The Boilerplate and Brilliance of Barack Obama - Interview

Bill Steigerwald
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Posted: Jun 16, 2008 3:00 PM
The Boilerplate and Brilliance of Barack Obama - Interview

After writing three major cover stories about Barack Obama’s books, his speeches and his tony Chicago neighborhood, Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard probably knows as much about Sen. Obama as any conservative writer and reporter can know at this point.

Ferguson’s first piece, “The Literary Obama” on Feb. 12, 2007, was a double review of Obama’s 1995 memoir “Dreams from My Father,” which he found praiseworthy for many artistic and intellectual reasons, and Obama’s 200x campaign book “The Audacity of Hope,” which Ferguson found stereotypically dull and ruined by its super-cautious politics.

On March 24 of this year Ferguson’s examined the “The Timeless Wit & Wisdom of Barack Obama” and found that a lot of his best political phrases sounded, well, very, very familiar. The cover of the latest Weekly Standard carries “Mr. Obama’s Neighborhood,” the results of Ferguson’s recent visit to Hyde Park, the unique, upscale Chicago neighborhood Sen. Obama has lived in most of his adult life. I talked to Ferguson on Wednesday by phone from his offices in Washington.

Q: They haven’t officially given you the Barack Obama beat at the Weekly Standard have they?

A: No. (laughs)

Q: Which of your “studies” of Obama’s life told you most about his character?

A: First of, it was early on very apparent to me that he was going to be the most interesting candidate that the country had seen in a presidential race in a long time. I always thought he had a chance to win. I had been watching him in that sense for quite a while. By far the most revealing thing about him is the books that he wrote. Anyone who rally wants to understand Obama has to read those books, particularly the first one, which is a straight out memoir that was written – well, I don’t know if could say it was written before he was considering running for president, because I think that occurred to him when he was about four, and he’s been doing it ever since; but it was written in more of a free-wheeling sort of way than the second book, which has a lot of policy wonkery in it. I think anybody who reads that book will get an excellent sense of who Obama is as a person and how he wants to present himself to people.

Q: What would be the best qualities that shine through?

A: Well, the first thing is intelligence, which is vast, I think. The second is his personal sensitivity, which is almost a romantic sensitivity to his own feelings but also to the feelings and perspectives of other people and he’s able to put this in a literary sort of way, which I think is extremely rare in a politician. The gifts of a good politician are totally different from the gifts of a good writer, but he somehow has both. The book is just beautifully written, beautifully paced, and filled with wonderful stories, beautiful characterization. The dialogue is of a kind you’d find in a book by a veteran literary artist. But in between the lines are the things that you need to know about Obama – which is that he deeply, deeply wants to be loved by people. He is given to a kind of rumination that doesn’t stop. He’s kind of a on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand kind of guy. I think this is where the charge or suspicion that he is weak comes from, because he is just habitually thinking one side and then other side and never really coming down on one side or the other. That’s something that I think will play out in the campaign.

Q: You saw that in “The Audacity of Hope” as well?

A: Of course “The Audacity of Hope” is something that was written after he was in the state legislature for 10 years, and you really see the shrinking that can take place in a human being by professional politics. There, he goes off on the one hand on the other hand sort of thing in examining one political thing and another – and never comes down anywhere but on the doctrinaire liberal side of an issue. It’s as predicable as can be and it’s very disappointing, especially to someone like me who read the first book first and really had high hopes that here was a guy who wasn’t moved by the kind of rigid ideologies that move some other political activists. But you really do see that essentially he’s a liberal Democrat with now I would say this sort of veneer of on the one hand on the other hand sensitivity to opposing viewpoints.

Q: You did a cover piece for the Standard called “The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama,” which deconstructed Obama’s speeches. You said as a speech giver he is getting away with murder and that he is “a master of le baloney.” A: Well, just watching the campaign unfold I was astonished at people going ape over his speeches, as though they were models of originality and insight, when to my ear – and I don’t think I’m that old but maybe I am – I just kept hearing the same political clichés I had been hearing for 40 years. So with the aid of Nexis and Google, I went through these speeches and started copying down some of the phrases that had sent college students across the country into a St. Vitas dance, just into a tizzy. Sure enough, nearly every one of them is just boilerplate.

