Would a white guy have generated the enthusiasm that Barack Obama has?
Let's say there was a white guy with a similar background and resume to Obama. His father left—Romania, say—to come to Hawaii and marry his teenaged mother. He gave his son a funny name—let's call him Baravky. Little Baravky, raised by a single mother after his father returned to Romania, later moved to Indonesia where he attended Catholic schools. His mother woke him up at 4 a.m. to teach him American history and English, and he eventually returned to Hawaii to attend a prestigious private school on scholarship.
Fast forward a few years, and he's the first—Romanian?—president of Harvard Law Review, after having worked on Chicago's South Side organizing out-of-work Romanians and other poor ethnic peoples.
He writes a book, detailing the angst he's suffered as the son of a poor Romanian immigrant. His descriptions of his father's post-Communist Romania are very moving.
Baravky woos and marries a beautiful tall ethnic woman, who is also a graduate of Harvard. He runs for state senate, and everyone who meets him is impressed by his prodigious abilities and his charisma. "This man will be President one day," savvy Chicagoans proclaim. They also think he speaks English very well for a guy named Baravky Osmochescu.
He plays pick-up basketball, occasionally sinking a three-pointer. A handsome, skinny guy, he is perceived as cool by young people, some of whom have actually read his book.
With a strong wind at his back, and some hapless opponents, he runs for, and wins, a seat in the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile he gives a stirring speech at the Democratic Convention, tossing in a joke about his unusual name. "Only in America could a guy named Baravky be where I am!" We are all impressed, and more people start to think that this young man could one day be president. Maybe after Kerry has a turn.
He opens a Facebook account. He is sworn in to the Senate, with his lovely wife and young daughters at his side. He writes another book, and millions of people google the word "audacity".
I'm not sure, but I think he would. I think resume transcends race. Not to downplay the role race has played, but I do think America was ready for a new face. And a new, more lyrical name. Plus that "O" rising sun logo is really good.
My dog has a weird habit. She likes to hold the lead in her mouth, but only for the second half of our walks. For the first half she's content to run along sniffing, either on or off lead, but when we come to the final leg of our circular walk, she grabs the lead between her teeth and gently tugs me along.
Today the lead was still attached to my waist, as we were in the Common and she was off-lead, but knowing we were going to turn soon for our street, she insisted on holding on to the lead at my waist.
I'm not sure if it's bossiness, or just her oral fixation.
Here she is looking to see if there's any chestnuts under her favorite tree in the Common:
This fascinating article in New York Magazine by John Heilemann gets to a point I've been circling around, but never quite reached, in my own musings over Barack Obama and his candidacy and potential presidency. It's a long article, and this nugget comes on page 5:
And the unconventional way he ran for office, the whole bottom-up movement thing, may grant him a degree of independence unique in modern history. “Personally, I think the depth of the Obama realignment is being underestimated,” says the Republican media savant Stuart Stevens, who helped elect Bush twice. “They have basically invented their own party that is compatible with the Democratic Party but is bigger than the Democratic Party. Their e-mail list is more powerful than the DNC or RNC. In essence, Obama would be elected as an Independent with Democratic backing—like Bernie Sanders on steroids.”
Obama an Independent? Sure, why not? That, perhaps, is the root of his appeal for so many Republicans, I suspect. And the source of concern for so many Democrats who instinctively jumped on the Hillary Clinton bandwagon, a phenomenon I never quite understood. (I did try to address the misunderstanding here, though.)
The whole article is fascinating, especially if, like me, you're wondering what an Obama presidency will look and smell like. My biggest fear, all along, at the prospect of Democrats winning back the White House is the Clinton Spectre: the chaos, the partisanship, the non-stop defense we were forced to play. I don't see that, especially after reading this article, in a No-Drama Obama administration.
