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Froma Harrop: Obama, Say-Nothing Superstar

Froma Harrop

To fully grasp the allure of Barack Obama — the Illinois Democrat and media sensation — it helps to start with his fellow senators from neighboring Indiana.

In 1996, Richard Lugar ran for president as a brainy, issue-oriented moderate and all-around decent guy. He said back then that the voters had tired of the mud-throwing and cheap sound bites in Washington. “If they really want shouters and screamers,” the dark-suited Lugar said, “then they’ll vote for someone else.”

Lugar lost the Republican nomination to Bob Dole, who then lost the election to Bill Clinton.

Indiana’s junior senator, Democrat Evan Bayh, recently visited New Hampshire to weigh his prospects for a 2008 presidential run. He was flattened by crowds running to see Obama, and dropped out.

What was Obama saying that other centrists would not have? Absolutely nothing.

Obama talked about ending the nastiness in Washington and taking personal responsibility, and said that government can’t solve all problems — platitudes empty of all controversy. If anything, his colleagues from Indiana would surely have offered more exciting commentary.

Obama’s appeal comes not from the things he says, but from who is saying them. He scores as an exotic who talks of barbershops and church socials in the flat tones you’d expect from any son of the prairie.

Had Bayh been half-Kenyan and raised in Hawaii by white grandparents from Kansas, he too would have become a political star, at least for the month of December. But he is a conventional white man. When Bayh speaks in the quiet Midwestern way, he gets tarred as lackluster.

Listen to Obama:

“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America.” These unremarkable words, spoken at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, set off wild applause.

And here is the similar quote that got hearts thumping in New Hampshire: “We’ve got a series of very important decisions to make, and we have the opportunity to make them, not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as Americans. And it’s that promise that I’m most excited about.”

Obama likes to say things like “We can do better” and “America is ready for a new set of challenges.” He is all for “a spiritual recovery.”

The senator dislikes the “either-or” type of debate and warns against “false choices.” He’s not too left, not too right. Sort of black, and sort of white.

Obama is humble in all the right places. Before a thousand swooning fans in New Hampshire, he says, Evita-like: “This isn’t about me. This is about you.” One gets the impression from his public appearances and book, “The Audacity of Hope,” that he doesn’t even get a haircut without first consulting his wife.

What Obama really thinks should be done about healthcare and the terrorist threat remains a secret that his book does not unlock. His two years in the Senate certainly haven’t revealed any bold policy ideas.

This leave-them-guessing strategy slips out in the book’s prologue. “I serve as a blank screen,” Obama writes, “on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” He notifies readers that “my treatment of the issues is often partial and incomplete.” It takes some doing for a politician to write a 364-page book, his second volume, and skate past all controversy.

Obama does seem to have an impressive résumé and polish. And it’s not his fault that a mania for some new political face intrudes on every presidential election season. But one does wish, for the sake of democracy, that we could skip the crush and give less glamorous contenders who actually say something more of a hearing.

Copyright 2006 The Providence Journal

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