Barack Obama Sings America

Let it be said now. Barack Obama channels Walt Whitman.

Nevertheless, something there is in a political woman that doesn’t like poetry in a man. MSNBC reports today that Hillary has chosen to attack Obama by mocking his eloquence. She’s been stumping in New Hampshire, saying “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” One of many jabs that Hillary uses to demonstrate her superior manliness to Obama and his fluff, the quote comes originally from Mario Cuomo. Another Clinton favorite: “I’m a doer, not a talker.”

May be. Though it does seem to me that Hillary is a little tone deaf on this one. She is, after all, campaigning and not governing, as if she has forgotten that she has to campaign after all. I’m also not so sure it’s a wonderful move to deride the citizenry for having false hopes. (Who does she have writing this stuff?) All of this is of a piece of Hillary’s general effort to demonstrate that she has the cojones to be president. And that her own cojones…among other things…are a lot bigger than Edwards or Obama.

Indeed, I was fascinated with the way last night’s debate among the Democrats degenerated toward a variety of male stereotypes—as if we can’t get past the masculine image even at this moment when the stereotypical image of masculine leadership seems to be less stable than ever.

In one corner, we had Edwards the pugilist, who seems bound and determined to be fighting everyone and everything. “You can’t nice these people.” Another jab at Obama’s apparently suspect masculinity. I wished someone would give Edwards some valium, or else a good book to read. In another corner we had Richardson the affable elder statesman (who, in my estimation, pushed himself a notch closer to the vice presidency). Clinton played the hardnosed greybeard realist with her nose to the grindstone. She’s apparently been working non-stop for 35 years. Does it occur to her that when she says this most Americans say “Why don’t you take a vacation. I would. In fact, I’ll be glad to give you one.”

Which left Obama to be….What?….again, something that seemed new, that didn’t seem to quite fit in.

Still, I’m getting far afield from my original purpose. I’m intrigued by the role that literary metaphors are playing in the political campaign so far, and especially in Hillary’s latest attacks. The Huffington Post had a much quoted blog a few weeks ago to the effect that Obama was poetry and Clinton was prose. Hillary’s attack picks up on this dichotomy and falls into typical masculine stereotypes that men who like poetry are just a little too effeminate for comfort, at least for political comfort. Hillary’s attacks called to my mind Maureen Dowd’s skewering in the New York Times of John Kerry in two different op-ed pieces because he not only read but also wrote poetry. Didn’t this signify somehow, Dowd seemed to imply, that Kerry was too unreliable, too unserious, or at least not serious in the right ways, to play with the big boys. See June 8 2003 and March 7, 2004 in the New York Times.

Picking up on my post from yesterday, I’m intrigued with how the candidates use literature as a means of communicating something about themselves, and whether what they reveal about their literary tastes and interests says anything about them. I went on the respective candidates’ Facebook pages to see just what it said about their literary interests.

About Hillary I discovered….zilch, zero, nada. Indeed, Hillary’s Facebook page offers absolutely nothing about her personal interests at all. As if in playing out the traditional masculine split between public and private, she has to absolutely deny that she has any personal interests whatsoever. Or maybe it is just that her personal interests only extend to becoming president of the United States.

Of all the candidates, Obama’s is the most extensive, the most diverse, and the most dominated by literary texts. He names Moby Dick, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, The Tragedies of Shakespeare, Taylor Branch’s biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Parting the Waters, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Self-Reliance by Emerson, The Bible, Lincoln’s Collected Writings.

My God, the guy actually reads. I mean, I have no doubt that these pages are massaged and picked over by staff for the kinds of messages that might be sent. (More on Mitt Romney’s choice of Huckleberry Finn—an apparently quick correction from an earlier choice of a novel by L. Ron Hubbard that earned guffaws from the blogosphere last year– and Mike Huckabee’s choice of The Holy Bible in another day or two). But Obama has to have actually read this stuff, and he has to actually read books for his own interest. Having read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson not only helps him with the literary crowd—he doesn’t really need the help, they’ll mostly vote for him anyway—it also helps him with moderate and educated evangelicals who found Robinson’s novel immensely complex and moving, testimony yet again that the connections between literature and religion are hardly dead. They’re just quiet.