There's another nugget in here, toward the end, that reflects my belief, held since reading George Lakoff's Moral Politics, that the whole concept of a left-right political spectrum is just bogus. I see politics as two huge overlapping circles, not some sort of fixed line where a person's political persuasion is artificially embedded in between two opposite poles. Here's Heilemann :
From as far back as his days at Harvard, where I first ran across Obama, his bedrock political orientation—centrist? Liberal? Neoliberal? What?—has remained opaque. The evidence, much of it on display during this campaign, points in all directions. His Senate voting record: traditionally liberal. His temperament: technocratically pragmatic. His rhetoric: somehow centrist.
There's another word that's gone out of vogue recently, but that's "framing". Obama does it instinctively and gracefully, unlike its advocate George Lakoff (hence the concept's lack of vogue-ness). In a nutshell, it's the ability to appeal to the other side—or those in the other circle—by making your arguments in a way that reflects the core beliefs of the other side. Quick example: Obama's repeated references to personal responsibility in his stump speeches, his telling parents to turn off the TV if they want to improve their child's education, since government can't do that for them. Sounds like something Reagan would say, and be pilloried for by his opponents, but that actually isn't a bad idea—as long as there's government spending on early childhood education programs to help once parents have turned off the tube.
In other words, liberal—or conservative—programs aren't so bad. It's all in how they're presented. Up to now, Democrats have done a lousy job presenting their side of the argument. There's a reason Obama's team is reading up on FDR, the last president who managed to sell a liberal agenda to a grateful nation. (It could also be argued that Obama's agenda is hardly liberal, in the FDR sense of the word—top tax rates equal to the Clinton 39% rates are hardly the FDR—or even the Eisenhower—soak-the-rich 90% top rates.)
The whole article's worth a read, especially for political junkies who are really wondering what sort of course Obama may steer through his potential first four years, during what looks to be a political realignment. It gives, pardon the expression, some meat to the idea of realignment, that I found easy to swallow.
While in Toulouse recently, I spent a lot of time in church. In fact, since moving to Europe I've spent more time in churches than I have since I was a three-times-a-week Christian in my youth.
Toulouse has an especially rich ecclesiastical history. I'm not a biblical scholar, and plus I wouldn't want to bore my readers with which pope did what to which pope, so I'll skip that, and just show you all the pretty pictures.
My first stop was to the St Sernin Basilica. It's a Romanesque church, which means it was built around the 11th century. (Here we refer to that period as "Norman" and we have "Norman churches". No "esque".)
St Sernin is a massive building, with a wedding-cake bell tower on one end. Inside, there's a barrel vaulted nave and a crypt with the remains of saints. Interesting fact: Simon de Montfort was killed here during the siege of Toulouse by a stone dropped from the roof. I saw a few broken plates that had been dropped from a window, possibly during a re-enactment.
The next day I decided to check out the cathedral, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne. Unlike the basilica, it's a working cathedral. The architecture is irregular, a bemusing mixture of periods and styles. It's a little bit Gothic, a little bit Romanesque. The stained glass is mostly 19th century, but the faded tapestries are from the early 17th century.
In the afternoon I took a boat ride up the Canal du Midi, which is lined with sycamore trees. From the boat we could see the beautiful buildings across the River Garonne, including the Hôtel Dieu Saint-Jacques with its cross-shaped windows.
The Cloisters of des Jacobins
I saved the best for last, however: the Couvent des Jacobins. It's a massive brick building, its walls guarded by gargoyles. Inside is a cavernous nave, with tall pillars and delicate palm-shaped vaulting. While there I ran into St Thomas Aquinas, who was resting peacefully.
Then I slipped out a back door, into the cloisters. The sound of a choir greeted me. Not sure if I was supposed to be there, and prepared to make my excuses in broken French, I walked around the cloisters to the sound of the choir. Perhaps they were practicing and wouldn't mind an audience. I entered the chapel where the sound was coming from, only to find a bright orange barrier. Tentatively, I walked to one side, and was greeted by an amazing sight: banks of speakers, in groups of five, spilling out the most gorgeous sounds. In the middle were benches, with people sitting quietly, reverently.
It was, perhaps, the most awe-inspiring moment of my life. Brought to you by Bose.
