On the way back from Unity, N.H., Friday evening, Barack Obama’s plane got diverted by bad weather. Instead of landing at Reagan airport, it landed farther out at Dulles.
Before he got into his S.U.V., Senator Obama walked hesitantly toward the press, who were standing nearby.
He looks wary at such spontaneous sessions. He’s still getting used to being covered protectively like a president, with journalists filing probing pool reports about how he “reportedly showered and changed” after his morning workout in Chicago.
He gives the impression of someone who would like to kid around with reporters for a minute, but knows he’s going to be peppered with on-the-record minutiae designed to feed the insatiable maw of blogs and Internet news.
“So, what’s going on, guys?” he asked on the tarmac at dusk. “What’s going on on Friday night? You’ll be back in time to have some fun.”
And what about you? a reporter asked the candidate. “I can’t have fun anymore,” Obama said, in a comment meant to be wry but sounding wistful. “It’s not allowed.”
The guy is not, as Dan Quayle once put it, a happy camper.
He’s an American who has climbed to the most rarefied stratosphere of American life, only to find that he has to make a major speech arguing that he loves his country. (A new CNN poll shows that a quarter of registered voters say Obama lacks patriotism.)
He’s a man happily married to a strong professional woman who has to defend his wife, as he says, for being “feisty.”
He must simultaneously defend himself for being too exotic and, because of recent moves, too conventional. (So conventional that he even refused to do a fist bump with a boy at a tutoring session for kids in Zanesville, Ohio.)
In the warped imagination of some on the left and right, this is a race between two Manchurian candidates, the Vietnam Manchurian candidate and the Muslim Manchurian candidate.
(The Manchurian vibe thrummed today with the scoop by Scott Shane of The Times that military trainers in Gitmo had practiced techniques used by the Chinese Communists during the Korean War to wrest confessions, many false, from American prisoners.)
This presidential race should be about how to fix the scary cascading crises in the country and the world. But as Obama offers himself as an avatar of modernity, the horizon fills with Swift boats against the current, and he is, Gatsby-like, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The 46-year-old is supposed to be the tonic for the culture wars of the 60s. In his patriotism speech, he said that “the anger and turmoil” of that generation had “never entirely drained away,” leaving our politics “trapped in these old, threadbare arguments.”
But it’s Obama who seems trapped, sucked back into yesteryear.
Wes Clark joined the growing ranks of troublesome Obama associates when he meowed that just “riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down” is not a qualification to be president. He made McCain sound like a drone aircraft.
This is not even about Obama. It’s the old business of grunts resenting flyboys. Bob Dole made a crack long ago about patrician Poppy Bush flying over the infantry. And Clark, as Fred Kaplan writes in Slate, “was an Army infantry commander during the Vietnam War while McCain was a Navy aviator.”
The McCain team ratcheted up the fight, trotting out an army of defenders on a conference call.
One was Col. Bud Day, McCain’s fellow P.O.W. who appeared in a Swift boat ad sliming John Kerry in 2004. “The Swift Boat, quote, ‘attacks’ were simply revelation of the truth,” he said.
Another renowned Marine grunt in Vietnam, Democratic Senator Jim Webb, chimed in on MSNBC, advising flyboy McCain to “calm down” on his promotion of his military service, saying we need to “get the politics out of the military.”
Naturally, the words “calm down” caused the McCain camp to rev up.
When McCain zoomed in the New Hampshire polls in 2000, W.’s supporters insinuated that McCain’s years in Vietcong dungeons, including two suicide attempts, left him with snakes in his head.
Now McCain is trying to magnify the words of Obama surrogates on Vietnam to tarnish his self-styled postpartisan rival as partisan. On the way to Colombia, he talked about Clark and said it was time for Obama to “cut him loose.”
Yet McCain himself has joked: “It doesn’t take a lot of talent to get shot down. I was able to intercept a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane.”
Maybe instead of refighting the Vietnam War while we’re still fighting the Iraq war, the candidates can figure out how to feed the world, find enough fuel for everyone and oh, yeah, catch that bin Laden fiend who’s running around free.