Ms. Dowd asks “Who’s the Question Mark?” She says John McCain was a man of candor. But ever since Steve Schmidt became Mr. McCain’s campaign manager, the candidate has become a question mark. Mr. Kristof thinks it’s time for the United States to “Rejoin the World.” He says as president, George W. Bush’s cowboy diplomacy wrenched the United States out of the international community. We must rejoin the world. Mr. Friedman, in “Vote for ( )” says that the presidential candidates have broad ideas about how to restore the nation’s financial health. But what they are not saying is that we are all going to have to pay for it. Mr. Rich, in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” says forty-one years after Sidney Poitier’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” racial politics in America have changed, but not completely. Here’s MoDo:
In the final moments of the most gripping campaign in modern history, John McCain is still trying to costume Barack Obama as a dangerous enigma.
But, in an odd and remarkable reversal, it is McCain who is the enigma, even though he entered the race with one of the best brands in American politics.
And it is Obama, who sashayed onto the trail two years ago as an aloof and exotic mystery man with a slim record and a strange name, now coming across as the steadier brand.
The McCain campaign specializes in erratica, while the Obama campaign continues to avoid any dramatica.
McCain pals around with Joe the Plumber and leaves Tito the Builder to Sarah Palin, exactly the kind of inane campaign silliness that the McCain formerly known as Maverick would have mocked mercilessly.
He’s getting a little traction on taxes, as he latches on to every possible scary image about Obama — except the suggestion that the Democrat’s gray Hart Schaffner Marx suits are red.
Before he was bubbled by Bushies, McCain was one of the most known and knowable quantities in American politics. For most of his long public career, he prided himself on his openness with the press — he even allowed some reporters to watch the results of January’s New Hampshire primary in his hotel suite in Nashua. He relished spending all day being challenged by voters and reporters.
Last summer, tapped out and unable to afford a paid staff of political professionals, he talked freely, telling reporters he would have a White House that would be the polar opposite of the secretive and dismissive Bush-Cheney operation. He imagined weekly press conferences and talked of subjecting himself to a version of British question time in Congress. While acknowledging he was a tech tyro, he promised to try “a Google,” as he called searching the Web, to put government spending online so citizens could bird-dog it.
He even went so far as to spin a dream of a West Wing in which he would cut back on his Secret Service so he wouldn’t feel so constrained.
In the end, “The Bullet,” or “Sarge,” as McCain calls his replacement campaign manager Steve Schmidt, was the one who did the shackling, turning the vibrant and respected McCain into a shell of his former self.
Schmidt abruptly cut off the oxygen supply to McCain’s brain. No more of the oldest established, permanent floating crap game of press confabs. No more audiences that weren’t vetted for friendliness. No more of McCain’s trademark insouciant mocking the process even as he participated in it.
Whether it was the five years he spent in a hole in Hanoi or just his gregarious makeup, McCain seemed to feed off of the company of people who interested him, be it reporters, voters or the pols in his posse, like Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham.
Unlike Obama, He Who Walks Alone, McCain always rejected the solitary in favor of the social. But ever since Sergeant Schmidt put Captain McCain into a sterile brig on the trail, the candidate has become a question mark.
Why would he repeat that oblivious line about the fundamentals of the economy being strong, saying it once in August and again in September?
Why would he threaten to not show up for a debate (after denouncing Obama for not rising to the challenge of joint town halls) so that he could go to Washington and play the shining knight if he had no plan and no prospect for success?
Why did he allow his campaign to become a host body for a Bush virus looking for someplace to infect? After working so hard to erase the image of what Senate aides called “the Bush hug,” McCain inexplicably hugged Bushies, surrounding himself with mercenaries trained in the same Rovian tactics that tore up his family — and tore apart his campaign — in 2000.
Why did a politician who once knew how to play the game so well, who was once so beloved by people of very different political stripes, allow his campaign to get whiny, angry, vengeful and bitter?
(Her latest instant classics came Friday, when she entered a rally in York, Pa., to the tune of “Thriller” and when a conservative radio station broadcast an interview in which she accused reporters of threatening her First Amendment rights by attacking her for negative campaigning that she feels justifiably calls out Obama “on his associations.”)
Why did he allow his staff to put Palin on a couture catwalk in a tin-cup economy and then, when the price tags were exposed, trash her as a “diva” and “whack job,” thus becoming the rare Republican campaign devoured by Democratic-style vicious infighting?
The ultimate riddle is this: Why doesn’t McCain question why he has become a question mark?
Here’s Mr. Kristof:
An unscientific poll of 109 professional historians this year found that 61 percent rated President Bush as the worst president in American history.
