The Classiest of Class Acts

It was a long time ago – October 2008 – and things were spinning out of control for John McCain. Some of that was Sarah Palin – a rabble-rouser by instinct and gleefully unaware of how dangerous that could be. She’d rip into Obama. Someone in the crowd would shout “Kill him!”

She’d smile – but when someone shouted that when McCain laid into Obama, McCain got that subtle look of panic on his face. He couldn’t hide it. This wasn’t the campaign he had wanted to run – and John Lewis had been on CNN wondering what the hell McCain and Palin thought they were doing. Lewis had marched across that bridge in Selma and had been nearly beaten to death. Now he was a congressman, but he remembered. McCain remembered. McCain wasn’t going to lead a lynch mob, and he wasn’t going to lose this election because people had come to see him as a racist asshole leading a lynch mob. He was decent man, damn it. And that led to this:

Fearing the raw and at times angry emotions of his supporters may damage his campaign, John McCain on Friday urged them to tone down their increasingly personal denunciations of Barack Obama, including one woman who said she had heard that the Democrat was “an Arab.”

Each time he tried to cool the crowd he was rewarded with a round of boos.

“I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States,” McCain told a supporter at a town hall meeting in Minnesota who said he was “scared” of the prospect of an Obama presidency and of who the Democrat would appoint to the Supreme Court.

“Come on, John!” one audience member yelled out as the Republican crowd expressed dismay at their nominee. Others yelled “liar,” and “terrorist,” referring to Obama.

Something had to be done, so McCain did something:

McCain passed his wireless microphone to one woman who said, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not uh – he’s an Arab. He’s not -” before McCain retook the microphone and replied:

“No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that’s what this campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].”

The crowd went silent. Then there was a bit of scattered applause – not much amid the predictable booing, but enough to begin to reverse things. The video of that exchange was all over the news for weeks. McCain was a decent man. So was Obama. Case closed.

McCain lost anyway, but he saved his soul – and yes, Donald Trump went the other way with Hillary Clinton. There were the endless chants – “Lock her up!”

Trump led those. Michael Flynn led those at the convention – but there were few that said she should be taken out back and shot. The Trump campaign quickly distanced itself from such folks, but that was a matter of degree. Hillary was evil – disgusting – a traitor – whatever. Trump wasn’t going to save his soul. Perhaps he had none. Perhaps that’s what people liked about him.

Those questions can’t be answered, but McCain had been right. Obama is a decent family man and citizen. He proved that over eight years. He had to prove that again and again, but he proved it, and now that he’s leaving, many are beginning to realize how unusual that was, and one of those is Charles Blow:

Whether you have approved of the Obama presidency as a matter of policy or not, it is impossible to argue that Obama was not a man of principle. Whether you agree with individual decisions or the content of his rhetoric, it is impossible to argue that he did not conduct himself with dignity and respect and that he did not lead the country with those values as a guiding light.

I have not always agreed with the president’s positions or tactics, and this feels normal to me. Freethinking people are bound to disagree occasionally, even if a vast majority of their values align.

I was particularly frustrated with what I believed was his misreading and underestimation of the intensity of the opposition he faced, and his approach of being a gentleman soldier in a guerrilla war. I was harsh in my critique; some would say too harsh. In 2009, I wrote: “The president wears outrage like another man’s suit. It doesn’t quite fit.” In 2011, I called him “a robotic Sustainer-in-Chief.”

But none of those differences in opinions about strategy injured in any way my profound respect for the characteristics of the man we came to take for granted: bracingly smart, exceptionally well educated, literate in the grand tradition of the great men of letters. He was scholarly, erudite, well read and an adroit writer.

And he was an orator for the ages. We got so used to elegant, sometimes masterly speechifying, that I will admit I sometimes tuned it out. We had an abundance of riches in that regard.

We won’t see that again:

Listening to the president’s farewell address, I was hit with the force of a brawler that the decency and dignity, the solemnity and splendor, the loftiness and literacy that Obama brought to the office was extraordinary and anomalous, the kind of thing that each generation may only hope to have in a president.

In a way, it was the small things, the way he made reference to Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in his discussion of race relations in this country. It was the ease of confidence that comes from having read the book and not just the speechwriter’s script.

That made me think of the two presidents who will bracket Obama: George W. Bush, who Karl Rove claims was a voracious reader, but whose articulation and disposition betrayed a man struggling for intellectual adequacy, and Donald Trump, a man who comes across as possessing more anger than acumen and whose ghostwriter said of him: “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.”

Now add this:

Even more impressive is Obama’s skill for raising and parsing delicate issues like race, so that all of the people involved feel respected and represented, so that all participants in the debate feel that they have been truly heard and seen.

He hasn’t always gotten this right. No human being has always gotten everything right. Holding him to that impossible standard hardly seems fair. But he started from a very strong and respectable position and has grown even more steady and sure from there.

So as the end of his presidency draws close, America is confronted with the reality of what is being lost.

