Clinton, Obama, and a Unified Field Theory of the Outsider


I grew up feeling like an outsider, I don’t know why, really, but I did and it left me with a disdain for the ruling elite – the longer ruling and the more elite, the greater my disdain, Saudi princes are high on the list for example – and, of course, I desperately want to fit in, even to be part of the ruling elite. When Michele and I were in India, while we were staying at a bed and breakfast Royal Castle, I had the chance to photograph the mini-Maharajah – called a Rao, I believe – who owned the place. I did everything but genuflect. All my disdain was gone and all that was left was conditioned deference. I was in the sun and his highness was in the shade and I was sweating so much I was worried the camera might squirt out of my hands.

When Clinton ran for president as the new, young, energetic, leader and, then, after winning, nothing really changed; I wondered why. He was an outsider, the son of a single mom, from Hope Arkansas and I expected him to understand that America was heading in the wrong direction. Unions were getting weaker, good jobs were going overseas, the rich were getting richer and everybody else was just limping along. In many ways, Clinton just seemed powerless, making little changes around the edges while the tide of American prosperity continued to run  out. It seemed like a time for bold action and Clinton was cautious.

The next guy, George Bush the Younger,  brought bold action. He said things like I am going to use my political capital and we all laughed. And then cried.

The came Obama and I had such great hopes. Obama ran on bringing change – real change – to Washington and I believed him. The son of a white mother who had once been on welfare and an African intellectual who went back to Africa, he was almost the definition of an outsider. During his campaign, he seemed to understand the country from outside the Washington bubble. I thought, It will not be business as usual, and I was so wrong. As Gary Young editorialized in The Guardian, When given the choice of representing the interests of those who voted for him and the interests of American military and economic hegemony, he chose the latter. That’s not the change people believed in.

Obama ran on closing Guantanamo (or Gitmo, as we  have learned to call it). Gitmo is still there, the prisoners are still there and now Obama’s administration is force- feedings the detainees. Candidate Obama wrote about smoking pot – when questioned if he inhaled or, like Clinton, only pretended, he said that he inhaled, That was the point –  now his administration is going after California pot dispensaries at a higher rate than Bush. Obama ran on bringing transparency to Official Washington, and he has gone after more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined.

That is not to say Obama is a complete bust, far from it, by all rational accounts, he is an excellent, but conventional president.  It is just that he has not been an agent of  change, not in the way Roosevelt was, or Bush, for that matter.  I wonder why. Again

It seems like a pattern. It is easy to say that they are both Democrats and Democrats are pussies, to say that Democrats are too reasonable. That Democrats are Liberals and too willing to see the other side. I don’t believe that. I think the pattern is that they are both outsiders.

For Clinton or Obama to rise to power from where they started, they had to fit in. I read somewhere that black people have a much better sense of white people than the reverse because they are observing white life – in detail but from the outside – where white people are completely oblivious to black life. In my own experience, I know this is true. In the mid 2000’s I went to a romantic comedy, Something New, about a black woman and a white man from the point of view of the black woman. It was a very good movie but I walked out shocked. Much of the movie took place in Baldwin Hills, a part of Los Angeles populated by rich, accomplished, black people. A place I had no idea existed. (I know more about the French Quarter in Shanghai than I do about Baldwin Hills, California.) As shocking were the four or five previews before the Something New, they were all touting black movies I had never heard of. The whole thing was a different world. A completely, to me, unknown world inhabited by people that know my world (even if that knowledge is imperfect). I don’t think that could happen in reverse.

As much as Obama – and Clinton – wanted to make change when they became President, they found themselves  in a world that they knew of more than knew and, even if they were critical, it is a world they admired. It was a world they thought they knew, but only from the outside. It is a world they have been conditioned – for lack of a better word – to fit into. It is also a world, in which it was very easy to be intimidated, when they actually got there.

No matter how critical Obama has been at the lack of transparency in Washington, when the  director of the National Security Agency says We can’t release this information, it is classified, it would hurt the country, he goes along. When the director says Snowden is a traitor, Obama is conditioned to go along.

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