I’m using the term in its generally accepted sense. A flake is not only a screwup, but someone who truly excels in making bizarre errors and creating incredibly convoluted disasters. A flake is a “fool with energy”, as the Russian proverb puts it. (“A fool is a terrible thing to have around, but a fool with energy is a nightmare”.)
Barack Obama is a flake, and the American people have begun to see it. The chief characteristic of a flake is that he makes choices that are impossible to either understand or explain. These are not the errors of the poor dope who can’t grasp the essentials of a situation, or the neurotic who ruins things out of compulsion, or the man suffering chronic bad luck.
The flake has a genius for discovering solutions at perfect right angles to the ordinary world. It’s as if he’s the product of a totally different evolutionary chain, in a universe where the laws are slightly but distinctly at variance to ours. When given a choice between left and right, the flake goes up — if not through the 8th dimension. And although there’s plenty of rationalization, there’s never a logical reason for any of it. After awhile, people stop asking.
Obama’s rise has been widely portrayed as a kind of millennial Horatio Alger story — young lad from a new state on the outskirts of the American polity, a member of once-despised minority, works his way by slow degrees to within arm’s length of the presidency itself. That’s all well and good — we need national myths of exactly that type.
But what has been overlooked is the string of faux pas marking each step of Obama’s journey, a series of strange, inexplicable actions, actions bizarre enough to require some effort at explanation, through such efforts have rarely been offered. It’s as if the new Horatio made it to the top by stepping into every last manhole and open trapdoor in his path. And we, the onlookers, the voters who are being asked to put this man in the White House, are supposed to take this as the normal career path for a successful chief executive.
What are these incidents? I’m sure many of you are way ahead of me, but let’s go to the videotape.
Here’s a young man who graduated from Columbia with high marks, with a choice of positions anywhere in the country. He comes from a state generally held to be a close match to Paradise. One, furthermore, that can be characterized as the most successful multiracial society in the world, with harmonious relations not only between whites and blacks, but also Japanese-Americans and native Hawaiians as well. To top it off, a state controlled in large part by a smoothly-functioning Democratic machine. So where does he choose to go?
To Chicago. One of the windiest, coldest, most brutal cities in the country. One that is also infinitely corrupt in a sense that Hawaii is not. One that remains one of the most racist large cities in the U.S. (Cicero, Al Capone’s old stomping grounds, a suburb that is effectively part of the city, is completely segregated to this day.) It would be nice to learn which of these aspects most attracted young Obama to the city. But if you’d asked at the beginning of the campaign, you’d still be waiting.
And what does he do when he reaches the city? Why, he joins a cult. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church has been turned inside out since the videotaped sermons appeared early this year, without anyone ever quite explaining exactly what Obama was thinking of when he joined up in the first place. Street cred, so it’s claimed. But there are a plethora of black churches that would have provided him that without the taint of demented racism that Wright’s church offered.
Obama apparently had to swear an oath of belief in “black liberation theology” when he joined the church. (It is the little touches of that sort that make it a “cult”, and not simply a “church”.) Did the thought of his career ever cross his mind? Didn’t he realize that church would inevitably cause him trouble somewhere down the line? That he’d be required to repudiate it and its ideas eventually? We can ask — but we won’t get an answer.
Back at school, Obama got himself named editor of the Harvard Law Review. This is a signal achievement, no question about it. The kind of thing that would be mentioned about a person for the rest of his life, as has been the case with Obama. But then… he writes nothing for the journal.
Now, let’s get this straight: here we have one of the leading university law journals in the country, one widely cited and read. Entire careers in legal analysis and scholarship have been founded on appearances in the Review, including some that have led to the highest courts in the country. Yet here’s an individual who, as editor, could easily place his own work in the journal — standard practice, nothing at all wrong with it. But he fails to do so. And the explanation? There’s none that I’ve heard. We can go even farther than that, to say that there is no explanation that makes the least rational sense.
We follow Obama down to Springfield, where as a state legislator, he voted “present” over 120 times. What this means, as far as I’ve been able to discover, is that he voted “present” nearly as much as he voted “yes” or “no”.
Now, statehouses work very simply: a member approaches his colleagues and asks them them to vote for his bill. Some comply, some do not. Some ask, “Is it a good bill?” and some don’t. Either way, they customarily, except in unusual circumstances, vote “yes’ or “no”. All except for Barack Obama. And how did get away with it? How did mollify his colleagues? How did he square himself with the party bosses? Echo answereth not.
(A good slogan could be made of this: “You can’t vote present in the Oval Office.” I hereby commend it to the McCain campaign.)
We turn eagerly to learn what his term in the U.S. Senate will reveal, only to be disappointed. But it’s not surprising, really. After all, he was only there for 143 days.
And there lies one of the keys to Obama’s rise. David Brooks pointed out in a recent New York Times column that Obama spent too little time in any of his positions to make an impact one way or another. This is what saved him from the normal fate of the flake: he was never around long enough for his errors and strange behavior to catch up with him.
But a presidential campaign is a different matter. A man running for president is under the microscope, and can’t duck anything, as many a candidate has had reason to learn. If Obama is a flake in the classic mode, now is when it would come out. And has it?
The case could be made. Here we have a campaign with everything going for it — the opposition party in a shambles, a seriously undervalued president, the media in the candidate’s pocket, the candidate himself being worshiped as nothing less than the new messiah. And yet the results have comprised little more than one fumble after another.
First came the Wright affair. Obama apparently thought he was above it all — a not-uncommon phenomenon with flakes — and allowed the revelations to take on a life of their own before bothering to respond. Even then, his thoughtful and convincing explanation (that he hadn’t been listening for twenty years) did little to settle the crisis, which instead guttered out on its own after nearly crippling his campaign. Even months afterward it threatens to pop back up at any time. The latest word is that Wright — now a deadly enemy of his onetime protégé — has written a book. I can’t wait.
Obama learned his lesson, and confronted the next threat immediately, tackling The New Yorker cover with the avidity of a man having discovered zombies in the basement. A development that could have been defused with a chuckle and a quip (the customary method is for the politician to ask the cartoonist for the original) was allowed to explode into a major issue. The campaign’s relentless attacks on one of the oldest liberal magazines extant merely perplexed the country at large. After all, any Republican has had to endure far worse.
Almost simultaneously, the birth certificate saga was unfolding. On no reasonable grounds, the campaign blew off requests for a copy of the document, at last releasing it through one of the least reputable sites on the Internet, and so badly copied that literally anything could be read into it — and was. I’m not one of those who believes that Obama was actually born in Indonesia/Kenya/Moscow/the moon, but I still have plenty in the way of questions, almost all of them arising from how the matter was handled. Well played.
The latest pothole (or one of them, anyway) involves Jerome Corsi’s The Obama Nation. Corsi has been given the full New Yorker treatment, with the campaign hoping to avoid John Kerry’s “error” in not challenging Corsi’s 2004 book, Unfit for Command. What Obama missed was the fact that Kerry’s major problem was not with Corsi but with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who were disgusted with Kerry’s hypocrisy in running as an experienced military veteran, and set out to take him down. Corsi’s effort dovetailed with the veteran’s campaign and to a large extent was swept up with it. No such campaign is in operation against Obama. The smart method of answering Corsi would have been to allow the media to handle it, instead of drawing attention to the book and raising it to level of an issue. This appears to be a real talent for the Obama campaign.
We could go on. The victory tour of Europe, and the speech in which Obama declared himself “citizen of the world”, a trope guaranteed to focus the attention of Middle America. His inept handling of Hillary, in which he wound up appearing frightened of the opponent he’d just beaten. Allowing Hillary (and her husband there, what’s-his-name) a starring role in the Democratic convention is not a solution any sane individual would be comfortable with — much less a roll-call vote. This threatens the near-certainty of turning the entire affair into BillandHillarycon, with the nominee winding up as a footnote. But it’s all of a piece with the campaign Obama has waged up until now.
We’ve never had a flake as president. We’ve had drunks, neurotics, cripples, louts, and fools, but never a career screwup. (I except Jimmy Carter, whose errors arose from sincere, misguided goodwill.) And I don’t think we’re going to get one now. Another three months of flailing, incompetence, and a collapsing image will do little to assure voters concerned with terrorism, the oil crunch, a gyrating economy, and a bellicose Russia. (Anyone doubting that Obama will go exactly this route can consider the Saddleback church fiasco, which unfolded as this piece was being wrapped up. Evidently, the campaign goaded NBC news personality Andrea Mitchell into all but accusing John McCain of “cheating” by failing to take his place within the “cone of silence” during Obama’s part of the program. The grotesque element here is that Obama’s people and much of the liberal commentariat — including Mitchell — apparently believe that the “cone of silence”, a gag prop for the old Get Smart! comedy series, actually exists and was in use at Saddleback.)
Many of us have dealt with flakes at one time or another, often in settings involving jobs and careers, and not uncommonly in positions of some authority. We all know of the nephew, the fiancé, the boyfriend, whose whims must be catered to, whose reputation must be protected, who must be constantly worked around if anything at all is to be accomplished, always at the cost of time, money, efficiency, and personal stress.
In the fullness of time, we will inevitably see such a figure in the White House. But not this year, and not this candidate. Such acts of national flakery occur only when there’s no real alternative. In this election, an alternative exists. Whatever his shortcomings, nobody ever called John McCain a flake.