Marilyn Miller was an adored Broadway star in her 20s. She died young in 1936, but lived long enough to make three films. I have always wanted to see one to get a sense of what enthralled America with someone who, in photos, lacks appeal.
Last weekend I finally got a gander at one of them, and saw what grabbed people about Marilyn Miller. It was her smile. Her dancing was okay, her singing was less so, and she could only kind of act. But as soon as she opens up into her marvelous grin, you fall in love with her at 80 years" remove.
Barack Obama, too, has what Broadway lyricist, Lorenz Hart, called in the song "Glad to Be Unhappy," a "toothpaste grin." He looks like a fine fellow. You'd have him over to dinner and he would listen to you. Mr. Obama is thought of by his fans as a Great Compromiser, skilled at seeing both sides of the question and dismissing no one. Viscerally, unreflectively, this is a thrilling aspect of Mr. Obama. Yet, in part, there is something worrisome about it.
The reason is this: which presidents went down in history as great ones simple based upon politely acknowledging all sides of the urgent questions of their era?
Abraham Lincoln forced Southerners at gunpoint to stay in the Union, including suspending habeas corpus and earning the furious hatred of countless of millions.
Theodore Roosevelt earned similar contempt in his trust-busting, and part of what allowed him to do so was a goodversus-evil mindset that was passionate but not reflective. Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal was reviled as "socialism," was sneered at by people and called "That Man" in the White House. FDR had, in the estimation of then-Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a "second-class intellect." That compromised intellect, though, created a safety net for the unfortunate during the Great Depression. Today, few would consider that to have been a step backwards.
Yes, impatience with cogitation has yielded less sterling results in the case of our current president. But the question remains: which great president went down as "The Conciliator," as Mr. Obama has been called?
He has attracted attention for talking to black audiences in what would appear to be a less conciliatory vein, criticizing the tendency for black teens to think doing well in school is "white," and wishing lazy "Cousin Pookie" would vote.
But in actuality, most black people these days know that culture is as much a problem for black people as is racism. As such, the "acting white" and "Cousin Pookie" points are simply applause lines. In making these statements, Mr. Obama is not pointing out anything new. He's just flashing his Marilyn Miller smile.
Being a Great Man means not being afraid to hurt some feelings. David Brooks has documented that Mr. Obama is a fan of philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, valuing him as knowing that "there's serious evil in the world," but that "we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction." Okay - but let's hope that Mr. Obama does not take this as a justification for a politics based on what Mr. Brooks calls "conversations about conversations," or low on serious effort.
Martin Luther King, after all, was a Niebuhr fan too, but forged long-lasting changes in America - even when shows like "Meet the Press" took him to task.
Mr. Obama's recent speech in Detroit when he took on the auto industry for resisting reforms in fuel efficiency that would lessen our dependency on the Middle East teat is a step in the right direction, a la Theodore Roosevelt's anticorporate tilt.
However, his calls in the same speech for bigger block grants to cities and mixed-income housing are less impressive, more like a Johnsonian rehash of Great Society policies. In 40 years, neither of these boilerplate policy warhorses have had nearly as much impact on poor people's lives as the welfare reform of 1996 - which Bill Clinton signed under duress, hurting the feelings of many, yet whose dire predictions have not been borne out.
In that light, Mr. Obama should stress, say, the bill he has sponsored calling on "Pookie" to support the children he has made with women he did not marry, giving "Pookie" an earned income tax credit. Many will sense this as less dramatic than income redistribution and see as it as incommensurate with the Marilyn Miller smile. Others will feel that it sanctions the "undeserving poor." Again, so much for the toothpaste grin.
But Mr. Obama's promise of greatness only goes so far as to the extent that he hurts some feelings. This is especially true now for two reasons. First, the Zeitgeist understands in the end that The Man is not the only reason people are poor. Second, on domestic policy Mr. Obama has an open field because the Republican candidates are wanly committed to domestic policy, in favor of stressing the terrorist threat.
Dolphins look like they are smiling because of an anatomical accident that curves their mouths up. They can actually be rather awful creatures. Mr. Obama, from what I see, could never be awful. Yet his smile alone - and its symbolizing "conciliation" - cannot be what makes him The One.
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