Hail to the new chief

Den­nis Alt­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ANUM­BER of books have set the stan­dard for cov­er­age of US pres­i­den­tial elec­tions: Theodore White’s The Mak­ing of the Pres­i­dent , about the elec­tion of Kennedy in 1960; Nor­man Mailer’s Mi­ami and the Siege of Chicago , about the tu­mul­tuous cam­paigns of 1968; and Hunter S. Thomp­son’s Fear and Loathing on the Cam­paign Trail in 1972.

Al­ready book­shops have dis­play racks for books about Obama’s elec­tion and, for the first time, an in­com­ing Pres­i­dent’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy — Dreams From My Fa­ther — is the best read around. Oblig­a­tory back­ground read­ing in­cludes Doris Good­win’s study of Abra­ham Lin­coln, which ap­pears to have in­flu­enced both Obama and the present crop of pun­dits, who see in Lin­coln a model for bring­ing to­gether a di­vided na­tion and restor­ing moral­ity rather than sel­f­righ­teous­ness to pol­i­tics.

No pre­vi­ous elec­tion stirred such in­ter­est over­seas and Guy Run­dle’s re­ports from the US dur­ing much of last year pro­vided a par­tic­u­larly Aus­tralian take on the cam­paigns. Usu­ally it is a mis­take to re­pub­lish old news­pa­per col­umns, but Run­dle’s first­hand ac­counts sup­ple­ment the al­ready acute ob­ser­va­tions Don Wat­son made the pre­vi­ous year in his Amer­i­can Jour­neys . In light of events, it is fas­ci­nat­ing to read that last Septem­ber Run­dle wrote, sober, of ‘‘ the stun­ning, end­less, ut­ter in­ep­ti­tude of the Obama cam­paign’’.

Po­lit­i­cally, Run­dle is a loose can­non: he veers from dis­trust to adu­la­tion of Obama in a sin­gle page. If you want con­sis­tency and some in­sider gos­sip read Evan Thomas, who as a Newsweek ed­i­tor has ac­cess to every­one. If you want a gritty view of an Amer­i­can cam­paign, writ­ten in the sort of mo­tels favoured by Hum­bert Hum­bert, read Run­dle.

Both books cap­ture some of the te­len­ovella qual­ity of last year’s cam­paigns, but Run­dle rel­ishes the truly bizarre mo­ments, high­lighted by his mis­sion to Alaska in search of Palin­land.

Run­dle is both a skilled hu­morist ( he writes scripts for Max Gil­lies) and a Left thinker ( he was ed­i­tor for a time of the jour­nal Arena ). Down to the Cross­roads reads as if an old Trot­sky­ist had sud­denly wan­dered on to the set of The Chaser , has some won­der­ful lines, and is, in­evitably, repet­i­tive and at times gra­tu­itously of­fen­sive. But Run­dle is ca­pa­ble of mak­ing one laugh out loud, not a skill shared by Thomas.

Obama’s victory was in part a prod­uct of the fi­nan­cial col­lapse, which occurred once the of­fi­cial cam­paign got un­der way. Had the cri­sis come six months ear­lier he may well not have been the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee. Had the econ­omy rather than Iraq dom­i­nated po­lit­i­cal de­bate dur­ing the pri­maries Hil­lary Clin­ton and Mitt Rom­ney would have looked stronger candidates.

Much of the hype over Obama com­pares him to John F. Kennedy, which may not be al­to­gether com­pli­men­tary. Kennedy was in­tel­li­gent, elo­quent and charm­ing, but he pre­var­i­cated on civil rights and laid the ground­work for what would be­come the dis­as­trous in­ter­ven­tions in In­dochina. Had he not been as­sas­si­nated he would have faced a tough re-elec­tion cam­paign in 1964, and is now rated by most schol­ars as less suc­cess­ful than Dwight Eisen­hower.

It is com­mon­place to ar­gue that Obama faces chal­lenges greater than any in­com­ing pres­i­dent since Franklin Roo­sevelt. This is de­bat­able: Harry Tru­man came to power at the end of World War II and al­most im­me­di­ately had to de­cide whether or not to use the atomic bomb. Lyn­don John­son suc­ceeded an as­sas­si­nated pres­i­dent and faced grow­ing un­rest over civil rights and cru­cial de­ci­sions about es­ca­la­tion in Viet­nam.

There is no short­age of ad­vice to the new Pres­i­dent, who is pre­sum­ably, like Roo­sevelt and Clin­ton ( but not Bush) a keen reader of vast amounts of ma­te­rial. Pos­si­bly he will come across Robert Kut­tner’s book. Kut­tner is a pro­gres­sive in­sider, an ed­i­tor of The Amer­i­can Prospect , and an af­fil­i­ate of the Bri­tish think tank Demos. His book ar­tic­u­lates the wide­spread hope of many Amer­i­cans that Obama ‘‘ could be the first chief ex­ec­u­tive since Lyn­don John­son to be a trans­for­ma­tive pro­gres­sive pres­i­dent’’.

In the var­i­ous rank­ings of US pres­i­dents, John­son rates poorly, de­spite his real achieve­ments in do­mes­tic poli­cies. His pres­i­dency was in­creas­ingly haunted by the Viet­nam War, and in­ter­nal dis­sent within his own party forced him not to seek re-elec­tion in 1968. Odd that Kush­ner, de­spite his con­sid­er­able in­ter­est in John­son, says so lit­tle about the chal­lenges faced by Obama over­seas.

The fo­cus of Kut­tner’s book is al­most en­tirely on do­mes­tic eco­nomic poli­cies. He ar­gues that Obama needs to re­store a sense of the pos­si­bil­ity of col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity, pos­si­bil­ity and trust in gov­ern­ment, an Amer­i­can ver­sion of Kevin Rudd’s so­cial democ­racy. His book is a use­ful back­ground to the Pres­i­dent’s most re­cent mes­sages on his pro­posed eco­nomic stim­u­lus pack­age, which the Repub­li­cans crit­i­cised for its spending on ed­u­ca­tion and fam­ily plan­ning.

The un­der­ly­ing premise of Kut­tner’s book is that ac­tive gov­ern­ment is nec­es­sary, and he is crit­i­cal of Bill Clin­ton for fol­low­ing Ron­ald Rea­gan in the be­lief that mar­ket forces could solve most prob­lems. What a year ago would have seemed a rad­i­cal anal­y­sis now seems com­mon sense: ‘‘ The pen­du­lum has swung and power has moved back to gov­ern­ments,’’ said Klaus Sch­wab, the founder of the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum.

Economists such as John May­nard Keynes and J. K. Gal­braith, re­garded as out of date in the ex­u­ber­ance of the 1990s, are now be­ing reread.

As Run­dle toured the US last year he was con­stantly puz­zled by Amer­i­can ac­cep­tance of lousy pay, con­di­tions and ser­vices while si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­liev­ing theirs was the great­est coun­try on earth. Whether Obama can change this con­tra­dic­tion goes to the heart of the para­dox that Kut­tner poses. Den­nis Alt­man is pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics and di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Hu­man Se­cu­rity at La Trobe Uni­ver­sity, Mel­bourne.

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