The blogs have put a lot of time into the matter of the Los Angeles Times’ alleged suppression of a video recording of Obama toasting Rashid Khalidi in a way that is purportedly anti Israel.  The view in the pro-McCain blogs, and from the McCain campaign seems to be that showing such a video to the mass market would demonstrate Obama’s unfitness to be President.  For purposes of this post, I am going to assume such a recording exists and that Obama did in fact make anti Israel remarks in the context of a Muslim American event.  For purposes of full disclosure, I was not pro-Obama during the primary campaign and did not decide against McCain until the nomination of Sarah Palin.  Also, I am jewish and some might view that as relevant to my views on Israel.

By way of background. Rashid Khalidi is an American, a native of the U.S., a scholar, no “a respected scholar”, and his stature is such that one might very well use the word ‘elite’ to describe his place in American academia.  During the last quarter of the 20th Century, prior to the “Intifada” insurrection that started in October of 1999, and gave birth to the “suicide bomber”  therer was relative calm in the occupied West Bank despite the ever increasing level of the use of military force by Israel in support of  settlement construction in areas to which Israel has not the slightest legal claim but rather took on the basis of pure power over the local Palestinians.  While pro-Israeli writers might very well claim that Israel’s claim to the West Bank has some legitimacy based on its security needs, that claim is analogous to the “Bush Doctrine” supporting the invasion of Iraq, i.e. that a nation can invade and occupy another nation if it perceives the invasion/occupation to be in its national security interest.  The problem with the Bush Doctrine is that, while it might justify the invasion of Iraq, it also justifies the Russian incursion into Georgia, and a host of other actions by various nations that th US doesn’t support.

Back to Khalidi, many people around the world condemned Israel’s actions in the West Bank as state sponsored terrorism, essentially what Khalidi has asserted.  When one reviews the facts on the ground, such a conclusion, while politically incorrect, is actually quite justified.  Even if one reaches a different conclusion, it is not clearly unreasonable to describe Israel’s actions as terrorism.  So now the issue is, how do we as a people who claim to believe in free speech deal with a respected scholar who adopts the position that back in the latter part of the 20th Century, Israel was engaged in a form of terrorism?

For further context, lets review the policies and politics of US attitudes to Israel.  As a practical matter, no politician can take a clear anti-Israel stance.  Both Bush, a “conservative” Republican and Clinton a “liberal” Democrat have worked very hard on the creation of a ‘two state solution’ under which there would be two independent sovereign nations, Israel and Palestine, and one of the main sticking points has been Israel’s refusal to give up the illegal settlements in the West Bank.  Both Bush and Clinton have pressured Israel to withdraw and there has in fact been significant withdrawal from some settlements by Israel. Both Bush and Clinton have made statements to the effect that Israel’s use of force in the West Bank was counter productive and that Israel needs to discontinue the construction of new settlements and dismantle at least some existing settlements.  In simple terms, it has always been the official position of this country that Israel has been wrongly using force to estbalish its political objectives.  “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

So now we come to the possibility that, years ago, a black politician, holding a state office from the south side of Chicago, toasted a scholar who had been critical of Israeli policies towards Palestinians, to curry favor with the attendees.  Granted this scholar did not use the politically correct vocabulary employed by presidents of both parties, but the substance of his criticisms is essentially the same as those of both our last two presidents. Lets make an assumption that the scholar being toasted in the video is not Rashid Khalidi but an American of european descent, with a name not associated with the middle east, say Professor Joel Benin, who has taken positions on issues which could be viewed as pro-Arab.  Lets also assume that the clergy in the room are not Reverend Jeremiah Wright and MInister Loius Farrakhan, but Reverend Pat Robertson and  Reverend John Hagee.   Does anyone believe that there would be any effort by the McCain campaign to find and exhibit that video?  But look at the the statement by the McCain spokesperson that “a major news organization is intentionally suppressing information that could provide a clearer link between Barack Obama and Rashid Khalidi”.  It just doesn’t make sense. Why do we need to establish a “clearer link” between Obama and a respected scholar? Is the scholar suspected of wrong doing that is somehow connected to his relationship with Obama that could rationally spill over to Obama’s qualification to be President.  Is it merely because the scholar, in positions not inconsistent with the policies of presidents of both parites, has criticized Isreal (albeit in a politically incorrect fashion).  Of course not.  There’s no ‘red meat’ in Obama talking to clergy and toasting a man who is viewed as taking pro Arab positions.  The value in the alleged video isn’t the philosophy of the people present, its the color of their skin, the ethnicity of their names, that they are non-christian, that they are muslims and the resulting ability to imply a link to support for al Qaeda and terrorism and to perpetuate the myth that Obama is, in reality, muslim.