This two-minute ad for Obama is aimed at explaining his policies and plans for the economy, and does a very good job at that. But as I was watching, I couldn't help thinking, "My, he's got some big ears."
I sympathize with the difficulties of county clerks' employees as they try to weed out the Harry Potters, Mickey Mouses, and Ima Hoggs from legitimate registered voters with similar names.
But here's a cautionary tale:
During my university years I worked on the yearbook staff, and as a lowly freshman, was assigned to Index duty. We'd often come across plainly nonsense names: Ima Hogg, U.R. Stupid, Luke Skywalker (the 1980s version of Harry Potter), etc. Usually I'd ask an editor before deleting the name from the index, which meant whichever smart alec had signed up as that person (usually in a group photo) wasn't listed in the index.
One day I came across "B.A. Flake", obviously a hoax name, I figured, and being in a particularly impatient mood, I scratched it off the list.
Flash forward a few years: I am now Mrs. B. A. Flake. My husband, should he ever achieve notoriety, will be untraceable in his college yearbook.
We passed this mama cow and her baby on the mountain road to Ordino in Andorra, one week ago.
You can see in the background one of the many houses that had been built out on the edge of the mountainsides of Andorra. Many were undergoing construction—Andorra so far hasn't been hit by the housing crisis, apparently.
These cows had a nice view:
This was in the higher elevations of the Pyrenees, as you can see from the shrinking tree line.
There is one charge that has dogged Barack Obama since he first announced he was running for president, and that's his lack of experience in Washington. I obviously don't think too much of experience, per se, as a determining qualification for president—fortunately, voters who chose Abraham Lincoln and FDR didn't either, since they were two of the most inexperienced presidents we've had.
Far more important, in my estimation, are temperament, character, and values. Would a candidate prefer to avoid war, or rush into it? Would a candidate calmly negotiate with a foreign leader who possesed nuclear weapons, or would he or she rant and rave? Would a candidate insist that the lowliest among us deserve help, or leave residents of a flooded city to fend for themselves?
But there are people genuinely concerned about the lack of Barack Obama's experience, who perhaps can't or won't vote for him because of it. In Time magazine, Joe Klein interviews Barack Obama, and those around him, and concludes that Obama has something much more important than sheer years of experience: maturity.
Even more remarkable, Obama has made race — that perennial, gaping American wound — an afterthought. He has done this by introducing a quality to American politics that we haven't seen in quite some time: maturity. He is undoubtedly as ego-driven as everyone else seeking the highest office — perhaps more so, given his race, his name and his lack of experience. But he has not been childishly egomaniacal, in contrast to our recent baby-boomer Presidents — or petulant, in contrast to his opponent. He does not seem needy. He seems a grown-up, in a nation that badly needs some adult supervision.
Read the whole article. It starts with a telling anecdote from Obama's visit to Iraq:
General David Petraeus deployed overwhelming force when he briefed Barack Obama and two other Senators in Baghdad last July. He knew Obama favored a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq, and he wanted to make the strongest possible case against it. And so, after he had presented an array of maps and charts and PowerPoint slides describing the current situation on the ground in great detail, Petraeus closed with a vigorous plea for "maximum flexibility" going forward.
Obama had a choice at that moment. He could thank Petraeus for the briefing and promise to take his views "under advisement." Or he could tell Petraeus what he really thought, a potentially contentious course of action — especially with a general not used to being confronted. Obama chose to speak his mind. "You know, if I were in your shoes, I would be making the exact same argument," he began. "Your job is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. But my job as a potential Commander in Chief is to view your counsel and interests through the prism of our overall national security." Obama talked about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, the financial costs of the occupation of Iraq, the stress it was putting on the military.
