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St. Obama Learns the Washington Ways

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In 1990, former Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley advised incoming members of Congress to miss a few floor votes early in their careers. If not, he warned, they might suffer the curse that had befallen 79-year-old, 41-year veteran Rep. Charles E. Bennett of Florida. Although Bennett had won a Silver Star for gallantry in World War II, he then contracted polio and thereafter had to use a cane to get around. Some of his Florida voters thought he might be too frail to serve in Congress. So during his first term, to prove he was not feeble, he left his hospital bed, where he was suffering from pneumonia, so as not to miss a vote.

Soon he was known for this virtue. And he never missed another vote for 40 years. As a result, his career had become a torment -- driving through snowstorms, missing important family moments, and generally disrupting his life. As Foley warned, trying to keep a perfect voting record "is a great sentence of life in prison living in uneasy terror" of missing a vote.

I recount this story of old Washington as a cautionary tale for the benefit of young Sen. Obama. There is a joke going around Washington to the effect that Hillary is the senator from New York who was born in Illinois, while Obama is the senator from Illinois who was born in a manger.

It might seem useful to Obama to run as a saint in this wicked, wicked world. But the trouble with posing as a saint is that one sets oneself up to be judged by exalted saintly standards. And just as not missing even a procedural vote haunted Charles Bennett all the days of his congressional life, so playing the part of a saint will make it politically dangerous for Obama to take those necessary little expedient acts that politicians routinely get away with, but for which aspiring saints get disgraced and banished.

In this regard, at least, Bill Clinton will prove to have been wiser than Obama. Clinton never pretended to be virtuous and thus got away with all manner of ethical breaches. From whom little moral behavior is expected, little will be asked.

But for Obama, already -- and he has not even secured his nomination yet -- three acts of routine political hypocrisy and cynicism threaten to disrupt his self-propelled elevation.

On "Meet the Press" Jan. 22, 2006, Tim Russert and Sen. Obama had the following exchange:

Russert: "When we talked back in November of '04 after your election, I said, 'There's been enormous speculation about your political future. Will you serve your six-year term as United States senator from Illinois?' Obama: 'Absolutely.'"

Obama: "I will serve out my full six-year term. You know, Tim, if you get asked enough, sooner or later you get weary and you start looking for new ways of saying things. But my thinking has not changed."

Russert: "So you will not run for president or vice president in 2008?"

Obama: "I will not."

Oh, dear. Is another routine non-truthing politician "the one we have been waiting for"? It was all very well when Bill Clinton promised to serve out his term as governor and then went back on his word and ran successfully for president. Clinton already was known as a charming liar. But Obama has promised us so much more -- no more business as usual. We can do better. Yes, we can.

Non-truthing is getting to be a habit for the waited-for one. As Sen. McCain has pointed out, Obama promised to use public funding in the general election if the Republican candidate would do so also. Well, McCain has agreed to it, but now Obama wants to back out of the deal. After all, when he made the promise, he didn't have a chance of raising more than the public's $85 million stipend. But now that he can raise $300 million, well, what's a little untruth between the waited-for one and his people? Yes, he can.

What else can he do? He can make a big point that his candidacy is not about race -- which is a good thing. But then he can brag that his will be a "historic" election. We all assume he is not referring to his having lived in Hawaii. No, obviously he means being the first black president. But "it's not about race." Yes, he can.

Obama's wife confesses that her husband has a pretty big ego. Egos are necessary things for workaday politicians. But they get in the way of sainthood. Because, it would seem, his ego is not only bigger than a breadbox but is already bigger than his sense of integrity. And egos don't get smaller (nor integrity larger) after men get elected president.

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