Eight years have passed. McCain had been more that right. Sarah Palin has become an increasingly obscure parody of herself, and, as Eugene Robinson notes, Obama became the unlikely model of a decent family man:

Hold on to one image from President Obama’s farewell address: the president using his handkerchief to wipe a tear from his eye as he thanked Michelle Obama for her grace and forbearance.

The first lady was holding back tears, too, as was her daughter Malia. Politics aside, it was a touching moment in the life of a family we have come to know so well – one of countless such moments, and images, that have changed this nation forever.

Obama wasn’t an Arab, or an angry black man, or a terrorist, and he proved it:

The White House is really a glass house, and for eight years we have watched the Obamas live their lives in full public view. We’ve seen a president age, his hair graying and his once-unlined face developing a wrinkle here, a furrow there. We’ve seen a first lady change hairstyles and model an array of designer gowns. We’ve seen two little girls grow into young women.

We’ve seen it all before – except that we’ve never seen an African American family in these roles. Images of the Obamas performing the duties of the first family are indelible, and I believe they will be one of the administration’s most important and lasting legacies.

This goes beyond the speeches and all the rest:

Visuals are uniquely powerful. They rearrange and reorient our thinking in ways that are difficult to describe or even comprehend. They penetrate to our deepest levels of consciousness without being attenuated by the filter of language; they retain their specificity, their emotional sharp edges. They can make us laugh, cry, rage and weep without us quite knowing why.

For eight years we have had the privilege of seeing a black family live in the White House. I still find that hard to believe.

We watched as the president, the first lady, Malia and Sasha walked across the South Lawn to board Marine One. We watched the president playing with the family dog, Bo. We watched Michelle Obama working in her garden. Those who live in Washington might have glimpsed the girls stopping by McDonald’s on their way home from school, or the president and first lady having a date night at one of their favorite restaurants.

We saw the Obamas host glittering state dinners. We saw them walk down the stairs of Air Force One onto red-carpeted tarmacs around the world. We saw President Obama channel the pride of the nation at moments of triumph, as when he announced the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And we saw him become a conduit for our despair after the Newtown school massacre, the Charleston church killings and so many other senseless acts of gun violence.

Given this country’s history of slavery and discrimination, the first black family to serve as first family had to be like a fortress, strong and unassailable. In that sense the Obamas were from central casting – so impeccable in education, elocution and etiquette that even the president’s harshest political critics spoke of them as a family with genuine admiration.

That’s because Obama proved McCain right:

As a rule, Obama went upstairs to the residence every evening so the family could have dinner together. Then he would go back to work for a while before bedtime.

As Obama noted Tuesday night, one of his wife’s great accomplishments was opening the doors of the White House as wide as possible to the American people. Every December, she and the president put themselves through a long march of holiday parties, including two for the media. At the end of the evening, having shaken hundreds of hands and posed for hundreds of smiling pictures, any normal human beings would have been homicidal, suicidal or both. But the Obamas were unfailingly sunny and gracious, making every single guest feel welcome in their home.

In their time in the White House, the Obama family expanded this nation’s idea of what it can achieve. They gave us vivid images that will never fade. We owe them heartfelt thanks for being, at all times, the classiest of class acts.

Donald Trump would disagree. He’d say that he’s the classiest of class acts – but the vacuous and rather dim third trophy wife and the Manhattan penthouse, atop his personal skyscraper, with the gold-plated toilets and gold-plated everything else, and his billions, seems like compensation for being a crude and nasty and rather ignorant man. That smells like overcompensation – or it just smells. Some have said he’s a poor man’s idea of a rich man. There are a lot of rubes in the world.

Charles Krauthammer, who loathes Obama – for his policies and for insisting that government should do what governments have no business doing – has sniffed out Trump:

There are Trump’s own instincts and inclinations, a thirst for attention that leads to hyperactivity. His need to dominate every news cycle feeds an almost compulsive tweet habit. It has placed him just about continuously at the center of the national conversation and not always to his benefit.

Trump simply can’t resist playground pushback. His tweets gave Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes screed priceless publicity. His mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger for bad “Apprentice” ratings – compared with “the ratings machine, DJT” – made Trump look small and Arnold (almost) sympathetic.

Nor is this behavior likely to change after the inauguration. It’s part of Trump’s character. Nothing negative goes unanswered because, for Trump, an unanswered slight has the air of concession or surrender.

Finally, it’s his chronic indiscipline, his jumping randomly from one subject to another without rhyme, reason or larger strategy. In a week packed with confirmation hearings and Russian hacking allegations, what was he doing meeting with Robert Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist pushing the thoroughly discredited idea that vaccines cause autism?

That, oddly enough, is dispositive:

We know from way back during the Republican debates that Trump himself has dabbled in this dubious territory. One could, however, write it off as one of many campaign oddities that would surely fade away. Not so, apparently.

This is not good. The idea that vaccines cause autism originally arose in a 1998 paper in the medical journal the Lancet that was later found to be fraudulent and had to be retracted. Indeed, the lead researcher acted so egregiously that he was stripped of his medical license.