A couple of others judged him second-worst, after James Buchanan, whose incompetence set the stage for the Civil War. More than 98 percent of the historians in the poll, conducted through the History News Network, viewed Mr. Bush’s presidency as a failure.
Mr. Bush’s presidency imploded not because of any personal corruption or venality, but largely because he wrenched the United States out of the international community. His cowboy diplomacy “defriended” the United States. He turned a superpower into a rogue country. Instead of isolating North Korea and Iran, he isolated us — and undermined his own ability to achieve his aims.
So here’s the top priority for President Barack Obama or President John McCain: We must rejoin the world.
There are three general ways in which we can signal a new beginning and “refriend” our allies:
• We should not only close the Guantánamo prison but also turn it into an international center for research on tropical diseases that afflict poor countries. It could thus become an example of multilateral humanitarianism.
The new president should also start a Truth Commission to investigate torture and other abuses during the “war on terror.” This should not be a bipartisan panel but a nonpartisan one, dominated by retired generals and intelligence figures like Brent Scowcroft or Colin Powell.
Such a panel would be respected as fair and authoritative in a way that one composed of bickering Democrats and Republicans would not, and it would underscore that we are eager to return to the norms of the civilized world.
• The new president also should signal that we will no longer confront problems just by blowing them up. The military toolbox is essential, but it shouldn’t be the first option for 21st-century challenges. You can’t bomb climate change.
We also have to pay far more attention to public diplomacy and outreach. Our Afghanistan and Pakistan policy is a mess in part because Osama bin Laden’s approval rating in Pakistan (34 percent) is almost double America’s (19 percent). You know we need a new approach when we lose a public relations competition to a fugitive mass murderer.
A new approach means a vigorous effort for peace in the Middle East. We also need to commit to negotiating with odious countries. President Clinton’s engagement policy toward North Korea was a constant headache, for Kim Jong Il was brutally repressive and tried to start a secret uranium program. But North Korea didn’t produce nuclear materials for a single weapon during Mr. Clinton’s years in office; under Mr. Bush, it has produced enough for a half dozen.
So here’s the score: Clinton diplomacy, 0 weapons; Bush fulmination, 6 weapons.
• We must cooperate with other countries on humanitarian efforts, including family planning. One of the Bush follies that has bewildered and antagonized our allies has been the vacuous refusal to support family planning through the United Nations Population Fund.
The upshot of the failure to support contraception has been millions of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. It’s difficult to think of any person alive today whose policies have led to more unnecessary abortions worldwide than Mr. Bush.
For all my criticisms, though, I would rank Mr. Bush more gently than those historians: I would peg him as second worst, after Buchanan. That’s because Mr. Bush has begun effective foreign-aid programs against AIDS and malaria that are saving millions of lives. His AIDS programs have transformed areas of southern Africa, but he so antagonized the world that America never gets adequate credit for this huge achievement.
Look, a friendlier, more multilateral policy will not solve the world’s problems. Iran isn’t going to give up its nuclear program because it likes us, and brawn is necessary to back up brains.
But without global political capital, we don’t have the leverage to organize more muscular persuasion. Without diplomatic heavy lifting, we can’t credibly threaten military heavy smashing.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States led the international effort to construct global institutions to promote peace and prosperity. These included the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and they served our interests. Now, in the aftermath of the cold war, we need to rethink and refurbish this architecture for the next half century or more.
The United States needs to be a part of the International Criminal Court and should lead the push for a new climate change treaty, for example. The new president should be an architect of this emerging order, rather than AWOL as the Bush administration has been.
For eight years, the United States has been in self-imposed exile, and that is one reason Mr. Bush’s presidency has failed on so many levels. After Tuesday, let’s rejoin the world.
Mr. Kristof, we can rejoin the world in 79 days. The current occupant has that long to continue to destroy the country. Here’s Mr. Friedman:
Here’s what strikes me this election eve: I can’t remember a presidential campaign that was so disconnected from the actual challenges of governing that will confront the winner the morning after. When this election campaign began two years ago, the big issue was how and for how long do we continue nation-building in Iraq. As the campaign comes to a close, the big issue is how and at what sacrifice do we do nation-building in America.
Unfortunately, you’d barely know that from the presidential debates. Watching them in the context of the meltdown of the financial system was like watching a game show where the two contestants were kept off-stage in a soundproof booth and brought out to address the audience without knowing the context.
Since the last debate, John McCain and Barack Obama have unveiled broad ideas about how to restore the nation’s financial health. But they continue to suggest that this will be largely pain-free. McCain says giving everyone a tax cut will save the day; Obama tells us only the rich will have to pay to help us out of this hole. Neither is true.
