So Long, W—Hello, O

Thursday, January 22, 2009
A is for African-Americans, who were the great presence, and absence, of the Obama campaign. A political alphabet by Tunku Varadarajan.

“Barack” and “Obama”: Never before in American politics have words so outlandish been associated with the White House (although a spirited case can be made for “Gamaliel” and “Milhous”). That said, everyone knows who Obama is. So the following primer on the new president is not intended as an informational tool. It is, instead, a personal and playful attempt to define some of the salient character and ingredients in his electrifying story.

A is for African-Americans, who were the great presence, and absence, of the Obama campaign: the former because he is one of them, and they— to a man, it is said—embraced him as one of theirs; the latter because Obama is determined to be postracial, or racially transcendent, so he must calibrate (sometimes to vanishing point) how much African-American goes into his identity.

B is for Bill Clinton, who—according to the bonhomie of a bygone era—was the first black president of the United States. Now, thanks to his uxorious support for Hillary (see H, below) in the primaries, he has been restored to full redneck glory and is the first ex–black president of the United States.

C is for Community Organizer, which, as deployed by Sarah Palin at the Republican convention, became arguably the most notorious cuss word in the American political lexicon. Seldom can a phrase so vegan have energized so many consumers of red meat.

D is for Democrat, the party that competed for the reins of this jauntily misgoverned country. We hadn’t had one in the White House since 2000, and the previous incumbent (see B) is allowed but grudgingly into the Obama tent.

A is for African-Americans, who were the great presence, and absence, of the Obama campaign. A political alphabet by Tunku Varadarajan.

E is for Elite, which is the club to which his detractors said Obama belongs. This is, to use a phrase, rather rich, since he is the son of a single mom of modest income whose husband went AWOL while Barack was a baby. And yet . . . the accusation, in some quarters, appeared to stick, leading one to conclude that it is not so much about material privilege as educational pedigree. Obama should have gone to Rutgers.

S is for the Senate, whence Obama comes. A political alphabet by Tunku Varadarajan.

F is for Fundraising and Foreign Policy, the first of which he’s a genius at and the second of which, it is commonly believed, he knows little about. He is, however, as the Germans acclaimed on his campaign visit to their country, ein Berliner—and Germany (as currently constituted) borders eight countries. That’s a darn sight better than Alaska!

G is for Glamour, at which Barack and Michelle (see M) hammered John and Cindy the way Clay KO’d Liston. Unlike that fight, there was nothing fixed here. And behind the Democratic first couple there was a vast hinterland of glitz, namely, Hollywood. Obama had Scarlett Johansson. McCain had . . . Ted Nugent. (I love you, Ted, and I’ve bought your book. But you’re no beauty.)

H is for Hillary, who was the Woman Thing to Obama’s Black Thing in the “it’s-our-turn” wrestling that characterized the Democratic primaries. Hill’s Angels cried sexism, and Bill maintained that his wife would have made a better running mate than Joe Biden (see V). Hell, even Joe Biden hinted that Hillary would have made a better running mate than Joe Biden. None of which dispels the sense that we all have in our bones: that Hillary is still waiting for her chance. (Will Maureen Dowd still have her column then? We hope so. )

I is for Islam: No, its not Obama’s religion.

J is for Jesse Jackson, who, in an unguarded masculinist moment, threatened to lighten Obama’s load. He did say sorry, though.

K is for Kenya, which, as Obama has never failed to remind us, is the land of his father. Which brings us to . . .

L is for Luo, the politically marginal Kenyan tribe from which Obama’s father hailed. The joke in Nairobi is that the real breakthrough of Obama’s election is that a Luo was elected president. Still, the Kenyan government proclaimed a national holiday in the president-elect’s honor. Presumably the Kikuyu and Kalenjin were not popping champagne.

M is for Michelle, Obama’s wife—the quintessential homework mom to Sarah Palin’s hockey mom. Michelle is forceful, intelligent, beautiful, tall, accomplished, charismatic, and professional—so why, oh why, weren’t we allowed to read her college thesis?

N is for the N-word, mercifully defunct in the national political vocabulary.

O is for Osama, which is close enough—only one consonant, folks— to “Obama” to have caused some red faces early in the campaign. Two culprits: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and AFL-CIO’s Teddy Kennedy.

P is for Politician. Yes, dears, Obama is one. No, he’s not a saint. (Defeating Hillary in the primaries and helming the Harvard Law Review do not constitute the two important miracles necessary for canonization.)

Q is for Qualified for office: “Yes, he is!” “No, he’s not!” A summary of what passes, today, for political discourse in America.

R is for Tony Rezko and the Reverend Wright. Obama, in a speech that some regard as the greatest since Gettysburg, repudiated—roundly— the latter, an incendiary preacher from Chicago whose church he frequented in less carefully edited times. The former—Rezko—is a murky property developer in Chicago with whose help Obama bought his home— an act that the Democratic candidate subsequently called “boneheaded.” (This is the only charge of stupidity ever likely to stick against the cerebral Obama.)

S is for the Senate, whence Obama comes. His detractors said his brief and all-too-liberal spell there constituted insufficient qualification for the White House (see Q and C above, in conjunction).

T is for Taxes, which he’ll raise for the rich and cut for the poor, through his making work pay tax credit, his American opportunity tax credit, his mortgage interest tax credit, his savers’ tax credit, and his child and dependent care tax credit.

U is for the Undecided: how they voted decided the fate of this erstwhile underdog. (And I don’t mean the Supreme Court.)

V is for Vice President. Obama, some say, should have gone with Hillary; instead he went for Joe (the senator, not the plumber). For which we got Palin. And lipstick on a pig. Whoever did the electoral math in the Obama brain trust reckoned that a gaffe-prone, old white geezer was a better bet as a running mate than a pugnacious diva with a priapic husband in train. Apparently they were right.

W is for whites, for many of whom the Obama victory was catharsis on an impressive scale. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. God knows, catharsis is handy in times like these.

Z is for zeitgeist. Is that a German word? Who cares. Ich bin ein Amerikaner!. A political alphabet by Tunku Varadarajan.

X is for XOXO, a big wet kiss, signed, sealed, and delivered to Obama by the American media. (No, not you, Mr. O’Reilly.)

Y is for Yes-we-can, the quasi-religious incantation of the Obama camp. “Can what?” was not always satisfactorily explained, but the prosody of this ambiguous affirmation was put to lovely music by will.i.am on, where else, YouTube.

Z is for zeitgeist. Is that a German word? Who cares. Ich bin ein Amerikaner!