Senator Barak Obama’s initial response to the Virginia Tech massacre may or may not spell the beginning of the end of the “Obama moment,” even as that moment has already stretched into months and threatens to stretch into many more. To be sure, the senator’s words were themselves momentary. The temptation might be to write them off as that and be done with it. But such a temptation should be resisted. After all, the words stand—and he stands revealed for what he is and no doubt has long been, namely a conventional liberal, even a reflexive liberal of the most reflexively conventional sort.
The Obama boom has been driven by the prospect and the hope that the junior senator from Illinois offers the electorate a Third Way, a breath of fresh air, an attractive alternative to the “old politics” of attack and divide. More than all of that, there have been hints from the Obama camp that he’s nothing less than another Lincoln to boot. Actually, he’s already done Honest Abe one better. Unlike the Railsplitter, the difference-splitter managed to win his race for the senate before asking the rest of the country to advance him to the White House.
Obama as Lincoln? Aside from their Illinois residency and physical angularity, where are the parallels that matter?
Perhaps it could be argued that Lincoln was a Third Wayer of sorts himself. A Whig by practice and philosophy, he abandoned his first party for what was, at its birth, a third party. Moreover, the Republican position on the key issue of his day did offer voters a national alternative that Democrats and Whigs had refused to embrace: free soil. Such a doctrine also offered clarity, for a Republican vote was a vote to contain slavery, thereby setting the “peculiar institution,” as Lincoln put it, on the road to “ultimate extinction.”
Where is the comparable clarity on Obama’s part? Perhaps it is this: elect me president and I will put the American military presence in the Middle East on a similar road to oblivion. Perhaps or perhaps not. Clarity on the key issue of our day is neither his party’s nor this senator’s strong suit.
But clarity of sorts Obama did reveal, if unintentionally, when he suggested that the Virginia Tech massacre was somehow comparable to the violence that escaped from Don Imus’ mouth or the violence wrought by American corporations that have orchestrated the escape of American jobs to points beyond American shores.
Of course, such facile comparisons trivialize the wanton, senseless murders on the campus of Virginia Tech. But no matter. They provided a convenient excuse to call attention to Democratic Party talking points. So why stop there, senator?
Wasn’t the Virginia Tech slaughter also akin to the violence that the Bush administration has tried to wreak on our sacred Social Security system and its recipients? And what about the violence done to our environment, our public schools, our urban cores, to say nothing of the violence that post-9/11 America has delivered to the Middle East under President Bush?
Given what he had to work with, the senator perhaps should be applauded for his comparative reticence. Then again, he must have realized that dragging the Iraq war into the conversation might well have spelled political disaster. Clarity, real clarity, is the last thing any Democrat wants on this subject. Far better to let the Bush administration twist slowly in the wind than to support the war as it is now being fought or pull the plug on it—or call attention to the failure of his party to rise above the worst sort of party politics on this issue of such tremendous national importance.
Still, what Senator Obama did say in the aftermath of the real violence of April 16 was a mouthful. So outsourcing is a form of violence, is it? Where does that leave the violence of third world poverty? After all, if it is violent for American capital to be shifted from place to place, why is it not violent not to transfer capital and, yes, jobs, from one location to another? The absurdity of it all is inescapable.
What’s the big deal, you say? Wasn’t the senator simply doing what politicians do—especially politicians who also happen to be running for president? Wasn’t he just speaking metaphorically, while trying to score a point or two at an opportune moment?
Perhaps so. Or perhaps he was just doing what Democratic pols routinely do, even unthinkingly do. Remember the Paul Wellstone “memorial” service that rapidly morphed into a political rally? Had the Democrats left well enough on that late October night (instead of leaving no stone unturned), Norm Coleman would have been looking for a new line of work instead of heading for Washington and a Senate seat.
But Democrats cannot leave well enough alone. More accurately, secular-minded Democrats cannot resist turning anything and everything into a political moment. Put simply, such Democrats cannot help themselves. Because they are political animals and nothing else, every moment is a political moment and every event is a political event. In behaving accordingly, they reveal themselves to be just what they are. And in speaking as he did, Barak Obama proved to be less a breath of fresh air than a shot of hot air, albeit emanating from a pretty face that does set him apart from a very long line of pretty grim ones.
The terrible deaths at Virginia Tech, just like the tragic plane crash that took the lives of Senator Wellstone and his wife, are occasions for spiritual reflection, not opportunities for political retaliation. This most recent tragedy gave Senator Obama an opportunity of a different sort; it gave him a chance to demonstrate that he truly is a different sort of Democrat. It was, at best, an opportunity squandered and, at worst, an all too revealing glimpse into the mind and machinations of this senator from Illinois.
Ask yourself this question: How many leading Republicans used the Virginia Tech massacre to remind us of the violence of abortion, especially of the partial birth variety in the light the Supreme Court’s recent ruling? The answer would be zero.
How could Republicans be so stupid as not to take advantage of such a golden opportunity—especially when the parallel is a whole lot closer than anything Senator Obama stretched for? The answer, of course, has nothing to do with smarts or calculations—or the lack thereof. One guesses that rushing to use the Virginia Tech tragedy for political gain never crossed the mind of Republican presidential candidates, whether pro-life or otherwise.
Come to think of it, if Senator Obama really had wanted to stamp himself as a new Democrat he might have added the violence of abortion to his little litany of evils. Unsurprisingly, he refrained from taking that step. Here his silence was as revealing as anything he did choose to utter about an act so evil that the only response to it can be knee-bending prayer, rather than knee-jerk politics.
John C. “Chuck” Chalberg writes from Minnesota and can be reached at historyonstage.com.