Harper’s has been my favorite periodical since I was in college. I love that everytime I read the publication my emotions run the spectrum: one minute I’m laughing so hard, I’m crying; the next minute I’m just crying. The editors’ abilities to find the obscure tidbits for the “Readings” section is mind-boggling, the “Index” is daunting and amusing, the images of artworks are well selected, and the writings/essays are among contemporary’s best and often quite profound in their revelations.
This month’s issue features: an insightful look at Barack Obama and his not so progressive politics, a glimpse inside the minds of young conservatives and their mentors, and a report from Dave Hickey on his experiences following a Nevada politician on the campaign trail pre-election.
Barack Obama has been a phenomenon since his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, which was refreshingly inspiring and heartfelt. Since then he’s become quite the celebrity on the talk/news show curcuit. I’ve seen him twice on Oprah. The first time was about a year ago with his wife and they seemed very in love and committed to their family. I was right there on the Obama bandwagon. I thought he was a new face to politics — socially conscious, there for the disenfranchised, intelligent, and not the usual suspect of Washington. However, this last time I saw him on Oprah, again with his wife, he seemed different, slicker, more rehearsed, and less clear on his positions. His wife also seemed different. The sparkle in her eye was gone, and at several points it appeared she was looking at him with resentfulness, as though she’d heard this bullshit so many times and delivered the same way, it was getting old. During the show, Obama made a point to mention his trip to Africa over the summer for which he took a domestic airline because he has a policy that he and his staff should in essence be using the same means of travel that most people use.
When I picked up the November issue of Harpers this past weekend, I was intrigued by the cover story “BARACK OBAMA INC. The Birth of a Washington Machine” by Ken Silverstein, the Washington editor of Harper’s. The report begins with the recounting of a speech that Obama gave to close to a thousand college students from throughout the country who are members of the student group Campus Progress and attending a conference sponsored by the Center for American Progress. Obama was the Keynote speaker and according to Silverstein he delivered a “rousing” speech that included the conviction that “American culture ‘discourages empathy’ and that those in power blame poverty on people who are ‘lazy or weak of spirit’ and believe that ‘innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes halfway around the world are somebody else’s problem.’” Obama then went on to urge the attendees to “ignore those voices, ‘not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate than you, although I do think you have an obligation … but primarily because you have that obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. It’s only when you hitch yourself up to something bigger than yourself that you realize your true potential.’” [this sounds like it could've been taken straight from the book Motivational Speaking] However, Silverstein continues “despite its audience and ostensible subject matter, however, Obama’s speech had contained just a single call for political action. This was when he had introduced Mark Pike, a law student who then came bounding across the stage in a green one-piece mechanic’s oufit. As part of a campaign called “Kick the Oil Habit,” Pike was to depart directly from the conference and drive from Washington to Los Angeles in a “flex-fuel” vehicle. … Obama noted that Pike would be refueling only at gas stations that offer E85 – which Obama touts as ‘a clean, renewable, and domestically produced alternative fuel.’”
Silverstein sums up the event with the following:
“Although the senator did not elaborate, E85 is so called because it is 85 percent ethanol, a product whose profits accrue to a small group of corporate corn growers led by Illinois-head-quartered Archer Daniel Midland. Not surprisingly, agribuisness is a primary advocate of E85, as are such automobile manufacturers as Ford, which donated Pike’s car. The automakers love E85 becuase it allows them to look environmentally correct (‘Live Green, Go Yellow,’ goes GM’s advertising pitch for the fuel) while producing vehicles, mostly highly profitable and fuel-guzzling SUV and pickup models, that can run on regular gasoline as well as on E85 (Since producing most domestic ethanol requires large amounts of fossil fuel, and regular gasoline provides about 30 percent more mileage per gallon than E85, it’s arguably preferable from a conservation standpoint to drive a standard gasoline car rather than a flex-fuel vehicle.) Obama had essentially marshaled his twenty minutes of undeniably moving oratory to plump for the classic pork-barrel cause of every Midwestern politician.”
The article goes on to give plenty more examples of Obama’s well-spoken, yet vague sound bites, never clearly stating his position without adding a disclaimer; and the murky relationships that Obama has formed with corporate America. In a footnote, the reader learns that Obama had accepted twenty-three flights on corporate planes, but following some bad press about that choice, he imposed a ban on privately subsidized travel for his office.
Silverstein’s final paragraph provides an obvious, yet sobering conclusion:
“All of this has forged a political culture that is intrinsically hostile to reform. On condition of anonymity, one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a “player.” The lobbyist added: “What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?”