Kennedy says that Trump asked him to chair a commission about vaccine safety. While denying that, the transition team does say that the commission idea remains open. Either way, the damage is done. The anti-vaccine fanatics seek any validation. This indirect endorsement from Trump is immensely harmful. Vaccination has prevented more childhood suffering and death than any other measure in history.

Dead kids do matter, so there’s something terribly wrong here:

With so many issues pressing, why even go there?

The vaccination issue was merely an exclamation point on the scatter-brained randomness of the Trump transition. All of which contributes to the harried, almost wearying feeling that we are already well into the Trump presidency.

There’s the classiest of class acts, and then there’s scatter-brained randomness. America is now in transition from the one to the other, and another conservative, Michael Gerson offers an example of this scatter-brained randomness:

On the first day of his presidency, Donald Trump will face a serious governing challenge of his own creation.

He has promised a tax cut that will, by one estimate, reduce federal revenue by $7 trillion over 10 years. He has promised an infrastructure initiative that may cost an additional trillion. He has promised to rebuild the military. He has effectively promised not to make changes in Social Security and Medicare. And he has promised to move swiftly toward a balanced federal budget.

Taken together, these things can’t be taken together. Trump has made a series of pledges that can’t be reconciled. If he knew this during the campaign, he is cynical. If he is only finding out now, he is benighted. In either case, something has to give.

That can’t be avoided:

Under the law, Trump has until Feb. 6 to submit a budget to Congress. He can ask for an extension but not an exemption.

A new president’s first speech to a joint session of Congress is less a State of the Union address than a statement of budget priorities. And if the president’s party controls both houses of Congress (as Barack Obama’s did at the start of his presidency), many of the proposals we hear on that night will become laws. Rather than being dead on arrival, the Trump budget will be alive…

Yes, but it might as well be dead:

Finishing the budget will require a series of major decisions, beginning with what “replace” means in the “repeal and replace” of the Affordable Care Act. Anything involving a sufficient, refundable tax credit to buy private insurance (a feature of many Republican plans) is not cheap. The primary goal of most Republican health-care policy wonks is not to save money. It is to retain the gains of Obamacare – including insurance coverage for an additional 20 million people – without overregulating the health-care sector and destabilizing insurance markets – and to make the purchase of health insurance by younger people attractive rather than compulsory.

This also can’t be done, so there’s worry:

House Republican leaders attempted to quell concerns of a skittish rank and file before a key vote Friday to begin unwinding the Affordable Care Act.

The assurances came after lawmakers across the GOP’s ideological divides sounded anxious notes this week about advancing legislation that would repeal Obamacare without firm plans for its replacement.

“We just want more specifics,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday. “We need to know what we’re going to replace it with.” Meadows said he was personally undecided on his vote Friday and that other caucus members were leaning toward no.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, said members of that caucus have “serious reservations” about starting the process without replacement plans spelled out. “We’d like to have this conversation prior to the repeal vote,” he said.

Those jitters hint at a rocky road ahead as Republicans start trying to fulfill a long-standing campaign promise. They have forced GOP leaders to reassure lawmakers that they will not move precipitously and open Republicans to charges they threw the health-care system into chaos.

These Republicans seem to have decided that they actually don’t like scatter-brained randomness at all, even if it’s downplayed:

Behind the scenes, Republican leaders are urging lawmakers to look at this week’s votes as mere procedural formalities. But some rank-and-file members remain nervous about voting to start a process they might not be able to stop.

Michael Gerson explains the problem here:

Members of Congress looking for leadership from the new administration have (at least) two problems.

First, the congealing organizational chart of the Trump administration is flat and (so far) dysfunctional. A number of people have been given the highest level of White House jobs without a clear indication of who is in charge. By some accounts, Trump likes this sort of management chaos around him. But it is not conducive to policy creation.

Some senior Trump advisers have gone public to influence the policy process – or perhaps to create the impression that a process actually exists. Kellyanne Conway, for example, recently said, “We don’t want anyone who currently has insurance to not have insurance.” That type of assurance is difficult to make, because Trumpcare doesn’t seem to exist.

Second, Trump himself is unfocused and erratic. He is dismissively impatient with policy meetings. He wants others to sweat the details, allowing him to focus on bigger things – such as Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe remarks. This looks less like delegation than a vacuum. How do you build a decision-making structure around a vacuum without inviting a constant bitter staff-struggle to fill it? Is incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus capable of taking control of access to Trump and building an orderly policy process?

He may have to do that:

To some extent, every presidential transition is chaotic. But not every incoming administration fires its initial transition team after winning and essentially starts over. Or has a president-elect who seems to view public policy as a distraction from his social media calling. It is not too late for a structure to emerge that is capable of making sound decisions and choices. But it would take a president-elect who wants it to happen.

We don’t have one of those. We had one of those – a decent family man and citizen. John McCain said so back in 2008 – “a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States” – and the guy turned out to be the classiest of class acts. America is now being confronted with the reality of what is being lost – or maybe what we have thrown away.

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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.
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