Three little towns on summer nights

I have spent part of the evening watching some of the many videos on the interweb of the soaring words of Barack Obama most of which are set to music. The songs are not overtly associated with the campaign in the old fashioned sense; rather, in an almost nineteenth-century way, they represent a mix of bandwagon cupidity and desperate, yearning and somewhat sentimental hope.

Maybe its that--and a typically generous indulgence of my Kennedyphilia from my friend Neil Clark--that made me think of two june nights and three little villages tonight.

One little village is Kogelo, in Kenya. The Kenya Times reports that there was much rejoicing there last night. There was, in fact, much rejoicing across Kenya. Mama Sarah, a great woman of the village--Mrs Sarah Hussein Obama to show her the respect she is due--is deeply proud of her grandson, as you might expect a grandmother to be. Since Africa retains a different and often higher model of human dignity than the west, she has declined to spill all her immediate thoughts to the press (or a blog), but it is fairly clear that she is proud.

She isn't the only one. The President and the Prime Minister--bitter rivals--have sent congratulations westwards, and an Anglican Bishop has blessed the United States. That in itself tells you something is different over there; in England, most of the Anglican establishment would be breathing fast into their mitres at the thought.

The news of Obama for Kenyans comes as a distraction and a relief. The Kenya news world network, for instance, has ten headline stories. Only one is in any way good. One is of the effect of the global food crisis on Kenya; one is of the food crisis in Ethiopia, which threatens over four million people; another of the worst crisis of the past ten years in Somalia.

Disasters move in centuries in Europe; the last plague, the last cholera epidemic, the last era of wars, the last burned cities. In Africa, death's long limbs and joints are more supple and loose. So Obama's news is a relief.

In another little village forty years ago, other families thought of some putative connection to a family that left a very long time before. Dunganstown, in Wexford has a homestead there today in memory of the grandfather of the Kennedys. Forty years ago tomorrow, the best hope of avoiding the senseless politics, waste, and narcissistic culture wars that went on to engulf America and create a super-armed stupidocracy was gunned down, though he fought for life for another day and a half.

As my one reader will know, I am drawn to lazy cliches first put about by Theodore White about the Kennedys as Graachi. I admire the remembered giants of the American sixties, Robert, Martin, Malcolm and John, and some of the more occluded ones. Rural Ireland forty years ago was not, as far as I can tell from my family, all that different from Kenyan townlands and homesteads now, and it's odd that Kenya's songs should raise forty years to the day that Irish laments seemed apposite.

The third little town I am thinking of tonight is Plains, Georgia. Jimmy Carter was an enormously frustrating, stubborn president. In 1980, he bore the brunt of the blame for a world crisis that was beyond his powers and for the botched legacy of thirty years of interference and clandestine diplomacy in Iraq and Iran. He was also demonised for attempting to take a man whom I view as a sort of prophetic voice--Christopher Lasch--seriously.

In 1979, over June and July, Jimmy Carter called for a new, more intelligent politics. He was more or less told where to go and his speech was one of the final incentives for a divisive primary challenge by Edward Kennedy that the Senator almost won.

As a southern governor, armed with the Rocky tune and a likeness to John Kennedy that diverted people from his past tacking against Lester Maddox and Carl Sanders in Georgia, Carter had risen on the back of caucuses and primaries from relative obscurity in 1976. In a far too plain and almost graceless way in the summer three years later, he tried to tell Americans that they could not exist without limits. He sought a combination of hope and realism, and until recently was the only senior American politician to have said this sort of thing;

"...In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose...."

Ronald Reagan listened, and a year later offered voters a sort of hope; Carter demanded a more sophisticated and I suspect slightly more dour response, suited to the submarine engineer he had once been. Reagan's solution won, but the deficits, spending and consumption that resulted are now coming home to roost.

Today, oil prices are rising inexorably, aided by a bubble but basically because the oil is running out and resupply at viable prices is becoming more and more difficult. Food prices, for intimately connected reasons, are rising. Proposals to increase world meat production threaten to resurrect the mad cow disease threat by feeding herbivores meat. Wars rage across the arcs of instability, and many are wars of choice. Millions of angry, frustrated young men, some of whom have given in to religious death cults, watch ageing and confused western fortresses and need hope and sense from the world's leaders. We stand on the edge of a new great depression, which we can avoid only by the greatest of exertions.

So I'm very struck tonight that the last president to deal with the sort of things that the next will have to cope with, has endorsed Barack Obama, who may be the next one.

This will doubtless be seen as a bad thing, because of the memory of Carter administration incompetence, but Jimmy Carter convinced tens of millions of Americans to vote for him twice and is seen widely as a man who wants to do good, even if he is over-trusting and slightly rigid in his righteousness. In the summer twenty nine years ago, he plotted to try and uplift and reconnect American debates, and instead got into terrible trouble for spreading news of a 'crisis of confidence'.

