Washington is a one-industry town. The nation's capital has wonderful art museums, concerts and theaters, but they're only supplements to the big story playing out on the front pages, always the government. We often miss the delicious ironies and insights that the literary and artistic culture can offer with its alternative views into the behavior of our species.
Having just seen the movie and then read again F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby," I'm struck by how the narrative of this American classic slips, slides and collides into analogies of what's happening to "the great Obama." With the theatricality of three scandals ascending, we see certain themes emerge. Barack Obama is no Jay Gatsby in search of an elusive fantasy whose name is woman, but he has fostered a government built on his ability to project a fantasy of himself onto others, so that they do what they think he wants.
The great Obama isn't a giver of parties, where he remains aloof and hardly known, but he is the aloof leader of his political party. That's what leading from behind is all about. Others do the dancing and singing. It's difficult to imagine that the president called in the bureaucrats at the IRS and gave them the order of the day, but those worker bees who targeted conservative political organizations for abuse were sure he would approve of their work. The targeting began a day after a union official representing IRS workers met with the president. Lois Lerner, who heads up the Internal Revenue Service's tax-exempt division, invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than answer questions of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Affairs.
The president makes a defense of the First Amendment, but he has expressed no outrage over his administration's snooping into telephone records of reporters at The Associated Press, or the prying into the emails of Fox News reporter James Rosen. Like the circle around Gatsby, there are shady people standing behind Obama.
The dangers caused by careless people who hurt others and get away with it is the theme that runs through "The Great Gatsby." We have a similar culture at the State Department, which if not corrupt is criminally careless, where passing the buck and playing games behind the scenes beats doing the right thing. What actually happened on that dark night in Benghazi on an anniversary of 9/11 remains vague to the public, but the dreadful reality is that four men died pleading for help that was never sent. We don't know whether a rescue mission would have succeeded, but we know it was not attempted. That strikes many of us as cowardly. More than 60 percent of Americans in one poll say Washington should have done more.
Baz Luhrman's movie "The Great Gatsby" focuses specifically on the spectacle of a society out of control at wild, glamorous parties at the Gatsby mansion, though the man who throws them is hardly known. Gatsby makes appearances amidst speculation about who he is and what he does, but nobody cares very much when they're having fun.
As timelines, explanations and equivocations continue to shift and slide, the president's job approval ratings continue to fall, so far to 45 percent, down 2 points in a month. Fully 68 percent say they think the government's protections of civil liberties are disappearing.
When the Democrats nominated Barack Obama in 2008, columnist Charles Krauthammer described the candidate as a "dazzling mysterious Gatsby ... a deeply engaging, elegant, brilliant stranger." So true. The candidate came with a colorful biography; he was the latest personification of the American Dream, not a rags-to-riches story, but a symbol of the emerging triumph in the old struggle against racism.
Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives admired and criticized by different lights, but nearly everyone felt a certain pride about electing the first black man to the highest office in the land. This contributed to a powerful myth of the man. As appealing as the myth was, it didn't tell us anything specific about his abilities and talents to lead the nation through difficult and complex times.
Daisy tells Gatsby how he always looks so "cool," just like the man in an advertisement. That sounds like Barack Obama. Whether we like or dislike his message, the man remains cool. We've paid a price for that. Like Nick Carraway, the narrator of "The Great Gatsby," we watch scandal and shame unfold with an ominous sense of failure and menace, craving "moral attention."
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