indonesian thing, having to do with that culture’s strong emphasis on self-control and poise. It’s a different world. Obama, as a child in Indonesia, was expected to tolerate and ignore racist taunts from his classmates – rather than respond – if he wanted them to stop. Dunham’s closest Indonesian friend explained it this way – “If you get mad and react, you lose. If you learn to laugh and take it without any reaction, you win.”
That’s an odd way to raise a kid. We tell our kids to stand up for themselves, to take no crap from anyone, to be proud – to fight back. Beat the snot out of a bully and he’ll bully you no more. To shrug and walk away, as if the bully is insignificant – or just smile at him to show you find him just plain stupid – is cowardly. No, you fight back, and if you end up pushing his face in the mud, all the better.
Apparently this is not the case in Indonesia. There the idea is to make the bully seem stupid, in public, where everyone can see that stupidity, by being cool, and even gracious, and generally by being far better at everything – sports or grades or whatever – so everyone sees the other guy is a jerk. It’s very un-American – we respond to every insult and every possible insult, even if not intended – even insignificant stuff from people who don’t matter to us in the least – with fists up. It’s a matter of pride. Where Obama was growing up that would be considered pathetic insecurity, not pride – the stuff of losers. You defeat your enemies, and win, by letting them sputter and rage, and waiting, smiling sardonically. You know your stuff, you know yourself, and you’ve made yourself awesome at what you do. You can wait. They’ll be gone soon enough. Hillary Clinton found that out in the primaries, and John McCain found that out in the general election.
Still this “cool” doesn’t sit well here, and you can see how this plays out. Obama has been hammered by the right for the last two years for what they see as his refusal to embrace American Exceptionalism – why does he never say we’re the best, over and over, and rub other nations’ faces in it? But his position seems to be that he need not say that – it’s obvious we are the best at most everything and there’s no point in bragging. Just look at what we do, and note we do seem to be the only superpower left – with the largest economy in earth, and the kind of system where everyone still wants to come here. Everyone knows this. What kind of insecure jerk would go on and on about it?
And there’s the matter of foreign policy. Teddy Roosevelt used talk about speaking softly but carrying a big stick. We had eight years of the opposite – boast and brag and threats – but when we got out the big stick we just used it badly. Obama went the other way – say little, do the necessary things, and just get the job done. Bush said we’d get Osama bin Laden, dead or alive. Bush said lots of things. Obama said little about Osama bin Laden. He just got the job done. And when he announced bin Laden was dead, he didn’t crow about it – it had to be done, it was the right thing to do, the guys who pulled it off were great, and an important and good thing had been done, finally. And then without smiling he walked off. Actions speak louder than words. It was stunning. Or people were stunned. Maybe he learned all that as a kid in Indonesia.
But then it got more stunning:
In an interview with Steve Kroft for this Sunday’s “60 Minutes” conducted today, President Obama said he won’t release post-mortem images of Osama bin Laden taken to prove his death.
“It is important to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool,” said the president.
“We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies,” Mr. Obama added. “The fact of the matter is, this is somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received.”
The guy is dead. He will remain dead. There’s no need to stir the pot:
In explaining his choice not to release the photo, Mr. Obama said that “we don’t need to spike the football.” He said that “given the graphic nature of these photos it would create a national security risk.”
You defeat your enemies, and win, by letting them sputter and rage, and waiting – they’ll be gone soon enough:
When Kroft noted that there are people in Pakistan and elsewhere who believe bin Laden is still alive, the president said “we are monitoring worldwide reaction.”
“There is no doubt that Osama bin Laden is dead,” he said. “Certainly there is no doubt among al Qaeda members that he is dead. So we don’t think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference.”
“There are going to be some folks who deny it,” he added. “The fact of the matter is, you will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again.”
Even a few Republicans thought this made sense:
Republican House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said earlier in the day that the Obama administration should not release the gruesome post-mortem images, saying it could complicate the job for American troops overseas. Rogers told CBS News he has seen a post-mortem photo.
“The risks of release outweigh the benefits,” Rogers said. “Conspiracy theorists around the world will just claim the photos are doctored anyway, and there is a real risk that releasing the photos will only serve to inflame public opinion in the Middle East.”
“Imagine how the American people would react if Al Qaeda killed one of our troops or military leaders, and put photos of the body on the Internet,” Rogers continued. “Osama bin Laden is not a trophy – he is dead and let’s now focus on continuing the fight until Al Qaeda has been eliminated.”
But the base didn’t agree, as Repair Man Jack at RedState says this:
This, I believe is exactly the wrong approach. Mr. Bin Laden’s gruesome death photo needs to be widely distributed as an object lesson. …
The so-called Arab Street will detest The United States of America for having great power, and not being an Islamic Theocracy. We could have sat around drinking beers while OBL’s remains were run through a wood-chipper. It wouldn’t have made the Islamic Brotherhood think much less of Lady Liberty than they already do. These people could care less about how well we learned manners at Junior Cotillion.
The US position on Bin Laden’s shooting should be that of an epitaph that was written on a grave on The Dodge City, Kansas Boot Hill. “He kept on asking for it until he got it!” Mr. Obama should man up and spike that ball with Presidential authority.
Repair Man Jack wasn’t raised in Jakarta.
And Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post sees a pattern:
In the days since the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama has adopted a simple strategy: Be Big. Big as in magnanimous. Big as in bipartisan (or, better yet, nonpartisan). Big as in inclusive. And, if past history is any guide, being big is a recipe for political success.
