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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Sojourners

David Brooks’ New York Times column yesterday riffed extensively on a familiar theme in anti-Obama polemics: his status as a “soujourner” who’s wandered through an extraordinary life without putting down the sort of roots in any community or point of view that voters can recognize or identify with.
Salon’s Joan Walsh published a sound rebuttal of Brooks’ suggestion that successful American politicians are those who are unambiguously rooted in a clearly defined geographical, cultural, or temperamental mileiu. She cites John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and most of all, the synthetic cowboy George W. Bush, as presidents with complex and often self-contradictory backgrounds that rival anything “rootless” or confounding about Barack Obama.
Walsh could have gone further, insofar as complicated people have been the rule more than the exception among residents of the White House.
There was Richard Nixon, whose entire career (as best documented by Rick Perlstein’s brilliant book Nixonland ) involved an endless ambivalence towards the elite circles he despised and longed to join. There was LBJ, who aside from the ambiguities involving his views on race and economics, was a pathologically domineering personality whose political ascent was based on playing the submissive son to a series of powerful father figures (FDR, Rayburn and Russell most notably). Even an ostensibly “simple” figure like Eisenhower was actually a master Machiavellian who deliberately cultivated the false image of a genial and apolitical national father-figure.
Herbert Hoover? This paragon of sturdy heartland conservative values spent much of his adult life roaming the globe as a do-gooding cosmopolitan. FDR? The very symbol of progressive principle was generally considered a supreme opportunist, and a bit of a conservative, well into his presidency. TR? Hard to imagine a more complicated figure shaped by vastly conflicting personal and ideological impulses. Wilson? A born-and-bred fanatic who ultimately became identified as the epitome of global liberalism.
And you can go all the way back to the Founding Fathers, typified by the slave-holding egalitarian Jefferson.
In the last century, Coolidge, Truman and Ford are about the only presidents who stand out as what-you-see-is-what-you-get figures completely rooted in a particular and familiar time, place and culture.
All in all, Barack Obama’s in fine company as an unusual man seeking the unusual power of the presidency in this unusual country. Tomorrow James Vega is planning to post a follow-up to today’s piece on defining John McCain, with suggestions on how Obama can best define himself. It’s in the context of our long history of exceptional political personalities–of sojourners in a sojourner nation–that these suggestions should be understood.

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