By Robert F. Seibert
“Lunch with Obama”
It was my distinct pleasure to have lunch with Barack Obama last week. Alas, I wasn’t alone, my colleague Mike Schneider was also at the luncheon. As were some 1250 other assorted members of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Hardly an intimate lunch, but one that was memorable, anyway.
Since Senator Obama’s speech was reprinted in its entirety in last week’s Zephyr, it shouldn’t be necessary to reprise it here. Surely, most of you know the content of his message and have drawn the appropriate conclusion: this is one highly unconventional politician. And you would be right, so very right in that judgment.
Senator Obama’s speech was remarkable for a number of reasons. Titled “The Next Steps in Iraq”, it was a serious analysis of the problems we face there. As a speech, it lacked the usual bromides, assurances, and bland superficiality of a typical political speech by a political heavyweight. It began with the observation that there are no good options for us in Iraq. We have created a quagmire of impressive proportions. It is by any measure a civil war. We are going to be there for a while, like it or not. And he then proceeded to review the options before us.
He formally rejected the prevailing slogans of our political discourse. He rejected “stay the course”, “cut and run”, “go long”, “fight them there or fight them here” and the rest of the pat phrases our government has coined for us. He spoke to us instead in complete sentences, full paragraphs of insight and analysis. He did not speak down to the audience, nor did he insult our intelligence. His common sense shown at every turn in the speech. There are no quick fixes. Exit from the quagmire will be slow and agonizing.
It was a political speech, most certainly. It addressed the most serious of the problems confronting our nation, and offered a series of possible and probable responses to them. They included talking to both our allies and our enemies. They included the notion of diplomacy. They recognized the political realities on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan; and in the U.S.A.
He fully acknowledged the lies, misrepresentations, mismanagement and misjudgments that dogged our efforts there. At no time did he fail to acknowledge the great sacrifices of our troops on the ground. And at no time did he fail to acknowledge the price they paid for our lack of preparation, the hubris and arrogance of our government’s administrators.
The speech was long, detailed and thorough. It was well thought out and elegantly presented. And it lacked the graceless hallmarks of our president’s efforts on the subject. I remember no use of slogans or hyperbole. Instead of fire and brimstone, we were given reflection and analysis. It was a refreshing change from the public rhetoric of recent years. Campaign consultants would be critical of the speech – too long, not enough “hooks” or punchlines.
True. And yet he was repeatedly interrupted by bursts of applause and several standing ovations. And this for a man who was telling us that the way out of Iraq would be long and torturous if we stay true to our larger values.
I will concede that this was not your usual political audience. Members of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs do not compare well to the average voter. More than a hint of Chuck Percy, Paul Simon, Adlai Stevenson, Jim Thompson and Paul Douglas flavors the membership. (Oh Illinois, what were you and where have you gone?) These are by and large committed and sophisticated internationalists. They are aware that globalization has winners and losers, sympathies for Galesburg were common in conversations.
Many of the tables murmured of a possible President Obama. Questions cleverly composed and presented about his intentions were nicely but firmly refused. It did not seem so much that the senator is hungry for higher office, but is bemused about the possibility. Like his analysis of the situation in Iraq, he is looking at the prospect of the presidency dispassionately and intelligently. He will run if he determines he is ready for the presidency -- and if the country needs him.
Is this nation ready for a serious, sober, and thoughtful president? Could we survive without the glitz, public relations filters, ruffles and flourishes, and the carefully managed events that substitute for political discourse in the 21st century? Are we ready for a president that reads books, even writes books, a president that will not have to quibble about what the meaning of ‘is’ is?
God, I hope so.