Q: For example would be?

A: “We’re going to choose hope over fear.” Well, OK, great – who doesn’t want to do that? But it just happens to be a phrase that Al Gore used in 2000 and Bill Clinton used in 1992. It probably goes back to Adlai Stevenson or someone. But people would swoon when he’d say these things. Now partly it’s because of his incredible personal presence and that beautiful voice that he’s got. And he’s developed a mannerism that is quite effective in delivering a speech. This is the thing that scared the Founding Fathers – that people could fall in love with the sound of words and never stop to think about the ideas the politics is presenting are. It’s clearly what’s happening with Obama.

Q: You said “his speeches were meant to be succumbed to, not thought about.”

A: Right. In a way it’s kind of emasculating the audience. I think that’s a very dangerous thing in a political audience.

Q: You say it’s kind of not fair to complain that Obama’s speeches are filled with these shopworn phrases because almost every politician has done it since the beginning of time – their recycling the same four phrases. So what’s your most damning critique of Obama’s oratory?

A: I don’t think it should just be placed on him. He’s doing what he can get away with. It falls on the audience and the people in the press who treat him as though he’s the second coming of Pericles, instead of just mouthing platitudes that should be familiar to anyone who’s followed politics for the last 50 years. So I don’t really blame him. He’s doing the minimum necessary to send the people into the stratosphere. I wrote that piece before he did his much-praised speech on race. Now that is a speech that I think bears closer examination. I think it’s a very weak speech and filled with all kinds of logical holes. But that’s a more substantial thing.

Q: You just spent a lot of time in Sen. Obama’s neighborhood of Hyde Park. “Mr. Obama’s Neighborhood” makes it sound like Hyde Park is quite the bastion of upper class white liberals and black liberals…

A: Yes.

Q: And it seems pretty artificial, pretty over-planned, pretty over-regulated. Every city it seems has some kind of neighborhood like this, where commerce has been stripped from the landscape and everybody’s house better be tidy or the lawn police or shrub police will get them.

A: Right. The important thing about it is that it even Obama’s friends and supporters say that it does tell you something about a man where he lives and where he chooses to raise a family – especially in Obama’s case, where this is really the only place he’s ever lived as an adult other than time he’s spent in school. It’s interesting on its face. But Hyde Park is also interesting because it really is unusual, even for these other urban neighborhoods that are hyper-regulated, because it really is a creature of the University of Chicago, which 50 years ago undertook this massive urban renewal and essentially remade the neighborhood that UC was in the middle of. They made it safe for University of Chicago people. So all the poor people were bulldozed out, except on the very marginal parts of the neighborhood. A sort of a moat, an urban buffer, was created around the neighborhood to keep out poor people, essentially. Blacks were welcomed to a certain extent, but mostly blacks who could afford to live there as the housing values went up. So it became a place not segregated by race but really segregated by class – by design of the University of Chicago. So there’s this sense of un-rootedness to the place. You don’t have a sense of being in a place that has a past and a history and deep roots.

Q: You said it’s like a college town.

A: Yeah, it’s like a college town, but it doesn’t even have that kind of vibrancy, partly because it’s the University of Chicago and partly because it doesn’t have the amenities that a college town has, being surrounded by these ghettos.

I thought this does explain a few things that people have noted about Obama. One of them is his elitism, which I think is probably real and is probably almost reflexive with him now. It’s surfaced here and there – his famous comment about Western Pennsylvania people clinging to religion. He talks about “the coldness of capitalism” in some of his early writing. He talks about his mother fleeing “the smugness and hypocrisy of the middle West.” It’s this kind of basically academic, PC view of the ordinary course of American life. It tells you that Hyde Park is completely detached from those normal flows of middle class America. It’s interesting that he would choose that place to live. Now I don’t think this disqualifies him from the presidency or anything. I mean, the left-wing blogosphere has gone ape about this piece – they’ve said it’s the “right-wing slime machine” and all that. I could talk until I’m blue in the face and probably nobody would believe the truth – that I actually wrote this piece in good faith because I was curious about what this neighborhood was like. I just think it’s interesting. You can’t psychologize the thing over much, but it’s still an interesting angle to this extremely interesting and complicated person.

