Political Hay

Misreading the Oval Office Job Description

Where is it written that the U.S. president must be a uniter, rather than a divider?

By 8.16.07

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The Washington Post headline of August 15 played it straight: "Obama Says He Can Unite U.S. More Effectively than Clinton."

Staff writer Dan Balz pinned the tail on that donkey by giving WaPo readership a taste of the paragraph from which it came:

"I think it is fair to say that I believe I can bring the country together more effectively than [Hillary Clinton] can," Obama said. "I will add, by the way, that is not entirely a problem of her making. Some of those battles in the '90s that she went through were the result of some pretty unfair attacks on the Clintons. But that history exists, and so, yes, I believe I can bring the country together in a way she cannot do. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be running."

The photo accompanying the story was more of the same, as the AP saw fit to caption a grip-and-grin moment of the candidate in shirtsleeves as "Barack Obama campaigns in Nashua, N.H. He said he would be better able to unite the nation than his top rival."

Please understand that Dan Balz is not half the hack that Helen Thomas is. Reading this piece, however, one gets the impression that his interviewing technique amounts to thumbing his tape recorder on and saying "whenever you're ready, sir." That's an easy charge to substantiate against a profile that stoops to actual analysis in exactly one sentence: "Obama never used the term 'polarizing' to describe Clinton but made it clear he has studied polls that show that many people have an unfavorable opinion of her."

What are we, in turn, to make of the race for the Democratic nomination between senators from Illinois and New York? That it will be competitive.

Here are a few questions that I wish Dan Balz had asked Barack Obama about the presumption on which both men hung this story. All of them have to do with unity, and so far as I can tell, none of them has yet been addressed by the press, or by politicians in the run-up to this election cycle.

First, where is it written that the U.S. president must be a uniter, rather than a divider?

Did Abe Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and sundry other chief executives not get that memo? Would anyone care to hear what Jefferson Davis thought his job description was?

If unifying the country to one degree or another is a presidential duty, then why has the U.S. Supreme Court been brazenly trying to usurp that duty since approximately 1973?

Is unity the most important benchmark against which prospective policy should be measured? If so, does foreign policy get an exception?

Does unified mediocrity contribute more to domestic tranquility than fractious brilliance?

ANY CANDIDATE WHO WANTS to answer that last question should first promise to read up on the Constitutional Convention responsible for the most important of our founding documents, and the script for The Third Man. Cinephiles will remember that Orson Welles as Harry Lime intones that "In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed -- but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and what did that produce? -- the cuckoo clock!"

Harry is not being entirely fair, because the Swiss infantry was once the best in Europe, which is why Swiss Guards attend the pope to this day -- but he makes a point that would-be presidents tend to overlook.

Moreover, the venality of Harry Lime, war profiteer, segues naturally into another series of questions about unity:

Does a president's unifying capacity, whether real or alleged, not push him or her perilously close to that "one ring to rule them all" territory of which J.R.R. Tolkien warned us about, back in the pre-Rowling day when the wizard fraternity had only two famous members, Merlin and Gandalf?

If, as totalitarian regimes have taught us, political unity is made manifest by outside threat, does that dynamic not imply an ongoing need for a crisis around which to rally?

If unity is the fruit of shared attention to borders, language, and culture, will any candidate of either major party credit talk show host Michael Savage with having been ahead of the game?

RONALD REAGAN, ARGUABLY the greatest president of my lifetime, put a higher premium on integrity, freedom, and vision than he did on unity, which is why he was able to talk tough with Gorbachev, fire striking air traffic controllers, and kill the misnamed "Fairness Doctrine" before it strangled conservative radio in a fibrous embrace right out of Little Shop of Horrors.

You see where I'm going with this. I'd like to hear more pointed rhetoric from professional journalists. If we can't have pointed, then thoughtful would be a welcome respite from the usual round of "softball with Caesar" right after the AccuWeather forecast and the announcement of winning lottery numbers.

Sadly, people like John "Mr. Contrarian" Stossel and Mika "Paris Hilton is not my lead story" Brzezinski have long been outnumbered by cheerleaders, stenographers, and moonlighting publicists who insist on educating the rest of us through their oft-expressed desire to "make a difference." Here's a slogan they seem to have forgotten, even though it's less obscure than "Frodo Lives!" and pithier than "War is not healthy for children and other living things": Question authority.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.