The messianic quality of the argument for Barack Obama knows no bounds. Oprah famously (or infamously, depending upon your view) anointed him "the one" in South Carolina's mass rally, in more modern semi-secular shades of Billy Graham and Father Coughlin. The candidate himself identifies with two iconic martyred Kennedys - Jack and Bobby (I'm guessing he leaves Ted for Hillary) - Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King, and The Gipper. Campaign insiders whisper that the Gandhi media roll-out is timed for Florida.
Now along comes pop historian Joseph Ellis, who claims in today's L.A. Times that Senator Obama is pretty much the kind of candidate that - sorry, my hands shake with the effects of belly-laughter as I try and write this - the Founding Fathers would have approved of. Yes, Ellis (whose books I enjoy) gives the psychic endorsements of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison to Obama '08.
Alively debate has developed in these pages and in the blogosphere about the viability of Barack Obama's politics of hope. Critics of Obama's promise to bring us together -- blue states and red, young and old, women and men, blacks and whites -- have described his vision as a naive pipe dream that would be dead on arrival if he were elected president.
Central to the critique is the claim that Obama's message flies in the face of U.S. history, that partisanship is, as one critic put it, "the natural condition of politics." Zero-sum, "I'm right, you're wrong" battles are fundamental to the republic. From the beginning of our history, so the argument goes, an Obama-like message has been a rhetorical veneer designed to obscure the less-attractive reality of irreconcilable division and an inherently adversarial party system.
While you can certainly marshal evidence to support this interpretation, very few of the so-called founding fathers (save perhaps Aaron Burr) would agree with it. And the first four presidents -- George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison -- would regard it as a perversion of all that they wished the American republic to become.
Quick aside: Did you catch that sly Aaron Burr reference - wonder who he was aligning the killer of Alexander Hamilton, the would-be emperor of the west with? Senator Clinton's been called many things in this campaign - but Aaron Burr? That's a new one.
In any case, young Professor Ellis seems just as inebriated with the spirit of Obama's rhetoric as many other sensible Americans, taking leave of his senses in pursuit of some short-seasoned myth of hope fashioned around a talented but entirely conventional machine politician from Chicago. But there he is, book-ending the Audacity of Hope with the Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence, and the United States Constitution (I kid you not), and making perhaps the most over-the-top declaration about Obama yet:
His message has roots in our deepest political traditions. Indeed, it is in accord with the most heartfelt and cherished version of our original intentions as a people and a nation.
In the course of his brief hagiocolumn, Ellis admits out loud that perhaps - perhaps?! - Jefferson isn't worthy of a comparison to Barack Obama.
Jefferson is somewhat tricky on this score, because he, along with Madison, did create the first political party, known initially as Republicans but -- this is tricky too -- soon to morph into Democrats. But Jefferson could never admit, even to himself, that he was a political partisan because it violated the core definition of republicanism (i.e. res publica, public things) and the central political legacy of the American founding.
Yes, sadly, Jefferson and Madison did wallow in politics a bit - they may not be on Obama's non-partisan level. I can see that. (Remember all those nasty pamphlets?) Though by gosh, they were good writers, and so is Obama.
Ellis, of course, knows better - but he's in the the throes of political lust, and not to be deterred from the silliest of bouquets. Barack Obama does this to people, and he is clearly the most talented politician to yet emerge from his (and my) generation. Yet outside of perhaps Washington himself, both the founding brothers (as Ellis eloquently dubbed them) and the Obama campaign actually share a love for the political fight, for the grasping at for high office, for expansive rhetorical flourishes riding like fluffy cumulus clouds thirty-thousand feet above the more hardscrabble landscape where people actually live.
Jefferson and Adams? Two brilliant careerist talents who took great risks - and both vicious political fighters of their day, the former in the more passive-aggressive style of Obama and the latter in the aggressive-aggressive style of Hillary Clinton.
But then again, I guess I'm too jaded. You know, I'm backing Aaron Burr this cycle.