Q: Is it fair to say that Obama is sort of a victim of his own neighborhood, his own upbringing, his own environment?

A: I think he’s a victim of his upbringing. I think the neighborhood sort of reflects that. He says himself that “I never had roots growing up.” In the first book, one of the things that makes it such a beautiful and moving piece of work, is that it’s about this guy without roots trying to locate himself in his own country. He was in Hawaii, and then he was in Indonesia, and then he was in Hawaii, and then he was in Cambridge, Mass., and then he’s in Hyde Park. He never gets to plant himself anywhere and build a life in a hospitable environment until Hyde Park. He was launched on a trajectory when he was a kid, by being abandoned by his father, and for a while being abandoned by his mother, being raised in a strange sort of place, being neither black nor white, and so on, that has really determined the kind of guy he is. I’m not a shrink and I don’t even think anybody responsible should try to psychoanalyze the guy. It’s just interesting about him.

Q: Have you met Obama?

A: No.

Q: If you had 10 minutes with him, what would be one of the first political questions you’d want to ask him?

A: Oh, boy. I think other people have asked this, but I’d want him to tell me what the most non-liberal position that he advocates is. In other words, show me something outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party that you’re really willing to go to the mat for. Of course, he wants to trade on this idea that he’s not doctrinaire, that he is thinking outside the dots, and so on. I’d really like him to explain in detail how that’s played out in his actual policy positions.

Q: Based on your reporting and thinking about Obama, how does it compare with the sanctified media image of Obama?

A: Well, he’s a man of great self-confidence, as anybody is who could do what he’s doing – even more so than the average politician. I sometimes worry when I see him in the middle of a basketball arena with 60,000 pouring love on him that he might start to think that this is a perfectly ordinary reaction to his wonderfulness. He needs to know, just as all of his idolaters in the press and his fans in the population need to understand, that he’s not that extraordinary; he’s not the savior of the American political system. Some of the grandiose language like he used in his speech the other night – that “people will look back on this and say this was the days when we began to care for the sick” -- there’s something kookily messianic about this.

Q: Don’t forget the sea levels.

A: Yeah, and we’re going to turn back the tides – like Moses. It’s stating to worry me a little bit. Somebody needs to kind of puncture his balloon a little bit. It’d be better if it wasn’t people doing it purely because they want the Republicans to win. It would be nice if somebody with his interest or without hating him could do it and kind of say, “You know, get off the pedestal, pal.”

Q: I was going to ask you, does he know what he doesn’t know?

A: That’s a perfect question. I would have thought, given that first book, which is so searching and open-minded, that he probably does. Now, as I say, I see him in the middle of those adoring crowds and he kind of lifts his chin and he looks into the middle distance, and I think “maybe he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know anymore.”

Q: Is he a genuine leftist, or is he faking it to get where he is?

A: I think he’s a genuine liberal. I know a lot of people who think he’s let the mask slip and he’s a real doctrinaire leftist. I just don’t think that’s true. You can’t do what he’s done – you can be a left-winger in the state of Illinois. There are left-wingers there. But he wasn’t. I think if he were a real left-winger, it would have shown by now. I think he’s just a good liberal Democrat.

Q: If he became president, would you lose any sleep at night?

A: I wouldn’t over him. I would worry about the people he would surround himself with. I have a very high opinion of him in most respects. I don’t think he’d do anything consciously to put the country in peril. But I would worry about who his secretary of state was, I’d worry about who his secretary of interior was, I’d worry that he’d be hostile to private enterprise and the appointments he’d make. But he himself doesn’t really bother me at all.