Gaps in History

Junot Diaz who won last year's Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a not-so-brief but wondrous book, says that he is fascinated with gaps in history. His book was is set in Newark and the Dominican Republic during the time of the infamous Trujillo. A dictator so brutal and merciless that there are almost no true reports of his republic. He once had a graduate student murdered for writing a thesis on the true nature of his regime. Junot Diaz's point is that if you look at somebody's or a country's history, the gaps in the reporting are the most interesting.

The current presumptive Democratic candidate oozes so much charisma that people who never voted before are now lining up to help him get elected. Of course, armed with an incredible story like Obama's, impossible is nothing. The image that is portrayed is that of a newcomer, a fresh face, someone who represents a new kind of politics. In the same breath one also cites that as a sign of his inexperience and naivety about Washington and the world.

Obama and Trujillo has poles apart, but there is a certain gap in Obama's self-reporting. The recent controversy over the satirical cover of last week's issue of the New Yorker obscured, in ironical fashion, facts that are relatively unknown about the junior senator from Illinois.

Ryan Lizza's story traces the making of Obama in his years as a Chicago politician. To forge an identity as a a nobody in in a city "which doesn't take kindly to political carpetbaggers" would be commendable enough, but Obama's sights were always higher than the tallest buildings in the Windy City. He always knew that he was slated for bigger and better things. People have been calling him President Obama for over a decade.

Of course, politics is always a Faustian bargain. On his way up, Obama has eschewed many of his old principles and let his old friends down. As President, things are not going to be any different even if Obama projects a different sort of image. Lizza writes:

Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago’s churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield, rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them. “You have the power to make a United States senator,” he told Emil Jones in 2003. In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war.

Like many politicians, Obama is paradoxical. He is by nature an incrementalist, yet he has laid out an ambitious first-term agenda (energy independence, universal health care, withdrawal from Iraq). He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.

Only the naive would call Barack Obama naive. If he does win in November, like all victors he can write his own history.

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