We are all going to have to pay, because this meltdown comes in the context of what has been “perhaps the greatest wealth transfer since the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917,” says Michael Mandelbaum, author of “Democracy’s Good Name.” “It is not a wealth transfer from rich to poor that the Bush administration will be remembered for. It is a wealth transfer from the future to the present.”
Never has one generation spent so much of its children’s wealth in such a short period of time with so little to show for it as in the Bush years. Under George W. Bush, America has foisted onto future generations a huge financial burden to finance our current tax cuts, wars and now bailouts. Just paying off those debts will require significant sacrifices. But when you add the destruction of wealth that has taken place in the last two months in the markets, and the need for more bailouts, you understand why this is not going to be a painless recovery.
The Bush team leaves us with another debt — one to Mother Nature. We have added tons more CO2 into the atmosphere these last eight years, without any mitigation effort. As a result, slowing down climate change in the next eight years is going to require even bigger changes and investments in how we use energy.
Given that Times columnists are not allowed to “formally” endorse candidates and given that the context of this election has changed so much from the policy positions the candidates started with, all I can suggest is that you vote for the candidate with these character traits:
First, we need a president who can speak English and deconstruct and navigate complex issues so Americans can make informed choices. We have paid an enormous price for having a president who could not explain and reassure us during this financial meltdown. We wasted a huge amount of time pretending that we could punish Wall Street without punishing Main Street — when, in fact, they are intricately intertwined.
A major money market fund — Reserve Primary — failed in September because the extra interest it offered customers derived, in part, from the $785 million in high-yielding Lehman Brothers commercial paper and notes it was holding. Depositors who told their congressmen to just let that greedy Lehman Brothers fail were shocked to discover this meant that their own money market would be frozen. No, we don’t need a president defending greed on Wall Street, but we do need one who can explain that we are all in the same boat, that a leak at one end can sink everyone and that while we must regulate, we don’t want to kill risk-taking and the rewards that go with that — which are essential to growing our economy.
Second, we need a president who can energize, inspire and hold the country together during what will be a very stressful recovery. We have to climb out of this financial crisis at a time when the baby boomers are about to retire and going to need their Social Security and eventually Medicare. We are all going to be paying the government more and getting less until we grow out of this hole.
Third, we need a president who can rally the world to our side. We cannot get out of this crisis unless China starts consuming more and unless Europe keeps lowering interest rates. Everyone is interconnected, and everyone is still looking to America to lead.
So, bottom line: Please do not vote for the candidate you most want to have a beer with (unless it’s to get stone cold drunk so you don’t have to think about this mess we’re in). Vote for the person you’d most like at your side when you ask your bank manager for an extension on your mortgage.
Vote for the candidate you think has the smarts, temperament and inspirational capacity to unify the country and steer our ship through what could be the rockiest shoals our generation has ever known. Your kids will thank you.
Here’s Mr. Rich:
And so: just how far have we come?
As a rough gauge last week, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen since it came out when I was a teenager in 1967. Back then “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was Hollywood’s idea of a stirring call for racial justice. The premise: A young white woman falls madly in love with a black man while visiting the University of Hawaii and brings him home to San Francisco to get her parents’ blessing. Dad, a crusading newspaper publisher, and Mom, a modern art dealer, are wealthy white liberals — Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, no less — so surely there can be no problem. Complications ensue before everyone does the right thing.
Though the film was a box-office smash and received 10 Oscar nominations, even four decades ago it was widely ridiculed as dated by liberal critics. The hero, played by the first black Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, was seen as too perfect and too “white” — an impossibly handsome doctor with Johns Hopkins and Yale on his résumé and a Nobel-worthy career fighting tropical diseases in Africa for the World Health Organization. What couple would not want him as a son-in-law? “He’s so calm and sure of everything,” says his fiancée. “He doesn’t have any tensions in him.” She is confident that every single one of their biracial children will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”
What a strange movie to confront in 2008. As the world knows, Barack Obama’s own white mother and African father met at the University of Hawaii. In “Dreams From My Father,” he even imagines the awkward dinner where his mother introduced her liberal-ish parents to her intended in 1959. But what’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears “so calm” and without “tensions” — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being “clean” and “articulate,” he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years ago.
Biden’s gaffe, though particularly naked, prefigured a larger pattern in the extraordinary election campaign that has brought an African-American to the brink of the presidency. Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.
