By John Chuckman
[Obama in Berlin in 2008. Estimated crowd size 200,000.]
How vividly I remember the photos of Obama in Berlin during his campaign in 2008: streets literally flooded with people keen to get a glimpse of a promising young politician, expressing for us all how exhausted the world was with the most ignorant and contemptible man ever to have been a president. Reporters said a quarter of million turned out to see a man who was a junior senator and had no claim yet to being a world figure. It was intoxicating to think this bright, attractive figure might replace the murderous buffoon, George Bush, and his éminence grise, Dick Cheney, a man who might comfortably have served any of the 20th century’s great bloody dictators.
A few years later, in 2013, an estimated 4 to 6 thousand showed up for a major speech by then-President Obama, and one is surprised even that many showed, but then there is always a set of people who just want to be able to say they saw a celebrity. After all there are inexplicable people who travel to places associated with genuine monsters, notorious murderers and torturers, and have snapshots of themselves taken standing in front as though they were at the Grand Canyon or Disneyworld.
In 2009, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, excited at seeing Bush replaced with a promising man, just as the earlier crowd in Berlin, awarded President Obama its Peace Prize after he had been in office for less than year and had achieved nothing of substance towards peace or any other worthy goal. But the Peace Prize often is awarded in hopes of influencing and encouraging a leader rather than in recognition of genuine achievement.
In Obama’s case, the hopes and encouragement fell stillborn and lifeless, and he has proved himself one of the least worthy recipients, keeping historical company with killers like Kissinger or Begin, winners whose awards also were based on futile hopes and encouragement. Obama’s distinctions in the sphere of peace include abandoning the Palestinians to their tormenters, abandoning the Egyptians to a new tyranny, pitching the people of Syria into a bloody civil war, never speaking out about the suppression of people in places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Yemen, pitching the people of Ukraine into chaos, establishing a new hi-tech death-squad approach to the extrajudicial killing of people, not standing up to Israel over its unwarranted threats of war against Iran, and force-feeding the military-intelligence establishment so that it resembles a gigantic waddling Pâté de foie gras goose.
He has done nothing for his own people, signing not one worthy piece of legislation to better the lives of less fortunate Americans. His only major domestic legislation is a costly, almost unworkable compromise on health care that will enrich insurance companies in the only Western nation not having a form of national health insurance. He will also leave his country with an almost incomprehensible debt, a debt America’s people are not asked to pay down through taxes and other appropriate fiscal and budgetary measures, ultimately leaving all the world’s holders of dollars to be cheated through the dollar’s future decline, a scam that beggars the size of Bernie Madoff’s pyramid operation or the Nigerian industry in e-mail invitations to share in vast wealth just by providing your bank account. It is irresponsibility on a colossal scale, all of the gains from the scam having served American interests from investment bankers to the military and military contractors. Obama’s force-fed military will have all its stuffing supplied involuntarily by non-Americans who have no interest in what he has done. In truth, America doesn’t have a single honest dollar to spend on anything.
The sense of dignity Obama displayed in the early days is gone too, simply evaporated, although I am open to the suggestion that my judgment is affected by grim disappointment in his non-achievement and display of what I can only regard as a form of moral cowardice, not different in quality to that displayed by George Bush. He made some noises early on about closing America’s torture gulag, about ending its pointless wars, about pushing Israel into a decent settlement for millions of Palestinian captives, about new starts in general, but it has all blown away like so much dust on the wind. Now we have a man who almost never utters an inspiring or even meaningful word, never takes a risk to do anything worthwhile, and actually looks quite ineffectual at times. Imagine, the first black President of the United States at the funeral of a world-figure like Nelson Mandela, sitting next to his wife and flirting with the blond prime minister of Denmark, taking “selfies” during the service? It was contemptible behavior. It wasn’t the silly flirting that mattered: it was the complete lack of a statesman’s demeanor, communicating to millions of eyes the sense of a small man behaving like a hormonal teenager on a solemn international occasion.
I remember, too, another picture of Obama, taken in Hawaii where he had gone to visit during his campaign a gravely ill Madelyn Dunham, the grandmother who had raised him. The picture showed him walking profile in sandals, and the image immediately gave the impression of a self-confident, independent-minded man which I quite relished. But all sense of that image of Obama is gone, save the almost surrealistic right wing descriptions of him as a communist, a view whose origins it is difficult to imagine, although his wearing sandals a few times might qualify in the Palinesque world of American right wing politics.
Of course the American institution most accurately described as communistic is its massive military-security-police apparatus, a monstrosity whose scale and scope make the old East German Stasi seem almost quaintly amateur, although aspects of it would immediately bring a smile of recognition to the lips of retired Stasi agents: matters such as the soliciting of general public informers, the blackmailing or bribing of others to serve as informers inside groups and organizations, the interception of virtually all messages, or the scrutiny of what people are reading at the library and on-line. This all predates Obama, and he has done nothing but ardently support its growth. But I guess you just cannot do enough for these ghastly institutions to avoid being called a communist by people who share Sarah Palin’s intellectual gene pool.
During Obama’s first election campaign, there was a mindless controversy over his not wearing a flag pin on his lapel. That is the kind of seemingly insignificant detail which sets the “you can never have enough patriotism” mob to a fever pitch, bellowing voices about freedom from intolerant men with bellies sagging ponderously over their belts, comparable in intensity to prayer vigils over embryos or “support the troops” parades in small towns (who cares that they’ve invaded some unfortunate land no one ever heard of and are busy killing civilians?). Remember Jonathon Edwards, that syrupy-voiced wealthy tort lawyer running for Vice President in 2004, offering a homily in one of his speeches where he suggested American families should gather together each morning to discuss the blessings of America over their bowls of Coco Puffs? Presumably Papa Bear would lead the service before he and Mommy Bear and all the Baby Bears rushed off in gas-guzzling trucks and four-by-fours through a landscape of sprawl to their corporate cubicles and private schools. And Edwards was regarded – ugh, foul word that it is considered in America – as a liberal.
How refreshing I thought Obama at the time of this nonsense over whether someone else’s patriotism was being adequately displayed, again a self-confident, independent-minded man who did not see the need to follow the herd of American politicians who resemble nothing so much as members of the old Soviet Politburo with red star pins on their lapels. He didn’t need to parade the obvious fact of an American running for office in America. He didn’t need to display what has become an American fetish, a voodoo charm, the totem of a secular religion, and, at the same time, a symbol, for a great many of the world’s people, of arrogant power and almost endless bloodshed. Of course, today Obama is never seen without a ridiculous flag pin. He probably has a drawer full of them in a bureau of his bedroom, a Secret Service man being solemnly tasked to keep it stocked and to drop a few (respectfully, mind you) into his pocket as back-ups for any trip. It must be the last thing Obama’s butler at the White House does each morning, too, making sure a pin is on the suit to be worn that day, the correct lapel, leveled properly, and polished. How very inspiring, like a Rotarian executive preparing for a club luncheon.
We perhaps can never know what has motivated Obama’s behavior as President. Certainly the memoirs of retired Presidents rarely enlighten us on anything of importance. Is he, as some in his own party have suggested, simply not up to the job? Of course, when they say that, they are not using the same criteria this writer does. In America, even the supposed left is never far from mounting a horse and charging up San Juan Hill. Is he merely responding to the fact of the awesome power of America’s unelected government? Is he satisfied to give them their way, enjoy the 8-year ride, and retire with full pension and benefits, avoiding that haunting nightmare of the last President who seriously challenged just a few of the establishment’s assumption, John Kennedy, in the streets of Dallas?