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Why Not Obama?

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Ancient Rome had a term for a certain political process: cursus honorum , the honors race. It was, I am told by Anthony Everitt in his new biography, "Augustus," the process by which politicians moved up the ladder. Along the way, they were evaluated until, finally, some made it to the top. Nowadays, the system is different. All you have to do is appear on "Oprah."

I am referring, obviously and insidiously, to Barack Obama, who announced Sunday that he might run for president. This followed, of course, the aforementioned appearance on "Oprah" which I, diligent in pursuit of truth, watched. This is how I learned that Obama loves his wife and she loves him and they both love their children. Cursus honorum this is not.

Life itself -- its hard lessons -- cautions me to look with consummate cynicism on the Obama trial balloon. After all, the man has been in the United States Senate for a mere two years, and before that he served -- with distinction, we are told -- in the Illinois legislature, where, it seems, just staying out of jail is distinction enough. We know little about Obama's political performance, since he has performed so little. He is only 45, which is about the age of some of my suits. On the world stage, he would be a child.

And yet I cheer his announcement that he might announce he is going to announce -- something like that. I say this not just because I have been following his career out of the corner of my eye -- my, my, ain't he a natural! -- but because I've actually been reading his speeches. The one he gave on the role of religion in politics was as smart a speech as I've ever read. It's the sort of thing John F. Kennedy could have given, only his would have been written by someone else, probably Ted Sorensen.

I cheer also because Obama is an African American -- an African father, an American mother. For someone like him to be a presidential candidate -- maybe even president -- says oodles about this country. After eight years of George W. Bush and his narcissistic foreign policy -- me, me, us, us -- it would be great to have a president who presents a different message just by his complexion and who compensates, if anything can, for how Iraq has tarnished America's reputation, particularly in the Third World.

But mostly I want Obama to run because he would come into the race with no baggage on Iraq. Not from him would we hear excuses about how he was misled by the Bush administration into thinking there were weapons of mass destruction there. Obama not only was against the war when he ran for the Senate but he can claim -- as could the 21 Democratic senators who voted against the war resolution -- that it was possible to accept the "facts" at the time and still see that the war was unnecessary, if not downright stupid. It just makes me wince every time I hear John Kerry or John Edwards or Joe Biden or Chris Dodd or Hillary Clinton say they were misled, fooled, lied to or some other version of seduced and abandoned -- otherwise they would have voted the right way. This is disingenuous.

It can be no coincidence that so many of the Democrats who voted to authorize Bush to go to war had the White House on their minds. It can be no coincidence, either, that with the technical exception of Russ Feingold, none of the Democrats who voted against the resolution are presidential hopefuls. Take, for instance, Carl Levin of Michigan. To read his statements from the time (September and October 2002) is to see someone who accepted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction but still saw no immediate need for war -- especially not without widespread international support. Levin, in retrospect, had it about right. The others (not to mention myself) did not.

In some respects -- in the Roman way of cursus honorum -- an Obama candidacy would be a joke. He has no executive experience, and I don't know -- neither does he -- if he can make a decision. But if he could sharpen the focus of the other candidates about Iraq, if he could somehow disengage the United States from Iraq -- if he could, in other words, stop wasting American (and other) lives -- then his candidacy would hardly be an insult to the system, as some insist, but a gift.

I, for one, accept.

cohenr@washpost.com


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