A "spirited" conversation ensued, one person who was in the room told me. "It wasn't a perfunctory recitation of talking points. They were arguing their respective positions, in a respectful way." The other two Senators — Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed — told Petraeus they agreed with Obama. According to both Obama and Petraeus, the meeting — which lasted twice as long as the usual congressional briefing — ended agreeably. Petraeus said he understood that Obama's perspective was, necessarily, going to be more strategic. Obama said that the timetable obviously would have to be flexible. But the Senator from Illinois had laid down his marker: if elected President, he would be in charge. Unlike George W. Bush, who had given Petraeus complete authority over the war — an unprecedented abdication of presidential responsibility (and unlike John McCain, whose hero worship of Petraeus bordered on the unseemly) — Obama would insist on a rigorous chain of command.
Leadership. Maturity. Intellect. Three qualities I want my next president to possess, above all.
We can find plenty of candidates with experience: How about Dick Cheney, or Al Gore? Neither one of them would have had the leadership and maturity to handle the situation with Patraeus in that way.
If you haven't yet read this article by Cass Sunstein at the University of Chicago, a colleague of Barack Obama, you should. And if you haven't read Obama's own book, The Audacity of Hope, and you insist on thinking that Obama is not equipped to lead this nation, then you owe it to yourself to read it before you vote on November 4.
If you've ever thought about eating a vegetarian meal in Toulouse, I've written a post for you.
Maybe one day I'll get around to blogging about what else I did in Toulouse. There are not, I've discovered, enough hours in the day. Perhaps when we return to Greenwich Mean Time on Sunday that will be fixed.
Our visit to Andorra was short: From our arrival through the tunnel at the French border to our exit the next day, we had approximately twenty-one hours. Fortunately, the country is rather short too. In fact, Andorra is so small it makes Luxembourg look like a superpower.
At its widest point, Andorra is no more than twenty miles across. It's two and a half times the size of Washington, D.C., but with 82,000 residents, it's got only a fraction of Washington's population. But I'd guess it's got almost as much commerce: Andorra, a tax-haven, is a shopper's paradise. Its main city, Andorra La Vella, is full of high end retail shops, and the main roads out of the country are flecked with shops mainly selling tobacco, spirits, and for some reason, meter-wide paella pans.
The Rough Guide gives an apt description, calling it "a cross between Shangri-La and Heathrow Duty-Free." That's true, except that it's pretty easy to avoid the duty-free parts. Skip Andorra La Vella, and you're pretty much in Shangri La territory.
I'll also go out on a limb here, having visited Andorra a total of one time: Fall is definitely the best time to visit. It's low season for tourists, but high season for fall colors. The trees, primarily yellow-leaved birches, are spectacular against the mountainsides, creating a mosaic of dark green pines, clumps of yellow birches, and occasional splashes of orange and red.
Our route took us from the French border to Canillo, where we turned off the main road onto a twisting route across the mountain tops to Ordino. (Fortunately, our stomachs were empty.) Our hotel, Hotel Babot, was the first sign of civilization we came to, located halfway down the mountainside. Ordino lay in the valley—so close we could hear the children on the school playground, but sounds are deceptive on mountainsides. The path we walked down from the hotel was steep: the helpful young man at the desk warned us to avoid it coming up. Conveniently, a shuttle van provides frequent rides back to the hotel, for 50 cents a ride.
There are lots of hotel rooms in Andorra—it's a booming ski destination, as evidenced by the construction. No signs of the credit crunch in Andorra: roadworks are ubiquitous (on already fine roads), and new chalets and condos are in the midst of construction in the prosperous-looking towns.
But despite this boom of activity, it was surprisingly quiet, perhaps because we were in a secluded location on the mountainside. Our views were stunning, regardless of which direction we looked. Jagged mountain peaks, topped by mist the morning we left. Gorgeous fall colors—real competition for New England, I'm afraid.
We spent a couple of hours walking around Ordino, a small town described by Rough Guide as "relatively agreeable". (Compare that to their description of Pas de la Casa: a "ghastly high-rise border town" frequented by "Brits in search of snow, sex and sangria." Easy avoided, however, as it's off the main road.) There's a tourist office in Ordino, with brochures that proved to be helpful the next day, as we drove out of town. I wanted to see some of the Romanesque churches—there are quite a few in Andorra, which have survived Andorra's quite recent plunge into modernity.