No one of intelligence can seriously believe that a random comment at a south-side Chicago partisan political party could be meaningful evidence that any potential president of the US could ever take any action contrary to the interests of Israel. As discussed above, the pro-Israel sentiment in this country is so far beyond question that no politician could get elected dog catcher after taking an anti Israel position. So the need to establish the link between Obama and Khalidi is pure Rove politics. Pure fodder for more mud slinging.

I understand that PUMA’s, Blue Dog Democrats and Reagan Democrats want McCain to win. While I admit to be favoring Obama, I cannot for the life of me understand anyone would want the democratic process to turn on the perpetuation of a lie. That’s what dictators do. Thats what Rove did to defeat McCain in 2000. That’s what military rulers do to justify a coup. That’s a classic case of the ends justify the means.

I have no illusions that Obama is “the One”. He is presumably a typical politician with a giant ego who believes he alone can save the world (as does McCain). But whether you want a black man or a white woman (or a white man or black woman) to be president, whether you honestly believe in trickle down or just don’t want to pay more taxes, whether you believe Obama is less experienced at or capable of handling terrorist challenges than Bush was or McCain would be, regardless of why or even how much you prefer McCain over Obama, hopefully the democratic process of the electorate making a choice based on reality is more precious than any one election.

While I’m not suggesting that polls reflecting a close election (like in 2000) are gospel, polls suggesting a 7, 8 or even a double digit lead cannot be ignored. If, in the context of the polls remaining at current levels and absent some ‘game changing’ even, McCain were to win, the only rational explanation would be to believe that Robert F Kennedy Jr’s article “Block the Vote” in Rolling Stone was prescient and that we would be having a second Florida 2000 but on steroids. I must tell you how scarey that is, not just the possibility of civil disobedience that could ensue, but what it would say about the democratic process in this country. Basically one would have to conclude that the spoils go not to the winner but to the candidate that is better at voter suppression. Woebetide us if that is the case.

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For those of you who are rabid pro-Obama, this is intended as possible focus for you.  And it might offend.  For those of you who are rabid anit-Obama, I won’t say “don’t chime in” but be charitable.

Okay, I watched the “closing argument’ last night and I was fascinated by the delivery.  No he wasn’t doing the African American sing-song delivery one sees in some AME churches but more of classic rabble rousing oratory.  Not the charisma of Bill Clinton or the warmth and charm of Jack Kennedy (yes I’m that old), but more like the footage one can some times see of Huey Long or, if one only measures body language and voice quality, dare I say it, like Adolf Hitler.  (No I don’t speak german and I’m not suggesting that he is saying the kinds of things that are atributed to Hitler and please don’t comment that I’m accusing him of Nazi sympathy.)  But I do want to focus on this ability he has to stir people.  And what it means that he has this ability.

If Obama wins, it will be in large part credited to his so-called ground game.  While a significant part of his ground game is attributable to the money he has to spend, and the resulting professional staff he can hire and use to organize, one has to acknowledge that any success from that ground game has based on the raw numbers of dedicated volunteers.  What fascinates me is why has he developed that number of dedicated volunteers.

I had occassion to meet with several of them that might serve as examples.  One is a young African American lawyer from D.C.  She came out west for the campaign to serve as an unpaid staffer, deputy voter protection coordinator.  Talking with her one cannot avoid seeing the dazzle in her eyes,  hearing the excitement in her voice and, reading between the lines, feeling her unbridled enthusiasm that she has embarked on a kind of mythic journey of righteousness in support of a great humanitarian cause.  (If I had an editor here, he would make me tone that down a bunch.)  Another is an older attorney from the Bay Area who recently started to coordinate legal services for the poor, after decades of private practice and very good compensation. She admitted to feeling like she needed to ‘give back’ and that despite her career change, wanted to be a part of a ‘movement’.

What makes bright, intelligent, hardworking people with satisfying, well paid, careers feel the need to give up (or at least temporarily set aside) those careers and take on the work of the Obama campaignf?  While one might think that it is based on a close connection between their liberal political views and those of their chosen candidate.  The problem with that conclusion is that most Democratic candidates, both in the primaries and general elections, have view which are fairly similar to large numbers of liberals and yet those candidates have not seemed to generate this kind of following.  That differences almost forces one to look deeper into Obama to see what attribute he has that might explain this difference.