By comparison, I guess I was disappointed at the fact that Hillary didn’t list anything at all. I dug around for awhile—unscientific word searches on Google—and finally found a reference at the NEA where Hillary suggests her favorite book as a child was “Goodnight Moon.” A lovely choice. I read it ad nauseum to my kids, but am now far enough removed from the cuteness that I get warm fuzzies at the sound of the title.

Has she read anything since? She did not list a favorite adult book on the NEA. I also just found a blog on the same topic at Huffington Post that says Hillary chooses Little Women and The Poisonwood Bible. However, I can’t find anything else readily available that confirms these choices. Still, I think they are worthy choices if true. John Lundberg finds them too predictable. I’m not sure that I agree but they do suggest a certain prepackaged quality of control and safeness to me. The bitter attack on fundamentalism in the Poisonwood Bible won’t win her fans with the hardest core of fundamentalists, but, again, they wouldn’t vote for her anyway.

I admit to disappointment in having to dig so hard to find out anything about Hillary’s literary tastes. Whereas Obama strikes me as a person to have in your book group. What a great conversation that would be after eight years of a president who can’t be bothered by literature. Too much nose to the grindstone for the imagination to have much play for Hillary. Somehow it says something to me that Obama is presenting himself as a literary man while I have to dig and dig to figure out if Hillary reads anything other than the bible she apparently carries with her everywhere—and which still does nothing for her with the biblically literate electorate.

Still, I’m wondering if Hillary’s graybeard, workaholic, no-time-for novels, approach to this political campaign will really win out in the end. America famously honors novels more in the breach than in reality. Real men—and Hillary in some ways has to prove that she’s man enough for the job—have no time for literary folderol. Obama’s depth and complexity run the risk of seeming, well, wimpy, something both Clinton and Edwards have keyed in on.

I’ll take a risk here and say that Obama can get away with it because he’s …black. Odd leap, I realize, but bear with me. In white America’s racial codes, black men are portrayed as hypermasculinized, all body and no mind. There’s a lot of scholarly material out there on the historical fears that white Americans have of black American masculinity (I’ve drawn on some of this and use it in my book on masculinity and religion in the Harlem renaissance—freely admitting that “book” is a hopeful word for the 400+ pages that now sit in my computer, just starting as we are to sniff around for a publisher). Obama’s literariness and his lyrical eloquence serve to humanize him for a white audience that, while improving, is not so very far removed from the appeals of Willie Horton ads. Henry Louis Gates, after all, has pointed out that historically blacks used literacy—the ability to read and write literature—to demonstrate their full humanity to white audiences. I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that Obama’s literary card softens residual white fears of a black male planet.

Obama’s poetry, his admirably diverse literary interests, serve the purposes of showing him once again as a uniter, someone who brings all things together. He brings black and white together. He brings Herman Melville and Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison and Shakespeare together. He brings male and female together. He brings his hard political and his soft literary sides together.

Obama’s literariness strikes me as genuine and authentic—though I realize that in this day and age even authenticity is pre-packaged. His literariness quite clearly matches and even enhances his political imaginary. Obama’s literary “softness,” deadly to men like John Kerry and John Edwards–and perhaps deadly, too, for political women like Hillary Clinton–plays to the idea that he can be all things.

He is large. He contains multitudes.

He too sings America.

Side note: I’ve added Liz Laribee’s blog, peaceamillion, to my blogroll. Liz is one of the funniest, and best, young writers that I know. Of course, I don’t know that many young writers. Sorry, Liz. The truth will out. No seriously. Everyone should go delight in Lizworld.