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Too Cool to Fight?

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Thank God for Sarah Palin. Without her jibes, her sarcasm, her exaggerations, her smug provincialism, her hypocrisy about family and government, her exploitation of mommyhood, and her personal attacks on Barack Obama, the Democratic base might never be consolidated. This much is certain: Obama could never do it.

Not, anyway, the Obama who appeared Sunday on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. That Obama was cool, diffident, above it all -- unflustered, unflappable, unexcitable and downright unexciting. These "uns" ran on, a torrent of cool that frosted my flat-panel TV and had me wondering if, as a kid, Obama ever got a shot in the mouth on the playground, he'd glare at the bully -- and convene a meeting.

Stephanopoulos vainly tried for some genuine reaction. In choosing Palin, did John McCain get someone who met the minimum test of being "capable of being president"? Everyone in America knows the answer to that. They know McCain picked someone so unqualified she has been hiding from the media because a question to her is like kryptonite to what's-his-name. But did Obama say anything like that? Here are his exact words: "Well, you know, I'll let you ask John McCain when he's on ABC." Boy, Palin will never get over that.

And how about this silly business that she's qualified for the presidency because she's commander in chief of the Alaska National Guard? Another softball. Another slow one, right down the middle. Obama reared back . . . and told Stephanopoulos that those questions should come from the media: "It's going to be your job and. . . ." Pathetic.

What Obama does not understand is that he is being Swift-boated. The term does not apply to a mere smear. It is bolder, more outrageous than that. It means going straight at your opponent's strength and maligning it. This is what was done in 2004 to John Kerry, who had commanded a Swift boat in Vietnam. Kerry had won three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star and emerged from the war a certified hero. It was that record that his opponents attacked, a tactic Kerry thought so ludicrous that he at first ignored it. The record shows that he lost the election.

Now Obama's opponents are going straight for his strength. At least twice at the GOP convention, speakers mocked Obama's service as a community organizer. "He worked as a community organizer," Rudy Giuliani said. "He immersed himself in Chicago machine politics."

And then Palin herself followed up with one of her aw-shucks low blows: "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities."

In the biographies of both presidential candidates are episodes of pure wonderment. No man can read about McCain's time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and not wonder, "Could I do that?" For most of us, the answer -- the truthful answer -- is no.

For Obama, that episode has nothing to do with physical courage but much to do with moral commitment. At age 22 -- a graduate of Columbia University and already making good money as a financial researcher, he walked away to work with the unemployed and alienated in Chicago. Obama, who later went to Harvard Law School, knew precisely what a valuable commodity he was and how much money he could have made. He turned away from all that -- or, at least, postponed it, and not because community organizing was the route to political success. (Just name one.) Once again, ask yourself if you would have done it.

So, Stephanopoulos asked, what was Obama thinking when Giuliani mocked him for doing something Giuliani -- the most ambitious of men -- would never have done?

"It's a real puzzling thing," Obama said matter-of-factly. And then he went on to recount his experience as a community organizer, ending with the observation that "I would think that that's an area where Democrats and Republicans would agree."

Oy!

It is true that on the stump, Obama goes on the attack. But those are fragments -- maybe 15 seconds on the evening news. It is with extended interviews, such as the Sunday shows, that we get to visit with the man -- and that man, for all his splendid virtues, seems to lack fight. Maybe he's worried about how America would receive an angry black man or maybe he's just too cool to ever get hot, but the result is that we have little insight into his passions: What, above all, does he care about? The answer, at least to the Sunday TV viewer, was nothing much.

cohenr@washpost.com


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