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.