In these dark days at the end of the Republic, we've been trying to watch the Daily Show more often. Last night was a repeat, with Barack Obama as the guest. He's a great foil for Stewart -- witty, open, quick. Best exchange came when Stewart asked him if he feels a lot of pressure from all of the hype surrounding him. Not so much, says Obama. "I just try to do the best I can, speak openly about what I believe in. But yeah, there's some pressure -- the only person who's more overhyped than me is you!" Stewart nearly fell on the floor laughing and said that was about the best answer he'd ever heard.
So one hopes the best for young Barack and his idealism. But realistically, can it last? Politics is inevitably about compromise, and one necessarily ends up agreeing to things one would rather not in the service of attaining a more important end. Even in my small sphere of academia I run into that all of the time. I make choices about what I'll pursue, where I'll stand my ground, what risks I'm willing to take, what opportunities I'll pass up. Fortunately for me, the political stakes are relatively small (this is academia, after all) so I've never been in a position where I've felt that I've had to compromise on principle. I like to believe that if I were ever put in a position where I couldn't avoid acting unethically, I'd resign. Fortunately, I've never been tested in that way. In my world, I get to be honest and still reasonably effective.
But Senator Obama? In the snakepit that is the United States Senate, how long will it be (if it hasn't happened already) before he feels that he has to make choices that chip away, even just a little bit, at his ethical core? Where will he decide to take his stands? What compromises will he find himself forced to make?
Is it possible, in that world, to be truly honest and still be effective? Many years ago, when I first saw the biography of LBJ on The American Experience, I was struck with the awareness that Johnson had a fundamentally different view of truth and falsity, right and wrong, than what I'd been brought up with. In his world there were goals and objectives to be reached, and one used whatever tools were at hand to get there. Notions of "truth" were pretty much irrelevant.
Johnson did more to improve race relations and to combat poverty in America than any other president. And yet, in his pursuit of the Vietnam War, his choices made him a war criminal. Reagan was probably the 2nd most effective president of the 20th century, and his hold on reality was clearly quite tenuous. He couldn't even get the facts of his own history straight. But he was a natural-born storyteller, and the truth of the stories was what mattered more to him than any actual historical facts.
A willingness to ignore ethical norms may be necessary for success in politics; but it's not sufficient. If W's administration continues its collapse, and is viewed in retrospect as the disaster that it has in fact been, it won't be because they played fast and loose with the truth; it won't be because they are ethically corrupt. It'll be because they're incompetent.
In recent presidential elections, both parties have cynically played up the "character" issue, as if that really matters. But the people of the United States have always loved their corrupt politicians, as long as they deliver.
That's the reality that someone like Obama has to face. There'll come a decision point where he can achieve something that his constituents will celebrate, but only at the cost of a bit of his soul. What will he do?