Monday, December 1, 2008

Obama's National Security Press Conference, 1 December 2008

(First 11.5 minutes of today's press conference with President-Elect Barack Obama announcing his national security team; does not include conclusion, acceptances and press questions)

I woke up at an odd hour today, my sleep definitely out of whack, and after deciding I would not be able to drop right back off, I turned on the television hoping for more than diet tips and small claims court. I was just in time to see yet another Barack Obama press conference, this one announcing his national security team, as follows:

Secretary of State -- Senator Hillary Clinton of New York
Secretary of Defense -- Robert Gates (currently in this position)
Attorney General -- Eric Holder, former Deputy Attorney General of the United States
Secretary of Homeland Security -- Janet Napolitano, Governor of Arizona
Ambassador to the United Nations -- Dr. Susan Rice, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs
National Security Advisor -- General James Jones, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and former Commander, United States European Command

A transcript of this press conference is available from the Chicago Sun-Times here.

Let me begin by saying what an unholy relief it is to be able to once again face speeches from a President (Elect) with trust and interest, instead of fear and embarrassment. I know you know what I mean.

I think Obama is using this series of pressers in a number of ways. First, he's assuming power, respectfully but definitively, and it's being ceded to him by our frat-boy loser who patently cannot wait to go cut mesquite an hour north of where I live and be allowed to openly drink himself into oblivion. (Deeper oblivion, I should say.) To quote Vice President Elect Biden from today's speech, "These are extraordinary times, and that's not hyperbole". We are in death-rattle need of leadership, and watching it pull on hip boots is giving everybody except the End-Timers a chance to breathe again.

Second, he's re-educating America to expect communication, useful information, and respect from its government. Like, speaking in, whoa, complete sentences, you know? No code words, no bluster, no shoddily-concealed lies, no fear-mongering, and no "dumbing it down". I'm pained by how unusual it looks and sounds. And I very much appreciate how he is all business. These are not joking matters he's bringing to us. I'm more than ready to be around grown-ups again.

It reminds me of my second-favorite "News of the Weird" story, concerning a deputy sheriff who went to an isolated campground on his patrol and had to use the outdoor toilet there. A one-holer with a large aperture, to be specific (it matters to the story). As he was pulling back up his pants, his wallet fell from his back pocket and into the opening. However, he thought he was lucky because the offal had not been emptied in quite a while and was both at a high level and relatively thick, in viscous terms. His wallet remained on the surface in plain view, a few feet down. He grabbed hold of the side and leaned in -- money can be washed, after all.

You can guess what happened. When he splashed upright, he was up to his neck in it. He hadn't radioed in his pit stop, and no one thought to look for him for hours. He wound up spending the night standing in the crapper. When they finally found him the next day, and he had been safely extricated, one of his colleagues began laughing. Bad move: The deputy tried to kill him.

We have a long way to go before we'll feel like laughing about what's been done to our nation. If ever.

Obama is also using his professorial skills, so very evident in his campaign, to teach us how to think logically and deeply again. He is an oddity, a charismatic who is not an ideologue but instead a pragmatist. Intelligent thought and analysis is at its heart very practical. Our current rule by punditry is full of white boy sound and fury passing as intelligence, but is usually more emotion-laden than a slumber party prank phone call spree.

In particular, Obama seems to be trying to teach our media how to ask rational, probing questions, a skill few of them apparently possess. Today the press corps was obsessed with Hillary (CDS in full spate) or if Obama wanted India to bomb Pakistan for the Mumbai tragedy. He dealt with both graciously the first time, even managing to get a laugh at one reporter's expense by (gently) pointing out how the press wants to dredge up campaign rhetoric again. The second time he was asked the same questions, he was more clipped and brief, but not in that sulky, dim-eyed Republican way. He simply wasn't going to reward bad behavior, and the issue on the table was not Clinton or threats of war. In fact, when you heard Clinton's acceptance, it was extremely clear she's making herself part of Obama's administration. Her remarks were the most eloquent of all the acceptances, and the most supportive of him as a leader. But -- right over the heads of the press corps.

Watching many of these reporters try to adjust to direct, clear language, complicated ideas and responsible government is like watching Vince Vaughn discover his new girlfriend in a movie actually wants to have conversation with him: They're simultaneously resentful and intrigued. This should be fun to watch unfold.

Years ago, I had a chance to hear Anne Lamott speak at the annual Art and Soul Conference at Baylor University. She said things that literally changed the direction of my life, but when she paused to drink down a glass of water before taking questions, she gave us her personal ground rules: She wasn't interested in being attacked or disrespected, and would not participate in any form of it, even that deft academic version which leaves working class folks like me wanting to say "What the fuck do you mean?" She said she only wanted to hear honest questions, not pontifications or arguments. If someone wanted to pontificate or argue, they could write their own books, thank you. And if somebody chose to ignore her guidelines, or tried to slip one over on her, she said she would smile at him (she added it was almost always a him, because men having such a hard time listening to powerful women without arguing at least in their heads) and go on to the next questioner without reply.

It worked like gangbusters. Only one guy tried to weasel past the verbal barrier, and she did exactly what she'd warned: He and his multisyllabic quasi-harangue was left hanging as she called on the next person. We all roared in laughter, the weasel crept away, and the questions (and answers) got very, very interesting. Obama is likewise trying to give us all room to be smart, connected, and decent, to have a conversation where we may disagree without shouting each other down or scoring points off each other. We sorely need it.

Another irritating attempt at "gotcha" journalism which surfaced twice was repeating the Right-Wing derision about assembling a "team of rivals", as if the only form of governance of value is surrounding yourself with those who dare not argue with you. (We see how well that's worked.) Obama brushed by it. I wish he'd used the chance to point out that McCain tried to run his campaign on how much he disagreed with Duyba, a myth we all saw through, and that was never questioned by the right-of-center press as unworkable difference of opinion.

My other major impression of this particular press conference was jubilation at seeing 50% of the population of my nation represented among his choices. And not just sisters, but one of them a Sistah. Susan Rice's background is in African affairs, which may not be spotless but certainly bodes well for Africa being treated as a player on the world stage.

But next time, folks, can we please either have a dais for short people to stand on so they aren't blocked by mics on the podium, or, even better, raise the camera angle so we get a full view of their faces?

I'll leave the commentary on the political meaning of these appointees to others, except to say none of them would have been my choice. But, then, I'm a liberal. I'm sorry to see Senator Clinton leave the Senate. She's been a strong force for women there. Likewise, I'm sorry to see Arizona lose Napolitano as Governor. I wish Obama's team wasn't so loaded with hawks, but then he is a hawk (and definitely not a liberal), so it was to be expected. I agree that Gates isn't of the same stripe as Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, but that's hardly a recommendation, is it? Still, I'm willing to accept Obama's exhortation that he's interested in competence and effectiveness over ideology, at least for the time being.

That's another bit of job retraining he's having to bring to our government, the ability to recognize competence and effectiveness, to reward it and learn to expect it once again. What a concept.