Jimmy Carter also talked some sense about the idea of an Obama-Clinton ticket. Unity tickets almost never work. Reagan turned down Ford in 1976, when one was mooted, and was right to do so even if he did pick up Bush (and Howard Baker) in 1980. John Kennedy picked up Lyndon Johnson in 1960, rather than Terry Sanford or Stuart Symington, and spent his presidency regretting it. I can at a stretch thing of one that worked--Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin in 1860. But Lincoln-Johnson was a disaster. If America wants to repeat the Adams-Jefferson nonsense, or any variation of that above, he should pick Hillary. Otherwise, he should stay away from her and her mind games.

Three small places; three June nights separated over forty years.

The painting at the top of this blog is a representation of the Damascus Road in Virginia in 1937, by Mary Elizabeth Helvey Mitchell.


Titilayo said…
Interesting post...but what about all the pressure that Obama should include Hilliary on his ticket? And what about all the angry Hillary supporters? You think they would come around and vote for Obama. I've heard many (mostly women) say that if she isn't on the ticket that they won't vote for Obama. What strategies have other presidents taken to ease the public into their pick of a VP candidate?
Martin Meenagh said…
Thanks for the comment Titilayo. I think that there are various strategies that Obama could adopt.

When the constitution was changed after the first two elections to allow running mates, Jefferson ensured that the Vice-presidential office was one for people who were essentially props or egional stooges. The big job for the first hundred and twenty years or so of the republic was Secretary of State. For many, it was the route to the presidency in fact, and a premiership office in its own right.
Obama's already hinted at drawing rivals into the cabinet--Biden as Secretary of State, Edwards as A-g, and so on; indeed, he used a direct Lincoln analogy the other day. Hillary could be a sort of William Seward for healthcare in the cabinet. That would also allow Obama to stitch up a workable healthcare deal in a senate she wasn't in, and would allow other senators to agree without wondering if she was using it as the path to the majority leadership. I think Hillary wouldn't take the job, so reaching out to conciliate her supporters by hinting of a cabinet post probably wouldn't work.

A second way people have used the Veep selection process (the word comes from Alben Barkley's grandchildren wondering what V-P meant in 1948) would be to acclimatise the public to their style and wishes by parading beauty candidates for different constituencies. That's what McCain is doing right now. The problem is that McCain is keen to appease a fissile coalition; Obama will have to splice together a bisected one. Teasing Hillary is not a way to go.

Obama could do what has more or less stopped happening since the debacle with Eagleton in 72, and certainly since Reagan went to Philadelphia in 76 with a promise of a bolted-on Liberal (Schweiker of Pennsylvania) as a Veep if he won, which he didnt, and that is leave the choice to the convention. I think that would be mad. He'd be stampeded as LBJ almost was in 64, and would run the risk of looking as silly as Stevenson in 56.

So Obama is going to have to choose someone who either complements him, or emphasises his appeal. A neat regional choice won't work since I think regional politics have broken down, and simple interest-group politics are complicated. For instance, Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas is a catholic who believes in abortion as far as I can tell; that's a ready made controversy which can't be properly answered if Bishops refuse her communion and which will get Obama in religious trouble again. If McCain picks Rice or Governor Palin in Alaska, Obama will probably have to abandon any attempt to win the woman's vote and just dare women to vote for McCain whilst attempting to get men to vote for a working man's candidate. I'm not sure the women are there he could substitute for Hillary or Sebelius, you see. Jennifer Granholm would be an obvious substitute for sebelius (and an excellent candidate despite the Michigan primary mess), but she is foreign born and cannot run, and Napolitano is, though highly reliable, a bit too safe for a campaign of change. She could be useful in the west, though.

Jim Webb is the guns n ammo favourite at the minute, and ticks boxes, but he's said embarassing things in the past; Joe Biden is probably out; Sam Nunn is a drawling Lieberman. Mark Warner is otherwise engaged and Michael Bloomberg is unmarried, rich, and a centrist republican (though possibly a Treasury Secretary candidate). How about ray Mabus, or someone with a slightly higher profile?

Easing the public in used to be about easing the press in. It isn't anymore, as Obama's sophisticated web-and-cable effort has proved. I think what he will do is ease people into the process, and have a smooth, regular and clear sequence of selection. If he is pressured into accepting Hillary because emotions are overheated and she fancies her chances of him disappearing, I think he would be making a very bad mistake, but I may be wrong. My basic approach would be that people who are passionate democrats until they go home and sulk may well sulk anyway, and it's as likely that an Obama-Clinton ticket couldn't be eased into the public in any clean-minded way.

Glad you are still reading my blog by the way--sorry for the long reply, and I hope all is well!

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