Well my hypothesis is that politcial success in this country, especially at the national and state levels (less so at the local level) is dependent to a very large degree what I will refer to generally as “personality”.  Personality can include such disparate traits as the personal charm of the sort that took an unknown conservative Democratic governor from a ‘flyover’ state to two terms as president, as well as the  folksy delivery style of the female governor from large state with a small population currently drawing large audiences.  It can include the classic charisma of Jack Kennedy and the laid back candor of Janet Napolitano, a Democratic governor of a very red state.  In my view, a politician that has this ability to connect to a substantial portion of his constituency at an intangible level, and can do so without offending on the substance of the issues, will succeed with a high degree of regularity.  He or she need not be dead on with respect to the relevantissues.

If one compares the candidates in recent presidential elections, one sees the evidence of this.  While I am not suggesting that George Bush (Bush 41) was a nerd, he did not have the presence of his 1988 opponent.  Bob Dole, also a veteran public speaker in the mold of a long term Senator, just didn’t have that eye to eye connection and was generally viewed (if one believes the polling) as having a certain untrustworthiness about him.  Even George W. Bush (Bush 43), as the guy you wanted to have a beer with, was far more able to connect with voters than an Al Gore who, if he’d had the style in 2000 that he’s demonstrated since losing, would probably have won.  And Kerry too suffered from a kind of stiffness that made Bush 43 seem like Mr. Personality by comparison.

Please understand that I”m not suggesting that personality is always determinative.  To the contrary, Bush 41 did not, in my view, have the personality of Mike Dukakis.  But he had Lee Atwater (for those too young to remember, Atwater gave birth to Karl Rove) making Dukakis look like John Kerry on a sinking swift boat.   But in an election where there is no dramatic advantage on the issues in favor of one of the candidates, and no mud that sticks to either, the candidate that connects at a personality level will almost invariably win.

Which brings us back to Obama.  Yes one can say that the negatives of the Bush 43 record and approvals would drag down any Republican candidate, the reality is that, going into the conventions, before large numbers of previously undecided voters had significant exposures to the candidates, Obama was trailing.  Yes one can argue that Obama’s rise over the last 6 weeks has been pushed hard by the ever deepening financial crisis along with a view that McCain is hurt by his closeness to Bush 43 and inability to articulate a coherent plan to address the crisis.  But the reality is that those are probably partisan positions.   No, in my opinion, its not the substance of the economic issues, its not the experience of the candidates, or even the absence of mud that stuck to either candidate.  No, in my opinion its the Obama personality.  (I’ll bet you didn’t see that one coming!)

So what does my theory mean, if I’m correct?  My response is two fold.  Firstly it means that we, as a people are probably choosing our leaders for the wrong reasons.  And secondly, it means that we as individuals have to be far more vigilant about ourselves and why we make the choices we make.   We have a democracy of which we have, for generations, been rightly proud.  We evolved from a “democracy” in which only white men that owned land could vote to almost universal suffrage (we’ll talk about voter suppression in another post) and where, but for low turn out, the majority truly does rule.  How much better would that be if, instead of voting based on that emotional connection we feel when a politician hits the sweet spot in our psyche, we voted based on a real understanding of the issues and their complexity, and the real record of the people running as relates to those issues.

Right now, I lament that we are the victims of almost universal demagoguery, from the left as well as the right.  Skilled politicians capture our loyalty by tickling our strongly held views of right and wrong.  If we’re conservative or poor, they scare us with the possibility of tax increases that will hit us hard.  If we are liberal, they point to the needs of the less fortunate that aren’t helped by a system that favors reduced budgets and/or tax cuts over social programs.  And once the politician hits us with that particular cupid’s arrow to our basic philosophy, the real and complex issues drift off into space and we see only that which conforms to our preconceived ideas of what works and what is right.

OKay back to earth.   I’m not saying Obama is evil or that he’ll attempt to do anything in particular.  I’m merely pointing out that he is a talented politician/speaker who has the ability to make his audience feel a connection, and to use that connection to move people, and that talent will enable him to lead us where he wants to take us, if we let him.  Our job as citizens, even on the left, no especially on the left, is to be vigilant that we are being led in the right direction, to listen to the substance of what is said and to educate ourselves about whether it is correct and appropriate and to object when we are being led someplace we ought not go.  And just as those on the left should not withhold objection just because the speaker has hit us in our political heart with his cupid’s arrow, those on the right should not object merely because Obama stands for general propositions that conflict with the basic philosophy of the right.

The bottom line here is that, as voters, we have a responsibility to be informed, to make informed decisions, to be vigilent and to act based on well educated analysis of the issues not on the basis of oversimplified sound bites that politicians want to use.  This is a difficult responsiblity.  First it goes against our nature.  It requires focus and work.  It does not allow us to base our decisions on simple concepts like “it’s socialism” or “that’s just trickle down”.  And it requires us to accept that our basic philosophies do not and should not apply in all circumstances.  In other words, democracy is not easy.