Drawn by the boxcar headlines, I reached into the newspaper rack to get the latest from the presidential campaign. A homeless bum, his face gnarled and whiskery but with a ray of hope in his rheumy eyes, watched me with a question.
“Hey, Mr. Dude,” he said, “you got any change?”
I gave him my last quarter, breaking the good-sense rule against encouraging able-bodied panhandlers. But for a moment I imagined he thought I was one of the presidential candidates.
“Change” is the season’s mantra for the star-struck masses. Obama’s latest slogan is “Change to believe in.” Hillary promises “real change.” But how do you “believe” in “change?” Change, after all, is process. “Change to what?” Barack Obama does not say, the genius of the promise. Everyone gets to fill in the blank now, and be disappointed later.
Barack Obama is a particularly impressive young man. We don’t know who he is, or exactly what he wants to do with the presidency, and surprises are no doubt coming. Nevertheless, he’s got America’s number, at least for the moment. No one has gone so far on a smile and a shoeshine since Bubba fled Arkansas nearly two decades ago. We haven’t seen a phenomenon like the wave of Obamamania since the kids of the ‘60s trimmed their locks, shaved, bathed and got themselves “Clean for Gene.” (He finished a close second to LBJ in the New Hampshire primary, and knocked him out of the race.) Obamamania, like the Gene McCarthy hysteria in 1968, will soon subside, at least in its current intensity, but everyone owes a debt to anyone who breaks the broom that grounds Hillary. “Mostly what he offers,” says a Democratic pol, “is that white folks see a black man who doesn’t want to mug them.” A kinder, gentler way of saying it is that Obama’s the black man a lot of whites, eager to cast a ballot to make a point of racial good will, have been looking for.
This sends Hillary flying to the top of the mainmast on a petard of her own manufacture. She skates as close as she dares with her observation, repeated endlessly in Iowa, that Barack Obama is a nice man but he’s “unelectable.” This is heard as code for “Americans won’t send a black man to the White House.” We can expect more of this later, when she will be tempted to throw anything she can find (lamps, shoes, rolling pins) at the senator from Illinois. The back of the campaign buses have been buzzing for weeks that Hillary has “really good stuff,” meaning bad stuff, ready to let fly if and when she needs it. Now she needs it. We’ll see over the next few days whether there’s anything to the buzz.
Hillary retreated from the nanny role on the eve of the New Hampshire vote into the damsel-in-distress mode, following her earlier remark that her feelings are hurt when she hears someone say she’s not lovable. Yesterday she affected to be near tears when a woman asked how she could stand up to the pressure of slings and slights when all she’s trying to do is good.
“It’s not easy, it’s not easy,” she replied. Her voice faltered. She paused, waiting for a tear to well in an eye. When it didn’t she continued: “And I couldn’t do it if I just didn’t, you know, passionately believe it was the right thing to do.” She finally managed an ever-so-slight catch in her voice. “You know, I’ve had so many opportunities from this country, I just don’t want to see us fall backwards.”
A few miles away — everything is just a few miles away in a state the size of a postage stamp — Bubba was working a crowd, hardly large enough to qualify as “crowd.” He, too, affected a breaking heart. “I can’t make her younger, taller, male — there’s a lot of things I can’t do.”
His cell phone rang in the middle of a speech in the hamlet of Henniker. On cue, he asked, “Is that me?” The crowd laughed. He let the call go unanswered, and right on cue, his phone rang again. This time he answered it. “I’m at your meeting here,” he told the caller, presumably Hillary, but with Bubba you never know. “I’ll tell them that. OK — I love you.” Change comes at last to Bubba and the nanny.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.
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