I’ve been sick with a cold all week, spending a lot of time in bed watching the Obama-Clinton debates and the political pundits who have so much air time to fill with inventive verbosity. Today in a phone chat with a cynical woman friend who is temperamentally atheistic and anarchistic, I said that I adore Barack Obama for his integrity.
She snorted dismissively. “To get into office,” she said, “all politicians have to pander to public opinion. To do so is antithetical to idealism or honesty.”
She is right. I could never be a politician because I do not instinctively seek areas of common ground. I take a position and defend it by arguing tenaciously. But Obama’s gift is to bring people together and search for consensus. I am impressed by genuine peacemakers, even if I am not one myself.
Yet integrity is not peacemaking. It’s not even political astuteness. Politicians must have to maintain some kind of balance between pandering to get votes, on the one hand, and exercising visionary leadership, on the other. Politicians who are especially “politic” must necessarily lack sufficient consistency to inspire followers.
When I think of this dilemma, it is Mikhail Gorbachev who comes to mind. I still admire him enormously. Trying to bring democracy and common security to his society, he had to steer a dangerous course. As a centrist, he had to hold together a middle ground of public opinion. In doing so, he zig-zagged with increasing unpredictability. Late in his presidency he appointed reactionaries to posts in his cabinet, trying to keep them from ousting him, but by doing this he lost all credibility among the people who should have been his strongest supporters. Then the reactionaries staged a coup. Though he survived, his authority was so weakened that he could no longer hold together the fissiparous Soviet Union. His pursuit of compromise had destroyed his visionary leadership.
Did he have any better alternative? Once he was a passenger in a car on a winding road when the driver asked why he hadn’t just followed a straight course. Gorbachev replied, “Can you just drive us straight ahead now?”
Today Gorbachev claims to support Vladimir Putin, who represents all the authoritarian ways that he had tried to abolish during his own presidency. But we wonder: How can he possibly support Putin? He explains that Russia needs a strong leader now. He himself was not strong enough to hold the country together. Putin appears to be consistent; he seems to be driving forward in a straight line. Even if it is in the wrong direction, he enjoys the approval of seventy or eighty percent of the Russian population. Russia is no longer a democracy, but even if it were, Putin would win any election. Probably Gorbachev hopes that this prosperous dictatorship will create a new opportunity for democracy. At any rate, he is still the same old Gorbachev, playing along with his natural political enemies in the hope that compromise will produce a better outcome than futile visions. He is a wonderful visionary, but one cannot call it integrity. This is perhaps the underlying dispute between him and his greatest rival, Andrei Sakharov — the dissident who displayed far more integrity than common sense.
And now we have Obama. He does have integrity — at least in comparison to Hillary Clinton. The woman never stands up for what she believes if there are votes to be won by taking a different position. That’s democracy for you! It’s supposed to work that way, I guess, but it is not inspiring. I like Obama’s principles. He knows, as everyone should, that America’s nuclear weapons are still immensely dangerous, and he promises to begin eliminating them. She is willing only to reduce them a bit. He knows, as everyone should, that the world’s respect for America has been impaired by its militaristic approach to every problem — and he promises to begin a dialogue with enemy leaders, seeking common ground.
That’s integrity. Obama’s sticking out his neck. Hillary warns that he’s not prudent. Maybe she’s right, but I like his courage better than her caution.
But of course, he has to get elected first. And for that, a politician must be “politic.” Or, to put it crudely, a politician must pander to particular voting blocs, which is not so courageous. Today I received a fascinating e-mail from Rabbi Michael Lerner entitled “Obama’s Jewish Problem.” Lerner is the leader of America’s “spiritual progressives,” a category that includes Obama. Nevertheless, the older generation of American Jews tend to be hard line neo-conservatives who support military strength for the security of both the United States and Israel. In their opinion, “those who seek peace, disarmament, and reconciliation with antagonists are naive, utopian, dangerous and de facto anti-American or anti-Israel.” Although Jewish voters are only 2% of the US population, they are concentrated in the states with the largest delegates and electoral votes — New York, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. And they contribute a lot to politicians. According to Lerner,
“Faced with Clinton campaigners making charges that he is not sufficiently pro-Israel, Obama himself wrote a letter to U.S Ambassador to the UN Khalizad last week urging that the US reject any resolution critiquing Israel’s cut off of fuel and food to a million residents of Gaza ‘that does not fully condemn the rocket assaults Hamas has been conducting on civilians in southern Israel.’”
Well, that’s “politic“ of him, though I doubt that it reflects his true attitude. To give him the benefit of a doubt, perhaps he is taking that position so as to leave open the possibility of dialogue with hawkish Israelis. In any case, Lerner observes that
“Obama’s problem is that his spiritual progressive worldview is in conflict with the demands of the older generation of Jews who control the Jewish institutions and define what it is to be pro-Jewish, while his base consists of many young Jews who support him precisely because he is willing to publicly stand for the values that they hold. We can expect that this tension will be central should Obama win the nomination. But once in office, whether Obama actually pursues policies that are in accord with his highest beliefs as a spiritual progressive, or whether he finds it ‘too unrealistic’ to try to buck the spineless Democrats who will bow to the Israel Lobby automatically, depends on whether we can build a powerful enough movement of ordinary citizens to push for a peace that provides security for Israel and justice for the Palestinian people. Obama has made it clear he would want to do that.”