And he lines up the elements – 1) Obama’s speech announcing the death of bin Laden “was somber and short – devoid of triumphalism or credit-taking” and 2) Obama made an appeal to a shared American value system saying “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies. We don’t need to spike the football.” And then Obama invited former President George W. Bush to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at Ground Zero (Bush declined) and then took a pass on making remarks at the event himself – he’s not going to diminish the event by crowing about getting the bad guy. That will not bring anyone back.
Cillizza is impressed:
When viewed cumulatively the overriding intent of these decisions is to cast Obama as the sort of leader Americans tell pollsters they want – thoughtful, careful and ultimately guided by the good of the country as opposed to any sort of political agenda.
(Worth noting: Even in the release of his long-form birth certificate – a decidedly small moment, Obama sought to make the case for bigness; “we do not have time for this kind of silliness,” Obama said at the time.)
History suggests that presidents succeed best when they are viewed as big figures who rise above the daily bump and grind of the political world in order to best keep an eye on the long view.
He argues that was Ronald Reagan’s great gift. The current Republican-midgets-who-would-be-Reagan don’t seem to get it.
But now we have the new Sarah Palin tweet:
Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction. No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama. It’s part of the mission.
And at salon.com Joan Walsh is aghast:
Who does Palin think is “pussy-footing” around? The president? Navy SEALs? In what world does the quitter from Wasilla get to determine “it’s part of the mission”? No world we live in, thank God.
And there’s just common sense:
Releasing the photos won’t silence the right-wing fringe that makes up Palin’s base. Let’s all remember: If not for the successful bin Laden operation, we’d likely still be trying to swat down lunatic claims that the president’s long-form birth certificate was a forgery. Obama silenced those doubters (for now, anyway) by decisively changing the subject on Sunday. The ultra-right fringe that’s committed to believing the president is illegitimate – in every way; aided and abetted by Palin – can’t be satisfied by proof.
We still have people who don’t believe Flight 93 went down in Shanksville, Pa., on 9/11, and who say the twin towers came down due to an explosion, not the two planes flown like missiles into their upper floors. As Obama joked Saturday night, people still believe the 1969 moon landing was faked…. At the same time, a graphic photo of a dead bin Laden immediately creates an image of martyrdom for his longtime followers – and maybe some new ones. People have argued that the U.S. showed proof of the death of Saddam Hussein and his sons, as well as other al-Qaida leaders and functionaries who’ve been killed. But the face of bin Laden is iconic, his creepy charisma part of his recruiting power. There’s no reason to hand his supporters a ready-made protest sign.
Of course, there are transparency reasons for eventually releasing the bin Laden photos and other photographic evidence of controversial U.S. operations that have resulted in casualties on our many foreign battlefields. And it’s possible that human rights groups will eventually succeed in making such photos public, including those of bin Laden. That’s a different argument. For now, under pressure by even some in his administration who think a photo might put to rest doubts that bin Laden is dead, Obama is making the right choice.
And Andrew Sullivan circles back to this:
I’m conflicted here but think the president’s position is, in the end, motivated by exactly the right reasons: “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”
We celebrate not the death of an individual as such but the blow to his wicked organization, and some closure and justice after his multiple mass murders. To put his head on a digital spike and display his mangled head is, indeed, not the Western way. We are better than that.
Palin seems to be arguing, oddly, for historical tradition. As a warning you put the heads of the enemy on a pike at the gates. Anyone who drops by knows not to mess with you. Yes, it’s medieval and vaguely Norse, but it has been done. Just imagine bin Laden’s head on a pike at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Now THAT would send a message. And that seems to be the general Palin idea here.
But Sullivan isn’t buying it:
How do I square this with my usual unsparing policy of airing all and every image of war? Because this is a named individual and a victim of the war he waged, and we do not display these things like scalps on a wall. Seeing his face does not bring home to us anything we don’t already know. It offers no insight into the horrors of war and violates some core Geneva notions of the dignity of captives and corpses.
This is a special case – it seems to me – for restraint as the flipside of a just war. We don’t torture and we respect the human dignity of even our worst enemies. This is partly what we fought for – to reverse the barbarism of al Qaeda, not reflect it. We failed for years. We are now beginning to succeed. The right way.
Yeah, yeah – we don’t torture and we respect the human dignity of even our worst enemies. But many argue that the whole point of waterboarding, of what we now just say was torture, was to send a message. We got no good information from torture, but that was probably never the intention anyway. The idea was to let the world know that we do torture, even the wrong people, and sometimes they die – deal with it. It was to say we’re serious. If others know that we’ll be safe. Don’t mess with us. And maybe that was the point of the Abu Ghraib photos too – they were meant to get out – don’t mess with us. The bin Laden corpse photos would serve the same purpose. We could rub people’s noses in the whole business. Mess with us and you’ll end up like this. And many an evangelical Christian megachurch could mount a blow-up of the Osama corpse photo – half the head blown away – above the altar. Don’t mess with the Prince of Peace.
The kid who spent four early years in Indonesia just doesn’t seem to think like that. We tell our kids to stand up for themselves, to take no crap from anyone, to be proud – to fight back. Beat the snot out of a bully and he’ll bully you no more. To shrug and walk away, as if the bully is insignificant – or just smile at him to show you find him just plain stupid – is cowardly. No, you fight back – be proud. No wonder so many have a problem with a guy who just doesn’t think that way. It seems self-confidence, poise and basic decency – and restraint – are just part of who he turned out to be.
Well, we did decide to give that a go. Now we have to deal with how uncomfortable that makes us feel.