Thursday, November 30, 2006

Obama and Evangelicals

Barack Obama is attracting a lot of press right now as the fresh-faced new entry in the Democratic presidential sweepstakes. His barnstorming goodwill tour hit a bump recently: he was invited to speak at a conference on HIV/AIDS at Saddleback, Rick Warren's Southern California megachurch, one of the capitals of evangelicaldom. But due to his pro-abortion-rights record, Obama's scheduled appearance sparked expressions of protest from evangelical leaders, including Phyllis Schlafly.

My sense is that many Democratic observers are skeptical, right out of the gate, of Obama's attempts at outreach to evangelicals, and were quick to read this as a setback for Obama. My off-the-cuff response when I first saw this news item was, Phyllis Schlafly is past her prime, and in a battle of the titans, my money would be on Rick Warren.

Sure enough, Warren responded politely but firmly, and and the bottom line is that Barack Obama is still invited to Saddleback. This article tells us that while Obama is in SoCal he's going to squeeze in an appearance on the Tonight Show. Rick Warren didn't just fall out of a tree, and he would have to be real afraid of Phyllis Schlafly to diss a Tonight Show guest. He's not that afraid of her.

One of my points here, to channel Amy Sullivan for just a moment, is that your average journalist or Democratic politico has a view of evangelicals that's stuck in the past. Writers like Eric Kleefeld attach a lot of weight to names they recognize: Falwell, Schlafly, and Robertson. None of those three is a heavyweight contender anymore. Rick Warren is a contender, Richard Land and James Dobson are contenders. Ted Haggard was a contender until recently.

Another news story that caught my attention this week is that the president-elect of the Christian Coalition has opted not to take the job, because of the resistance he encountered in wanting to broaden the Coalition's focus:

"My position is, unless we are caring as much for the vulnerable outside the womb as inside the womb, we're not carrying out the full message of Jesus," he said in a telephone interview yesterday. "They began to think this might threaten their base or evaporate some of their support, and they said they just couldn't go there."

The Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson's onetime base of operations, is circling the drain. This is because of garden-variety institutional stagnation, and also because (my second point here) pro-life politics are in trouble. (Note the setbacks on Election Day: the abortion referendum in South Dakota, the stem-cell referendum in Missouri.) An overwhelming focus on protecting the unborn and harassing gays, to the exclusion of every other issue, makes the Schlafly types look out of touch and mean. The future of evangelical politics is global humanitarian issues and the environment, and Barack Obama may be onto something.

Update, 12/4/06: The text of Obama's speech at Saddleback

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Midterm Elections Recap

I can't add too much to my friend Snoopy's reaction. I really tried not to make predictions or have high expectations, but it was hard to avoid it. For months Democrats were just aching with anticipation, while cowering in fear of GOP dirty tricks, John Kerry gaffes, and The Myth of Karl Rove's Genius. But I went through the day November 8th tired, but with a smile on my face, which just got bigger with each news update: Don Rumsfeld, George Allen, Conrad Burns...

Here's something strange, though: Bush's postmortem press conference inspired James Fallows to muse, "Has Bush Been Smart All Along?" This is an odd little column, that Fallows half-apologizes for as he's writing it. By way of background, Fallows had written a story in The Atlantic in 2004 that examined Bush's oratory going back to his days as Texas governor, and concluded that GWB's verbal acuity had declined noticeably over the years. Anyway, Fallows listened to Bush in the aftermath of his midterm "thumping" and thought the President sounded eloquent and sure of himself, as if some his rhetorical brain cells had regenerated; Fallows even praised him for pronouncing words like "cumulative" and "nevertheless" without a hitch. (Christ, do our pundits ever grade Presidents on a curve!)

