Ever notice how Barack Obama handles a question from a real person, as opposed to one of us annoying media types? Even a question that challenges his position? It's a thing of beauty.
Watch him at one of his forums. He listens patiently, nods his head sympathetically, and seems to share his questioner's point of view. He identifies.
He then begins his answer by restating the question, often enough in more persuasive form than the original. He doesn't so much entertain a question as improve it.
Only after he has established a bond between himself and his critic does he present his own, different point of view, carrying the questioner and the rest of the audience with him every respectful step of the way. Soon it's his critic who is nodding sympathetically, understandingly. Barack Obama has made another friend and supporter.
This is the approach he adopted to address the G-d-damn-America rhetoric of his old pastor and rise above it. By the time he was finished, he'd actually turned a political embarrassment to his advantage in what soon became known as The Speech, an instant classic of American rhetoric.
If Barack Obama ever tires of his day job, he'd make a good editorial writer, for he has grasped the essence of the assignment: Appeal to the community's own standards, and at the same time raise them. It's called raising the level of public discourse, and it should be the end of every exercise in rhetoric. It's quite a trick, but Sen. Obama has mastered it when dealing with the issues.
It's when the talented Mr. Obama takes to analyzing people the same way he does issues, like some social scientist weighing us in the balance, that he gets into trouble. Real trouble. As he did when he analyzed the benighted inhabitants of deepest, darkest Pennsylvania during a private fund-raiser in mod San Francisco, of all unfortunate places. That's when he committed the following masterpiece of two-bit psychology:
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and . . . the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing's replaced them. ... It's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
It was a revealing comment not about people in small-town Pennsylvania and their counterparts all across America, but about Barack Obama. It revealed him as another smooth talker as glib as he is condescending. Note the way he just threw religion in there as one more harbor for America's disgruntled along with guns, opposition to free trade, anti-immigrant feelings....
Barack Obama's was an off-the-cuff analysis of those of us not as sharp and well adjusted and successful as he is. That is, the pitiful rest of us. It's the kind of attitude that has made the very word "liberal" odious in American politics, so much so that many liberals have stopped describing themselves as such, and started calling themselves progressives.
If there was a point in this campaign when the Obama magic cracked, that was it. Suddenly we saw an empty young man unscarred by age or experience or any great failure in life. This campaign's Golden Youth seemed blissfully unschooled by the best of teachers a great failure.
The trouble with the senator's revealing comment in San Francisco was that it reduced rhetoric in its best sense an appeal to common memory and shared values to something else: cold, clever analysis. He'd severed the bond of community he'd been so good at establishing. He let the circle be broken.
Whatever he was saying in public, here Barack Obama was in private referring to us as Them, talking about how They feel, and what values They were clinging to for comfort. We had become just specimens under his microscope. And his oh-so-deep analysis of us? Poor creatures, we're just taking out our frustrations when we embrace, say, our faith. Maybe that sort of thing goes over in San Francisco; it doesn't in America.
There had been signs earlier in this campaign of the distance between Barack Obama and We the People he seeks to represent. As when he was campaigning in Iowa as if it were Zabar's. ("Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula? I mean, they're charging a lot of money for this stuff.") Goodness, is there a single Whole Foods anywhere between Dubuque and Sioux City?
He sounded out of his territory, like a Cub fan slumming in Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox. When the Sox are having a good year, tourists from the city's fashionable northern suburbs may brave the South Side to see how the game is really played. One year, when fortune's favored motored down from ivy-covered Wrigley Field in their Jaguars and insufferable little Lacoste polo shirts, they were greeted by a huge banner unfurled from the cheap seats: YUPPIE SCUM GO HOME.
The moral of the story: If a Democratic presidential candidate hopes to mobilize the core of the old Roosevelt Coalition, aka Reagan Democrats, he better not get caught exchanging class cliches with his rich buds in San Francisco. Overheard in that upscale setting, Mister Beautiful didn't sound so beautiful any more.
Back in the Iowa primary, which now seems years ago, Barack Obama's arugula comment could be seen as just a slip, an understandable gaffe on the part of a stranger in a strange land. But now one begins to wonder if it wasn't part of a pattern, and if America itself isn't a strange land to this elegant young stranger. Surely not. Surely he knows this country better than that. Or will pretend to.