April 9, 2009
The best part of the Obamas' whirlwind tour of Europe, I thought, was their audience with the Queen of England, and especially the media-engorging flap over whether Michelle broke protocol by touching Her Highness, or whether she was properly responding to a touch initiated by the Queen.
Amidst worldwide economic calamity, the dilemma's dreadful horns in Afghanistan, the oversized reaction to North Korea's undersized rocket launch, and myriad other perplexities, observing the arcane manners of the royal court was curiously refreshing. It was a living relic of an age long gone, when sovereigns were thought to possess not only divine right but divine power, including the power to strike you dead if you got too close.
These days, power comes from other sources, and in democracies at least, untouchability is a political quality, not a physical attribute. And that other head of state present at the Queen's reception, the man Michelle has no qualms about touching, has definitely got it so far.
After last September's presidential debate at the University of Mississippi, Howard Fineman of Newsweek noted that prominently displayed in Barack Obama's Senate office was a photo of Muhammad Ali standing victorious over the battered frame of vanquished heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
"Senator," Fineman wrote,"you are no Ali. For whatever reason (I think there are several, personal and strategic), you either don't know how to or can't be a closer. You can't finish with the kind of flurry that drops your foe to the canvas."
Fineman was disappointed at Obama's performance in the debate. The candidate "missed several chances to counterattack, especially on the economy. Obama's answers were strewn with annoying ‘ums' and ‘ahs' as he played for time to calibrate the least-damaging response."
"His operative metaphor," Fineman concluded, "isn't boxing but bodysurfing. He is the product of Hawaii, where they learn to wait for and ride the wave."
Maybe, but not quite. Fineman must have forgotten about the tactic Ali laughingly named "rope-a-dope": You get yourself up against the ropes but use them for support, you absorb the body- blows while protecting your head, you let your opponent wear himself out, and after a few rounds of this, you come in for the kill.
Obama has been roping dopes since the early days of his campaign. One by one, Liston-like, the veterans of the political ring hit his lack of experience, his naïve idealism, his supposed liaisons with radical preachers and domestic terrorists. He took those punches, kept his head, conserved his strength — and one by one, they fell.
They're falling still, even harder. In his dealings with Congress, Obama floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. He's so politically adroit that not a glove can graze him. The Republicans are beside themselves with frustrated aggression, flailing furiously, and like every old boxer, befuddled at why the tactics that served them so well in the past don't work anymore against this young upstart.
While they jabber rather than jab, with their worn-out harangues on deficit spending and free markets, the president invites them in for dialogue, feigns sadness at their unresponsiveness, then pushes his programs right past them.
It may be that Obama learned these tactics not from the playbook of Ali but of Alinsky. A consistently effective strategy of community organizers has long been to wear down city officials with rallies and meetings and media until, at the point of exasperation, they give up and give in to their demands.
Whatever the source, Obama's approach is working like a charm. And charm is part of it too, as his trip to Europe has demonstrated. Defusing opposition, bringing skeptical rivals to the table, rallying the support of the masses, speaking careful words of rapprochement tempered with steely realism — all this bodes well for the bold initiatives on aid to developing nations and nuclear disarmament that he is proposing.
Before the election, just about everybody had creeping doubts that this man could be as effective in office as he was in the campaign; he couldn't be a closer. No more.
Another bit of royal protocol revealed last week was that you must never turn your back to the Queen. To exit from her presence, you walk backwards.
It was the same for Ali, though that wasn't a matter of protocol.
Ditto that for Obama right now.