Has Bush been smart all along? The overwhelming consensus is No. (In the days before the election, I savored the fact that while Bush seemed eager to be out on the campaign trail, his party would only send him to out-of-the-way places where they figured he couldn't hurt them. It turned out that he hurt them anyway in formerly Red States like Montana.) I didn't think Bush sounded especially smart on the Day After; he was robotically repeating the phrase of the day, "fresh perspective" (as in, flushing Rumsfeld was not an admission of failure, it was a quest for a "fr...) and his peevishness was competing with the need to extend a hand to Nancy Pelosi.

However, I wonder if this drubbing at the polls was a psychic watershed for Bush. I see certain hints that he is sure of himself in defeat. There's been lots of discussion of the Rumsfeld firing, and its timing, and a tangent about Bush "lying" to reporters about Rumsfeld's job security the week before the election. What I take from the Rumsfeld story is that the President implicitly agrees with the proposition that the 2006 midterms were a referendum on him and his wars. In my view Bush has been a fundamentally weak and insecure leader, urgently trying to puff himself up, surround himself with yes-men and cheering crowds and triumphalist campaign advisors. Now his bubble has burst, and part of him was sure all along that it would, and I wonder if he feels a tremendous relief and unburdening. I think he'll take to being a lame duck better than Clinton did.

One intemperate election prediction I did make had to do with a certain Senate race in Connecticut. I guess I'll never publish the anti-Joe Lieberman post I wrote back in August at the height of Ned Lamont fever. Don't want to make the Independent Democrat angry. (Watch out! He's a maverick! Stand back while he DOESN'T issue subpoenas!)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Right Stuff!

Have you ever met a real-live astronaut? I have, last Saturday night, in fact.

I'm going to struggle to keep the names and places out of this post--This was a guy who piloted the Space Shuttle on one of its early missions. He's retired now from NASA but still does public appearances, for a fee, I am told. (Did he get appearance fees when he still worked for NASA? Is being an astronaut a money-making gig? I wonder.) He gave a talk, with a slide show, at a fundraising event at a science museum in my town.

It was a polished presentation that I'm sure he's given a hundred times. He summarized his career, the selection process for becoming an astronaut, the history and future of the space program. He included some human-interest details about what it's like to spend several days in zero-gravity conditions: for instance, he got about 1.5 inches taller in space, because without gravity your spinal column de-compresses. The Astronaut says it's great if you have back trouble. He displayed some humorous, nonchalant bravado; he said you pull 3 G's during a shuttle lift-off, "no problem for an old Navy pilot like me, a little rough on the Air Force guys." When he spoke of the astronauts who died in the Challenger and Columbia accidents, he was respectful but matter-of-fact and still a little nonchalant. Those men and women understood the risks, and understood that the program was bigger than themselves, he said; words to that effect anyway.

Then there was a brief question-and-answer period, then The Astronaut got a standing ovation. Many people become star-struck little kids in the presence of an astronaut. The Astronaut's talk had been 30 or 40 minutes long, then we moved to the evening's other activities, eating and having cocktails and dancing (there was a live band). The Astronaut stayed for the party. Most men were in dark suits and ties, while the Astronaut wore his bright blue and yellow NASA flightsuit. You could say that he stood out in the crowd.

The Astronaut is in his 60's (a few years younger than my dad; I know this because in chatting with him I learned he went to the same high school as my dad, a few years behind) but ruddy-faced and just a little thick around the middle and thin up top. He invited us to call him by his first name, for which I was grateful because I wasn't sure how to address him (Commander?) Imagine Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff, 30 years older but still the cocky test-pilot: holding court with a cluster of men and even more women hanging on his every word, smiling, winking, NASA patch on his breast, telling stories of missions accomplished and deaths defied. It was a good party, and I for one don't get enough chances anymore to dress up and have a few drinks too many and try to remember how to dance. People were looking their best and the liquor was flowing, and while nobody made a royal ass of him- or herself, I felt it was something of a workout for dormant middle-aged libidos. I don't know if the Astronaut achieved liftoff that night, but it sure looked like he could have.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

"a sort of clown"

Gary Wolf, "The Church of the Non-Believers," in Wired magazine. A profile of today's fiery evangelists of atheism (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris).