Friday, November 07, 2008

Presidential Papers

It is increasingly clear to me that the Obama presidency offers (and threatens) something very much like the Kennedy presidency. This clarity is coming mainly from rereading Norman Mailer's The Presidential Papers in the light (or afterglow) of Obama's victory. Consider the following snippets:

It has long been the thesis of this self-appointed Presidential advisor that the FBI has done more damage to America than the American Communist Party.

J. Edgar Hoover has done more to harm the freedoms of America than Joseph Stalin.

Mailer did not imagine that Kennedy would agree with these statements, not even in private. His hope for the Kennedy presidency was simply that these statements would not be meaningless in Camelot. It is not difficult to construct contemporary corollaries:

It has long been the thesis of this self-appointed Presidential advisor that the Department of Homeland Security has done more damage to America than Al Qaeda.

Dick Cheney has done more to harm the freedoms of America than Osama bin Laden.

(The parallels aren't perfect: Michael Chertoff is not as much of a character as J. Edgar Hoover.) Thinking about the Obama/Kennedy parallels is helpful to members of my generation because we don't understand how abhorent the notion of "communism" was in the early sixties. (Witness how flat the "socialism" and "Marxism" charges fell.) But to suggest that Cheney is worse than Osama bin Laden!

Mailer's point was that if such sentences could be uttered in the polity ... that a literary rogue could write them did not mean anything ... if they could enter political discourse then it would "create a new psychological reality" that would be "closer to history and so closer to sanity". "It was Kennedy's potentiality to excite such activity that interested [Mailer] most."

Well, I feel that way about Obama. He will never say such things, or even think them ... he knows not to go there. But under his administration we will be able to think them. And this, as Kierkegaard would point out, is more important than whether or not we can say them with impunity.

6 comments:

Ryan said...

Well put. It's interesting that "change" can't be said by these politicians to mean this: a change in how we think about how American thinks. So this is change. Now we can think these things, even if Obama can't say them, or doesn't think them.

Kirby Olson said...

It's interestnig that the youth are being set up to believe in this socialism stuff again. A lot of professors never gave it up, and most of them were part of the 60s. I had hoped that Obama would not get in in order to stop that wave from catching the White House -- but now they got it.

It won't necessarily be a disaster though because I think Obama is basically an opportunist who pushes whatever buttons will get him ahead.

He's a socialist in Ayers' living room.

And he'll be a centrist in the Oval Office.

So I think all's going to be well.

I wonder if anything can substitute for experience.

Probably there's no way to convey the horror of socialism when it becomes enshrined in a one-party state.

Even if I wree to say it would be like being abducted and kept in a room by your captor where you have to trade sex for anything you get to eat.

This would seem absurd and extreme, and because neither of us had had the experience, it would appear to be overly emotional.

Perhaps I could say it would be like being buried alive and the state can decide to cut off your air at any point if you don't cooperate. But again, you would say, IS NOT.

It's about freedom you would say.

It's about not having to do any work at all, you would say.

It means everybody gets to have a hot car, and a hot spouse, and getting to go 200 miles an hour on the thruway.

And all I could say is: ookmeisters.

Even if I got witnesses from Cambodia's prisons where the penalty for rolling over without asking permission was 100 lashes (the crime was individualism) you would say, well, we were going to do it differently!

And I could bring in the ghosts of men shot in Stalin's gulags, and you would say, well, that was Russia!

So there's probably actually nothing I can say.

Except maybe one memory will give you a taste of it.

It's like having your parents tell you what to do all day long, and they have cameras that follow you, and there are strict penalties for just about everything. I mean, everyone was a teenager once.

It's like being a teenager, forever.

Except in this case your parents don't know you, and don't care about you. They are just sociopaths who want to control you.

Kirby Olson said...

It's like being a tweener forever, with robotic parents programmed by the state.

Sounds like a cute TV series though, probably, to you.

Laura Carter said...

This is intriguing to me. I'm going to read Mailer's Presidential Papers.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks, Laura. That's what I'm trying to do: get people to read PP. "Ambitious young men, ready to become president in twenty or thirty years," wrote Mailer, "will do worse than to read this book." Obama is certainly an ambitious young man who is ready to become president. Part of me thinks he has read Mailer's book.

Kirby: maybe I can get you on board as well. Have you read Cannibals and Christians?. (He deals with surrealism and camp there.) What about the last three chapters of A Fire on the Moon? I have a feeling you dig his take on the sixties.

Kirby Olson said...

I haven't read Mailer.

He doesn't strike me as poetic at all.

He and Corso used to box.

And arm wrestle.

Corso thought it was a drag.