Obama-Webb ticket has the write stuff


The big talk of the presidential election campaign has been that the two leading Democratic candidates are an African-American and a woman. This is historic, inspiring and intriguing. But there's an opportunity for another historic element to the race if likely nominee Barack Obama does what I hope he does and chooses Virginia Sen. Jim Webb to be his running mate.

The selection of Webb makes sense for Obama for several political reasons, not least of which is Webb's wealth of military experience. But that's not why bringing the two together would be historic.

No, the historic part is that both of them are writers. Genuine writers.

Obama has written two books. The first, "Dreams from My Father," is a 1995 memoir of his childhood and young adulthood. The second, "The Audacity of Hope," published in 2006, is a mix of memoir and political manifesto.

Unlike most politicians, Obama actually wrote the books bearing his name. He didn't employ a ghost writer or co-author. "Dreams from My Father," written before Obama ever decided to run for political office, offers a candidness sadly absent from most political memoirs. What's more, it's well written.

"The book is so literary," Stanford English professor Arnold Rampersad told The New York Times. "It is so full of clever tricks -- inventions for literary effect -- that I was taken aback, even astonished."

"The Audacity of Hope," written after Obama had entered the political arena but before he launched his presidential bid, is the founding document of his campaign. Michael Kazin, reviewing "The Audacity of Hope" for The Washington Post, elevated it well above most political volumes:

"Obama's knack for mixing stirring rhetoric about good and evil with practical policy ideas is rare in the modern history of U.S. politics. At times, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan managed the feat. But none of these men wrote his own presidential speeches. Nor did Kennedy or Reagan really write the books that carry their names. In contrast, 'The Audacity of Hope' is clearly Obama's own creation; the rhythms, the self-deprecating humor and the graceful transitions all resemble those in his memoir."

As for Webb, he has authored six novels, highlighted by the respected Vietnam War story "Fields of Fire." He also has written three nonfiction books, including the well-regarded popular history "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America" and the just-released "A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America."

Of the novel "Fields of Fire," Time magazine wrote: "Webb's book has the unmistakable sound of truth acquired the hard way. His men hate the war; it is lethal fact cut adrift from personal sense. Yet they understand that its profound insanity, its blood and oblivion, have in some way made them fall in love with battle and with one another. Back in 'the World,' they would never again be so incandescently alive. The point is as old as Homer, of course, but Webb restates it with merciless precision."

When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006, Webb took some flak over graphic scenes and language in his novels, but the attacks were cynically political in nature. Critics say the strength of Webb's fiction is his exploration of the dark recesses of the human condition. To ignore or gloss over life as it really is would be a disservice to readers and a compromise of his art.

OK, so why is all this literary criticism relevant?

First of all, it's a refreshing contrast with the man who has occupied the White House for more than seven years. Not only does President Bush not write, but he doesn't read much either. It is well documented that he refuses to read the newspapers, preferring to have aides summarize for him a few articles they think he might be interested in and that won't upset him.

This, to an extent, explains the shallowness of Bush's political world view, not to mention his embarrassing malaprops and tortured grammar. Few reader/writers would say "nucular" or invent a word such as "misunderestimated."

With Obama and Webb, we can be fairly confident that as talented writers, they are eager and careful readers as well. The two tend to go hand in hand. And not surprisingly, they exhibit the hallmarks of the well-read: depth, context and empathy in their thinking.

Webb and Obama are among the few national political leaders who opposed the Iraq war from the start. This, in part, reflects their knowledge of history: the dangers of war and pitfalls of occupation documented over thousands of years of human existence.

Some may see writing talent as a flimsy basis on which to choose a president. But I disagree. Some of the world's greatest politicians were skilled writers. Think of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Vaclev Havel, to name a few.

If nothing else, consider the taxpayer savings if Obama and Webb team up and win the election: We would have a president and vice president who don't need to hire a squadron of scribes to write their speeches for them. They are fully capable of doing a fine job themselves.

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.

 

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