People with the slightest interest in politics, especially journalists, spent 2006 and 2007 smacking their lips and rubbing their hands in anticipation of 2008, relishing the prospect of gorging on the story of a lifetime: no incumbents running, a free-for-all of mad-interesting candidates, world-historical issues at stake. Mmmm!
Be careful what you wish for. This election cycle now reminds me of the one Looney Tune that terrified me as a child, where a selfish and gluttonous Porky Pig is subjected by a mad scientist to a nightmare of unending force-feeding. Enough already. Please. Enough.
And yet, being a glutton, I find I can’t kick my present addiction to political data and chatter, even though gobbling it no longer makes me feel good. That jones is partly a function of this year’s gripping Terminator battle between the Democrats—earnest young would-be savior-leader pursued by staggeringly destructive and nearly indestructible shape-shifting automaton. But it’s also because in this election, as never before, I’m not a disinterested observer, not even pretending to be, but rather an unapologetic believer—I’ve been an Obamaphile from the get-go. My whole life, I’ve never cared about sports, never experienced that intense, emotional, extra-rational rooting interest in any team’s struggle to win the championship. I figure this must be what it feels like to be a hopeful, fretful, stressed-out fan during the Super Bowl or World Series.
Clinton’s supporters are clearly just as desperately devoted to their own on-the-ropes candidate, and must be obsessing in the same riveted, dreadful, nauseated way over the judges’ scoring of the next (the thirteenth? Fourteenth?) round of the fight. And they’re as grumpily, soccer-hooliganishly antagonistic toward us as we are toward them. These last five years, both sides have grown so accustomed to feeling a visceral, sputtering disgust with George Bush that it has been a seamless, easy devolution this winter and spring from anti-Republican anger to factional, internecine anger. At the very moment we’d become fatigued by our too-familiar, practically rancid loathing of Bush, this new dislike of Hillary (or Obama) that welled up is a fresh, exciting flavor of red-meat contempt.
But of course, I don’t know many of those fierce Clinton supporters, because most of my friends and acquaintances are writers and editors and cultural impresarios of one kind or another—members of “the media”—and there are precious few Clintonites among them. Because almost as much as geography is dispositive in spectator sports—if you live in New England, you’re bound to love the Red Sox and hate the Yankees—demography is dispositive in this year’s Democratic race. And the great majority of media people are members of the same (white) demographic cohort that has rejected Hillary and voted for Barack—educated, more-affluent-than-average residents of cities and suburbs.
Contrary to the vast-left-wing-conspiracy visions of the right, much of the press never really loved the Clintons—they just feared and loathed their enemies more. The first people I ever heard viciously ragging on Bill Clinton, early in 1992, were a liberal reporter covering him and a writer then working as a Democratic staffer on the Hill. Part of it was visceral suspicion of the Clintonian political M.O. and character. And part of it, I think, was a kind of half-conscious intragenerational resentment.
When Bill Clinton was first elected, baby-boomers had just become an absolute majority of working journalists, and among some of them simmered an envy-cum-distrust of the first baby-boomer commander-in-chief. Somebody our age is president? Then, over the course of Bill Clinton’s (bungled, distasteful) presidency and Hillary Clinton’s (bungled, distasteful) campaign for the presidency, the couple have separately and together become incarnations of the most unattractive attributes of their generation’s elite—blind ambition cloaked in do-good self-righteousness, a sense of entitlement, high-handed snobbiness (“I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies”), hedonism (Monica et al.), narcissism. As a poster couple for people of a certain age and demographic, they have become a bit of an embarrassment.
So it’s ironic that the media and their fellow upscale Americans are now disposed to like Obama precisely because he resembles them in so many ways. The difference is he’s relatively unsullied, an exquisite, idealized version of themselves: educated, thoughtful, twigged to nuance, a lovely writer, well-traveled, witty, cool, dignified, candid, a little quixotic, a clued-in grown-up but not yet ruined by the ugly facts of Washington life.
And, mirabile dictu, a perfectly postmodern embodiment of compromise between the hard binaries of race and age. He’s both white and black. Born on the very cusp of the baby boom and Generation X, he’s both oldish and youngish. And as a skinny, athletic, gentle-seeming, virtually metrosexual man, he nearly splits the difference on gender as well.