Thursday, June 17, 2010

Poetry yes, prose no

By Don Klein

It is beginning to have the feel of 1979 when Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Tehran. The incident was so badly handled by then President Jimmy Carter that he was swept out of office more than a year later.

Is Barack Obama unconsciously replicating those days of Carter ennui? Is he reminding us of how incapable he is in finding a solution, or at least a plan of action, to a situation grass roots Americans refuse to live with? Is he toying with the possibility of becoming known as a leader paralyzed and overwhelmed by events?

Will the offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico be his hostage crisis? Will Obama’s "Waterloo" not be the failure of his political programs as predicted by some Republican senators, but rather an unexpected and uncontrollable oil spill? These are legitimate questions that will be answered relatively soon.

In case you forgotten 52 American embassy workers were held hostage for 444 days by Iranian extremists after they stormed the US compound in Tehran in 1979. The reason for their behavior is unimportant since their action was clearly a violation of the most sacred doctrine of international law – an embassy in a foreign land is the property of the nation it represents and is protected from intrusion by the local government.

The Iran government spit on this reverent international agreement and Carter fumbled like a schoolboy trying to explain to a strict teacher why he played hooky for most of time until everyone was freed after he left office more than a year later. He even aborted a desert helicopter rescue after a accident which left eight American servicemen dead and shied away from any other action.

Today with the oil spill still dominating the headlines and with the public impatient for presidential action which does not seem to be coming, insiders have to be worrying about Obama’s leadership image. Here we have 11 American dead when the oil rig went up and we are well into nine weeks of failure in stemming the flow of oil into the gulf.

And like Carter more than three decades ago, Obama doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what to do next to relieve the pain of those injured by the spill. There are those defenders of the president who ask, "what else can he do?" as if he has done anything significant so far.

There are lots for him to consider if he was bold and proactive. He could ask all the major oil suppliers who make billions selling gasoline to Americans to assemble emptied tankers at the sight and a start sucking up the accumulated spill. His apologists say this is expensive and will not work. But it did work in previous spills elsewhere and the expense will not be greater than the damage caused by the oil reaching into shorelines.

Besides the expense will be BP’s not the taxpayer’s.

I am sure there are other strategies that could be used. Anything is better than nothing, which is pretty much what is being done now. But Obama is proving the old Mario Cuomo adage that campaigns are poetry while governing is prose.

Some years ago Cuomo, the former governor of New York and a brilliant wordsmith in his own right, said in a speech, "In fact, if our candidates campaign in poetry instead of good hard specifics, and win, they may wind up governing… in vain." Could he have been predicting the fate of Obama?

Most people who listened to the president speaking from the Oval Office Tuesday were not very impressed. He spoke like an oncologist describing how he plans to remove a cancerous growth from a patient’s nose. I heard more passion from an auto mechanic explaining how he will adjust my car’s faulty alternator.

Obama came into prominence as the twenty-first century’s version of Franklin D. Roosevelt or a reincarnation of Jack Kennedy. He had the style, the language and the swath of greatness, but the challenges of the time seem to be too much for him. At least so far. Maybe he will surprise us soon and give us all the confidence that was generated by the great presidents of the past.

When FDR was at his height I was a teenager. I was 15 years old when he died and I cried when I watched the newsreels (there was no consumer television then). They say it was a different time then, and maybe it was, but a great leader brings out the emotions in people.

What made Roosevelt the beloved man he was? His eloquence did not match Obama, but he had something today’s president seems to lack. He was inspirational with his upbeat attitude and expressed confidence in the future. So was Kennedy, even though he achieved less.

But Obama is an enigma. No matter how much I root for him to succeed and to inspire a downcast nation he appears to have lost the knack. His words promised us a great deal during the presidential campaigns and to many he appeared to be that proverbial knight on the white charger.

The problem is that his style has not matched his pre-election words. He is riding a pony not a stallion. The weight of the high office he holds seems to have worn him down. The energy is sapped. Hopefully he is not turning into a latter day Carter.

The question remains, however, has he made Cuomo’s bywords his axiom?

1 comment:

Charlie said...

Let's remember the promises. We all know what they were, and they were very eloquent as are the speeches. But in the end, what do we really need in a leader? The answer, in my opinion, is experience and wisdom with eloquence coming in a distant third or fourth.