There were countless ruminations, in print and on television, asking the same two rhetorical questions: “Is He Black Enough?” and “Is He Tough Enough?” The implied answer to both was usually, “No.” The brown-skinned child of biracial parents wasn’t really “black” and wouldn’t appeal to black voters who were overwhelmingly loyal to the wife of America’s first “black” president. And as a former constitutional law professor, Obama was undoubtedly too lofty an intellectual to be a political street fighter, too much of a wuss to land a punch in a debate, too ethereal to connect to “real” Americans. He was Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis or Bill Bradley in dark face — no populist pugilist like John Edwards.
The list of mistaken prognostications that grew from these flawed premises is long. As primary season began, we were repeatedly told that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the most battle-tested and disciplined, with an invincible organization and an unbeatable donors’ network. Poor Obama had to settle for the ineffectual passion of the starry-eyed, Internet-fixated college kids who failed to elect Howard Dean in 2004. When Clinton lost in Iowa, no matter; Obama could never breach the “firewalls” that would wrap up her nomination by Super Tuesday. Neither the Clinton campaign nor the many who bought its spin noticed the take-no-prisoners political insurgency that Obama had built throughout the caucus states and that serves him to this day.
Once Obama wrested the nomination from Clinton by surpassing her in organization, cash and black votes, he was still often seen as too wimpy to take on the Republicans. This prognosis was codified by Karl Rove, whose punditry for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek has been second only to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as a reliable source of laughs this year. Rove called Obama “lazy,” and over the summer he predicted that his fund-raising had peaked in February and that he’d have a “serious problem” winning over Hispanics. Well, Obama was lazy like a fox, and is leading John McCain among Hispanics by 2 to 1. Obama has also pulled ahead among white women despite the widespread predictions that he’d never bring furious Hillary supporters into the fold.
But certainly the single most revelatory moment of the campaign — about the political establishment, not Obama — arrived in June when he reversed his position on taking public financing. This was a huge flip-flop (if no bigger than McCain’s on the Bush tax cuts). But the reaction was priceless. Suddenly the political world discovered that far from being some exotic hothouse flower, Obama was a pol from Chicago. Up until then it rarely occurred to anyone that he had to be a ruthless competitor, not merely a sweet-talking orator, to reach the top of a political machine even rougher than the Clinton machine he had brought down. Whether that makes him more black or more white remains unresolved.
Early in the campaign, the black commentator Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat when he questioned all the rhetoric, much of it from white liberals, about Obama being “post-racial.” Smiley pointed out that there is “no such thing in America as race transcendence.” He is right of course. America can no sooner disown its racial legacy, starting with the original sin of slavery, than it can disown its flag; it’s built into our DNA. Obama acknowledged as much in his landmark speech on race in Philadelphia in March.
Yet much has changed for the better since the era of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” thanks to the epic battles of the civil-rights movement that have made the Obama phenomenon possible. As Mark Harris reminds us in his recent book about late 1960s Hollywood, “Pictures at a Revolution,” it was not until the year of the movie’s release that the Warren Court handed down the Loving decision overturning laws that forbade interracial marriage in 16 states; in the film’s final cut there’s still an outdated line referring to the possibility that the young couple’s nuptials could be illegal (as Obama’s parents’ marriage would have been in, say, Virginia). In that same year of 1967, L.B.J.’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, offered his resignation when his daughter, a Stanford student, announced her engagement to a black Georgetown grad working at NASA. (Johnson didn’t accept it.)
Obama’s message and genealogy alike embody what has changed in the decades since. When he speaks of red and blue America being seamlessly woven into the United States of America, it is always shorthand for the reconciliation of black and white and brown and yellow America as well. Demographically, that’s where America is heading in the new century, and that will be its destiny no matter who wins the election this year.
Still, the country isn’t there yet, and should Obama be elected, America will not be cleansed of its racial history or conflicts. It will still have a virtually all-white party as one of its two most powerful political organizations. There will still be white liberals who look at Obama and can’t quite figure out what to make of his complex mixture of idealism and hard-knuckled political cunning, of his twin identities of international sojourner and conventional middle-class overachiever.
After some 20 months, we’re all still getting used to Obama and still, for that matter, trying to read his sometimes ambiguous takes on both economic and foreign affairs. What we have learned definitively about him so far — and what may most account for his victory, should he achieve it — is that he had both the brains and the muscle to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast some of the smartest people in the country, starting with the Clintons. We know that he ran a brilliant campaign that remained sane and kept to its initial plan even when his Republican opponent and his own allies were panicking all around him. We know that that plan was based on the premise that Americans actually are sick of the divisive wedge issues that have defined the past couple of decades, of which race is the most divisive of all.
Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday. Should he win the White House on Tuesday, many will cheer and more than a few will cry as history moves inexorably forward.
But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.