Sant Joan de Caselles church in Canillo
In fact, a good agenda for Andorra would be to grab the Culture and Heritage brochure and see how many locations you can find. In Canillo we saw St Serni, and Sant Joan de Caselles, and in Ordino, we merely walked past the Postal Museum and the Iconographic Museum—the price you pay for only spending twenty-one hours in a country.
But we did buy postcards, to which we affixed purple Andorran stamps. (The French operate the postal system, so who knows when or if the cards will arrive at their destinations in the USA.)
If we had more time, I'd have loved to go further into the mountains, and try some of the hikes another brochure told us about. The Madriu-Perafita-Claror glacial valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is said to offer excellent hiking, some around glacial lakes. But twenty-one hours goes by fast—I found myself regretting I hadn't booked another night at the Hotel Babot.
As the light disappeared from the evening sky, we shared a bottle of Spanish Rioja on our balcony, overlooking the craggy mountains. And that was our best moment in Andorra. I remembered my childhood joy of discovery of Andorra, and marveled at the opportunity I have as an adult to visit such far-flung places. Maybe the wine was making me a little bit sappy. But I am truly lucky, I realized, to be able to sit and drink rich red wine in the Pyrenees in the fall.
That, perhaps, is why Andorrans live longer than just about anyone else. With every day offering breathtaking views, polyphenol-filled red wine, and steep heart-pumping hikes, who wouldn't want to live a long, long time here?
The beluga whales of Alaska's Cook Inlet are endangered and require additional protection to survive, the government declared Friday, contradicting Gov. Sarah Palin who has questioned whether the distinctive white whales are actually declining.
Who could possibly not want to see beluga whales survive?
The government on Friday put a portion of the whales on the endangered list, rejecting Palin's argument that it lacked scientific evidence to do so. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that a decade-long recovery program had failed to ensure the whales' survival.
We all know of course what the real problem is here for Palin and her friends: Beluga whales eat salmon. And her husband is a part-time commercial fisherman.
There's a reason why the Humane Society endorsed Barack Obama for president. In fact, there are a whole list of reasons—you can read his response to their questionnaire here (pdf). And you can read their endorsement here.
I did a double take when I passed this electronics shop in Toulouse, then backed up and snapped a photo. I saw lots of dogs while I was there. Most were mixed breeds, large short-haired dogs of vaguely Alsatian heritage. And also a fair number of tiny Yorkies, trotting along after their madames, dodging high heels.
I did see one Golden Retriever, while I waited for my boat trip to depart. She was in the park next to the dock, nosing for nibbles on the ground. True to the breed, I must say: always looking for a croissant crumb.
Guess where I'm heading tomorrow? Okay, you're right, I'm going to Toulouse, France. But guess where after that?
Here's a hint:
I'm pretty excited. If you want to know why, you can read about my fascination with this tiny country here. It all started when I was around ten, and with no video games or computer games for the solitary pre-adolescent, I used to browse the World Book encyclopedias we owned.
One day I was reading the "A" volume, and "discovered" Andorra. Right there, tucked in between France and Spain, was a spot on the globe I'd never noticed before. It was a watershed moment for me. (Another watershed occurred when I got to the word "atom". I almost became a physicist right there and then.) Although I was a regular viewer of the Miss World pageant, and considered my young self something of an expert on geography, I'd never even heard of Andorra before. Did it actually exist, or was it a state of mind? What else might I be missing? (Turns out it was Sealand, another country not represented in the Miss World pageant.)
I never dreamed then that one day I might actually get a chance to visit this tiny neglected country—I would've as soon imagined a trip to Mars—but the other day, driving home from Germany, I examined the map de France and discovered how close Toulouse was to Andorra. It's just 180k—around 100 miles. And with a conference on my husband's agenda in the technology centre of Toulouse, a visit seemed like an actual possibility.
It will be a tiny little visit—only one night, at a hotel high in the Pyrenees. But I'm excited. I already got a map, and the Rough Guide to the Pyrenees.