Obama surfs through

The Obamas are a warm vision for the White House -- but he should strive toward full transparency. Plus: Yes, I still like Sarah Palin!

Topics: Sarah Palin, Barack Obama,

Dazed and confused. A week after the election of Barack Obama, millions of American news junkies are in serious cold turkey, the big bump of withdrawal from two years of addiction to the dizzying ups and downs of a campaign that threatened never to end.

Eat dirt, you sour Clintons, who said Obama was “unelectable.” Obama’s 8 million vote margin over his Republican opponent — miraculously sparing us endless litigation and chad counting — was an exhilarating testimony to his personal gifts and power of persuasion. And the formidable Michelle Obama, with her electric combo of brains and style, is already rewriting first ladyhood. The warm partnership of the Obamas (wonderfully caught by the camera as they disappeared offstage after his victory) has set an inspiring standard for modern marriage.

Yes, it’s true we know relatively little about Barack Obama, and his triumph is a roll of the dice. But John McCain (like Bob Dole) was a major Republican misfire — a candidate of personal honor and heroic sacrifice who was woefully inadequate for the times. McCain’s lurching grandstanding during the Wall Street crisis made him look like a ham actor on a bender. In debate, McCain was always pugnacious but too often bland or rambling, and he often missed glaring opportunities to score off Obama’s vagueness or contradictions.

McCain’s brusque treatment of his long-suffering wife, Cindy, was also off-putting — nowhere more so than after his concession speech, when he barely remembered to give her a perfunctory hug. Probably no one is more relieved by McCain’s defeat than Cindy, who seemed too frail and tightly wound for the demanding role of first lady. Now she can slip away once more into blessed privacy.

No one knows whether Obama will move to the center or veer hard left. Perhaps even he doesn’t know. But I have great optimism about his political instincts and deftness. He wants to be president of all the people — if that is possible in so divided a nation. His natural impulse seems to be toward reconciliation and concord. The big question will be how patient the Democratic left wing is in demanding drastic changes in social policy, particularly dicey with a teetering economy.



As I’ve watched Obama gracefully step up to podiums or move through crowds, I’ve been reminded not of basketball, with its feints and pivots, but of surfing, that art form of his native Hawaii. A photograph of Obama body surfing on vacation was widely publicized in August. But I’m talking about big-time competitive surfing, as in this stunning video tribute to the death-defying Laird Hamilton (who, like Obama, was raised fatherless in Hawaii). Obama’s ability to stay on his feet and outrun the most menacing waves that threaten to engulf him seems to embody the breezy, sunny spirit of the American surfer.

In the closing weeks of the election, however, I became increasingly disturbed by the mainstream media’s avoidance of forthright dealing with several controversies that had been dogging Obama — even as every flimsy rumor about Sarah Palin was being trumpeted as if it were engraved in stone on Mount Sinai. For example, I had thought for many months that the flap over Obama’s birth certificate was a tempest in a teapot. But simple questions about the certificate were never resolved to my satisfaction. Thanks to their own blathering, fanatical overkill, of course, the right-wing challenges to the birth certificate never gained traction.

But Obama could have ended the entire matter months ago by publicly requesting Hawaii to issue a fresh, long-form, stamped certificate and inviting a few high-profile reporters in to examine the document and photograph it. (The campaign did make the “short-form” certificate available to Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.) And why has Obama not made his university records or thesis work widely available? The passivity of the press toward Bush administration propaganda about weapons of mass destruction led the nation into the costly blunder of the Iraq war. We don’t need another presidency that finds it all too easy to rely on evasion or stonewalling. I deeply admire Obama, but as a voter I don’t like feeling gamed or played.

Another issue that I initially dismissed was the flap over William Ayers, the Chicago-based former member of the violent Weather Underground. Conservative radio host Sean Hannity began the drumbeat about Ayers’ association with Obama a year ago — a theme that most of the mainstream media refused to investigate or even report until this summer. I had never heard of Ayers and couldn’t have cared less. I was irritated by Hillary Clinton’s aggressive flagging of Ayers in a debate, and I accepted Obama’s curt dismissal of the issue.

Hence my concern about Ayers has been very slow in developing. The mainstream media should have fully explored the subject early this year and not allowed it to simmer and boil until it flared up ferociously in the last month of the campaign. Obama may not in recent years have been “pallin’ around” with Ayers, in Sarah Palin’s memorable line, but his past connections with Ayers do seem to have been more frequent and substantive than he has claimed. Blame for the failure of this issue to take hold must also accrue to the conservative talk shows, which use the scare term “radical” with simplistic sensationalism, blanketing everyone under the sun from scraggly ex-hippies to lipstick-chic Nancy Pelosi.

Pursuing the truth about Ayers, I recently rented the 2002 documentary “The Weather Underground,” from Netflix. It was riveting. Although the film seems to waver between ominous exposé and blatant whitewash, the full extent of the group’s bombing campaign is dramatically demonstrated. It’s not for everyone: The film uses gratuitous cutaways of horrifying carnage, from the Vietnam War to the Manson murders (such as Sharon Tate’s smiling corpse, bathed in blood). But the news footage of the Greenwich Village townhouse destroyed in 1970 by bomb-making gone wrong in the basement still has enormous impact. Standing in the chaotic street, actor Dustin Hoffman, who lived next door, seems like Everyman at the apocalypse.

