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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Roger Cohen: Gordon to the Rescue

Roger Cohen in today's NY Times:

If, as a British prime minister, you get a five-minute segment on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, you know you’ve made it, especially when the much-loved Stewart describes your country as a place that gets about two hours of sunshine a year and resembles a coffee-less Seattle.

Stewart, as usual, had his news antennae finely tuned, lauding Gordon Brown, a man of Heathcliffian moodiness, for giving Americans a kick up the backside. He showed a clip of Brown telling a joint session of Congress that, more than the indispensable nation (Madeleine Albright’s phrase), America is the irrepressible nation.

Now, Stewart riffed, turning to an American audience still shell-shocked by finding blue chips trading as penny stocks and their pensions disappearing faster than a sense of humor in Barack Obama’s Washington, Get out of bed you slugger and go out and invade the sub-continent!

Nothing quite like a good war, after all, to jump-start an economy. Oops, I almost forgot, America already has two of them.

But I digress. This is supposed to be a galvanizing column, not another of those bleeding-heart jeremiads about some insoluble problem like man’s cruelty to man or the ghastly financial consequences of the herd instinct.

Stewart featuring the unpopular prime minister of a medium-size European country where it rains a lot was a bold journalistic decision, not quite like devoting prime time or the front page to Luxembourg or Austria, but close.

Of course, there was the incident of the out-of-sync offerings with Brown giving Obama a pen holder carved from the timber of an anti-slave ship — a gift wrapped inside a present stuffed inside a thoughtful gesture, as Stewart put it — and getting a DVD box set in return (a snub wrapped inside a put-down stuffed inside bad manners).

We don’t define our relationship through the exchange of gifts, a British diplomat sniffed.

Fair enough, I guess. But the nub of this — and the real reason Brown made news with Stewart

Brown’s affection for America was well known. He used to holiday at Cape Cod with thick presidential biographies for company. What was not well known until this 36-minute address was how stirring, passionate and deeply felt is his love of, and faith in, the United States.

I’ve been hard on Brown in the past. He came to power, without his own mandate, at the tail end of the 10-year phenomenon of New Labor. Brooding and uncertain, he tinkered and then reaped an economic whirlwind, responding at first with some panache, only to be overwhelmed and see his poll numbers plunge once again.

But listening to his speech, I warmed to Brown and realized something: that Obama has not yet found his presidential voice. In the place of fireside chats needed to comfort and inspire a suffering population, the new president has given fireside lectures.

Before I get to that, however, a word more on Brown’s brave moment. He evoked the shared sacrifice of the past with eloquence — There is no day of remembrance in Britain that is not also a commemoration of American courage and sacrifice far from home — and underscored the bond thereby forged.

He got to the crux of the moral crisis behind the financial crisis, In our families and workplaces and places of worship, we celebrate men and women of integrity who work hard, treat people fairly, take responsibility and look out for others. If these are the principles we live by in our families and neighborhoods, they should also be the principles that guide and govern our economic life.

He tied lessons of recent months to his own family story, My father was a minister of the church, and I have learned again what I was taught by him — that wealth must help more than the wealthy, good fortune must serve more than the fortunate.

And he delivered a resounding message of faith in a future beyond protectionism, in a world economy that will double in size over the next two decades as billions of people move from being simply producers of their goods to being consumers of our goods, not least those produced by new green technologies.

So we must educate our way out of the downturn, invest and invent our way out of the downturn and re-tool and re-skill our way out of the downturn.

Right on, Gordon!

I felt stirred and then it hit me: the president up to now has made it his chief business to tell Americans unpleasant truths — and, yes, they are very unpleasant — rather than galvanize through the optimism of his message.

He has been detailing tax and other polices to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots, but in a cool, brisk top-down language that hardly seems right to overcome division.

It’s time for some unvarnished Obama.

That, I think, was the real story Stewart had intuited. As he noted, how desperate must things be when Britain is trying to cheer us up?
— is that he gave perhaps the best political speech of his life.

(Zoon Politikon)



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