a portrait of the president as a mechanized middle manager
David Bromwich’s brilliant breakdown of the Obama presidency in the current issue of the LRB makes for depressing reading… Obama comes across in a way that makes perfect sense but which I’d never quite gotten before, or at least gotten this fully. If the Bush administration’s dominant rhetorical strain was the dark-magical realism of Orwellian double-think, Obama’s linguistic mainline is the pablum parlance of the powerpoint infected boardroom. Here’s Bromwich on Obama vis a vis Afghanistan:
If, some years hence, one were to measure when the hope for ending the wars ran out, a critical exhibit would be the ‘final orders’ Obama asked all the participants in his Afghanistan review of 2009 to approve. The text, printed by Woodward, is a strangely lawyer-like set of agreed-on directives, at once imperative and vague. The point of a contract is that it is binding: if it is not followed, there are legal grounds of redress. These final orders are a mimic contract: a list of notions expressing a ‘commitment’ to a consensus that was never wholehearted. Yet Obama thought mere verbal formulae could strengthen the agreement he had forged between Petraeus, McChrystal and Mullen, who wanted a full-scale counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and Eikenberry, Lute, Brennan and Biden, who wanted no more troops to be sent. The words are mechanised and managerial: ‘US troops in early 2010 in order to degrade the Taliban and set the conditions for accelerated transition’; ‘leveraging the potential for local security forces’; ‘working with Karzai when we can, working around him when we must’; ‘implementing a post-election compact’; ‘a prioritised comprehensive approach’; ‘begin transferring lead security responsibility’; ‘effective sub-national governance’. All here is in the highest degree uncertain, obscure, and hedged about by bureaucratic evasion and metaphor. None of the terms has the slightest real precision. Yet Obama agonised over the details of this phraseology; a whole metaphysic of war and peace hung on the difference between ‘degrade’ and ‘disrupt’; the word ‘transfer’ took on the authority of a reprieve signed by a governor.
My favorite line of all of Bromwich, though, is this one: “His eloquence finds its natural key not in explanations but in statements of purpose.” We’re supposed to hear, I’m quite sure, the academic undertone in the final phrase in that sentence. Perhaps more than anything else it’s this walking, talking CV-type status that explains more than anything else the appeal that he held for young Americans during the election. They recognized in his bullet-pointed hopes and dreams themselves in their college interviews and grad school applications, and were just as willing as admissions boards often are to reward a polished plan and sterling presentation of self with a place in the program….