Ayers comes off in the film as a vapid, slightly dopey, chronic juvenile with stunted powers of ethical reasoning. The real revelation is his wife, Bernardine Dohrn (who evidently worked at the same large Chicago law firm as Michelle Obama in the mid-1990s). Of course I had heard of Dohrn — hers was one of the most notorious names of our baby-boom generation — and I knew her black-and-white police mug shot. But I had never seen footage of her speaking or interacting with others. Well, it’s pretty obvious who wears the pants in that family!

The mystery of Bernardine Dohrn: How could such a personable, attractive, well-educated young woman end up saying such things at a 1969 political rally as this (omitted in the film) about the Manson murders: “Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them. They even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!” And how could Dohrn have so ruthlessly pursued a decade-long crusade of hatred and terrorism against innocent American citizens and both private and public property?

“The Weather Underground” never searches for answers, but it does show Dohrn, then and now, as a poised, articulate woman of extremely high intelligence and surprising inwardness. The audio extra of her reading the collective’s first public communiqué (“Revolutionary violence is the only way”) is chilling. But the tumultuous footage of her 1980 surrender to federal authorities is a knockout. Mesmerized, I ran the clip six or seven times of her seated at a lawyer’s table while reading her still defiant statement. The sober scene — with Dohrn hyper-alert in a handsome turtleneck and tweedy jacket — was tailor-made for Jane Fonda in her “Klute” period, androgynous shag. Only illegalities by federal investigators prevented Dohrn from being put away on ice for a long, long time.

Given that Obama had served on a Chicago board with Ayers and approved funding of a leftist educational project sponsored by Ayers, one might think that the unrepentant Ayers-Dohrn couple might be of some interest to the national media. But no, reporters have been too busy playing mini-badminton with every random spitball about Sarah Palin, who has been subjected to an atrocious and at times delusional level of defamation merely because she has the temerity to hold pro-life views.

How dare Palin not embrace abortion as the ultimate civilized ideal of modern culture? How tacky that she speaks in a vivacious regional accent indistinguishable from that of Western Canada! How risible that she graduated from the University of Idaho and not one of those plush, pampered commodes of received opinion whose graduates, in their rush to believe the worst about her, have demonstrated that, when it comes to sifting evidence, they don’t know their asses from their elbows.

Liberal Democrats are going to wake up from their sadomasochistic, anti-Palin orgy with a very big hangover. The evil genie released during this sorry episode will not so easily go back into its bottle. A shocking level of irrational emotionalism and at times infantile rage was exposed at the heart of current Democratic ideology — contradicting Democratic core principles of compassion, tolerance and independent thought. One would have to look back to the Eisenhower 1950s for parallels to this grotesque lock-step parade of bourgeois provincialism, shallow groupthink and blind prejudice.

I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist. I stand on what I said (as a staunch pro-choice advocate) in my last two columns — that Palin as a pro-life wife, mother and ambitious professional represents the next big shift in feminism. Pro-life women will save feminism by expanding it, particularly into the more traditional Third World.

As for the Democrats who sneered and howled that Palin was unprepared to be a vice-presidential nominee — what navel-gazing hypocrisy! What protests were raised in the party or mainstream media when John Edwards, with vastly less political experience than Palin, got John Kerry’s nod for veep four years ago? And Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, for whom I lobbied to be Obama’s pick and who was on everyone’s short list for months, has a record indistinguishable from Palin’s. Whatever knowledge deficit Palin has about the federal bureaucracy or international affairs (outside the normal purview of governors) will hopefully be remedied during the next eight years of the Obama presidencies.

The U.S. Senate as a career option? What a claustrophobic, nitpicking comedown for an energetic Alaskan — nothing but droning committees and incestuous back-scratching. No, Sarah Palin should stick to her governorship and just hit the rubber-chicken circuit, as Richard Nixon did in his long haul back from political limbo following his California gubernatorial defeat in 1962. Step by step, the mainstream media will come around, wipe its own mud out of its eyes, and see Palin for the populist phenomenon that she is.

On the culture front, I was startled to read of the death last week of Yma Sumac, the virtuoso five-octave Peruvian singer who seems like a legendary figure of the misty past. Sumac’s 1950 debut album, “Voice of the Xtabay,” made a tremendous impact on me as a child. My family attended her performance (with her company of 20 artists) at the Binghamton Theatre in what was probably 1951. I still have the yellowed clippings and program, which lists songs eerily mimicking the sound of the Andean winds and earthquakes. The cover image of “Voice of the Xtabay” with a glamorous Sumac in the pose of a prophesying priestess against a background of fierce sculptures and an erupting volcano, contains the entire pagan worldview and nature cult of what would become my first book, “Sexual Personae,” published 40 years later. Thank you, Yma!

News items: My article “Final Cut: The Selection Process for ‘Break, Blow, Burn’” has just been published in the Fall 2008 issue of Arion at Boston University. It is available online at Arion or via that invaluable international site, Arts & Letters Daily. No more Mr. Nice Guy: I’ve taken the gloves off against John Ashbery, Jorie Graham and the rest of that insufferably pretentious crowd. For real English used in a vital, vigorous contemporary way, see the new book of poems by my colleague Jack DeWitt, “Almost Grown,” which deals with cars, gals and brawls — American culture at its finest!

My keynote lecture for the Theodore Roethke Centenary Conference, held at the University of Michigan last month, has gone to press for the forthcoming issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. The lecture is called “Dance of the Senses: Natural Vision and Psychotic Mysticism in Theodore Roethke.” One of my main points: I’m sick of the insipid bourgeois neuroticism in current, careerist American poetry. Bring back the psychotics!

Camille Paglia’s column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.

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