Sunday, January 6, 2008

Sunday Reading

Post-Iowa Hangover: George F. Will and Frank Rich look at the new front-runners in the presidential race, Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama.

First, Mr. Will, who has an almost visceral dislike for the suddenly-popular Mike Huckabee:

Huckabee, a compound of Uriah Heep, Elmer Gantry and Richard Nixon, preens about his humble background: “In my family, ‘summer’ was never a verb.” Nixon, who maundered about his parents’ privations and wife’s cloth coat, followed Lyndon Johnson, another miscast president whose festering resentments and status anxieties colored his conduct of office. Here we go again?

Huckabee fancies himself persecuted by the Republican “establishment,” a creature already negligible by 1964, when it failed to stop Barry Goldwater’s nomination. The establishment’s voice, the New York Herald Tribune, expired in 1966. Huckabee says “only one explanation” fits his Iowa success “and it’s not a human one. It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000 people.” God so loves Huckabee’s politics that He worked a Midwest miracle on his behalf? Should someone so delusional control nuclear weapons?

As for Sen. Obama, he’s almost giddy.

Barack Obama, who might be mercifully closing the Clinton parenthesis in presidential history, is refreshingly cerebral amid this recrudescence of the paranoid style in American politics. He is the un-Edwards and un-Huckabee — an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic “fights” against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country.

Mr. Rich also sees the refreshing — dare I say it — change in the forecast with these two men.

The two men are the youngest candidates in the entire field, the least angry and the least inclined to seek votes by saturation-bombing us with the post-9/11 arsenal of fear. They both radiate the kind of wit and joy (and, yes, hope) that can come only with self-confidence and a comfort in their own skins. They don’t run from Americans who are not in their club. Mr. Obama had no problem winning over a conclave of white Christian conservatives at Rick Warren’s megachurch in Orange County, Calif., even though he insisted on the necessity of condoms in fighting AIDS. Unlike the top-tier candidates in the G.O.P. presidential race, or the “compassionate conservative” president who refused for years to meet with the N.A.A.C.P., Mr. Huckabee showed up last fall for the PBS debate at the historically black Morgan State University and aced it.

The “they” who did not see the cultural power of these men, of course, includes not just the insular establishments of both their parties but the equally cloistered echo chamber of our political journalism’s status quo. It would take a whole column to list all the much-repeated Beltway story lines that collapsed on Thursday night.

[…]

Among the Republican candidates, Mr. Huckabee is also as culturally un-Bush as you can get. He constantly reminds voters that he did not go to an Ivy League school and that his plain values derived from a bona fide blue-collar upbringing, as opposed to, say, clearing brush on a vacation “ranch” bought with oil money attained with family connections. “People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off,” he told Mr. Leno, in a nifty reminder of Mr. Romney’s corporate history as a Bush-style, Harvard-minted M.B.A.

It’s such populist Huckabee sentiments that are already driving the Republican empire to strike back. The party that has milked religious conservatives for votes for two decades is traumatized by the prospect that one of that ilk might actually become its standard-bearer. Especially if the candidate in question is a preacher who bashes Wall Street and hedge-fund managers and threatens to take a Christian attitude toward those too poor to benefit from the Bush tax cuts.

No wonder the long list of party mandarins eager to take down Mr. Huckabee includes Rush Limbaugh, Robert Novak, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and National Review. Dan Bartlett, the former close Bush adviser, has snickered at Mr. Huckabee’s presumably low-rent last name. Fred Barnes was reduced to incoherent babbling when a noticeably gloomy Fox News announced Mr. Huckabee’s victory Thursday night.

If one of the side effects of the Huckabee and Obama candidacies is that it serves as a royal smackdown for the establishment stormcrows of punditry, then it will be well worth it just for the fun of watching them squirm.

Charlie Crist’s First Year: The Miami Herald looks at the first year of the governor of Florida; yet another Republican who doesn’t fit the mold of the Bushistic GOP.

As eight presidential candidates and their entourages descended upon his hometown for a cutting-edge debate hosted by YouTube, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist was in his element.

He hosted a fundraiser of big-name Republicans, urged the candidates on national TV to ”have some fun with it,” and used his folksy charm to turn a hard-edged question about the Florida primary into a chance to schmooze with CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer.

”Your mother lives here,” Crist offered. ”I would consult with her on that, too.”

The CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg in November was only one in a series of events that rocketed Florida’s governor to the national stage.

Two months into office, Crist decided to bring Florida into the global debate on climate change. He appeared with singer Sheryl Crow to fight global warming. He barreled on stage with singer Jimmy Buffett to commend him for his support of manatees and for being green. He lured California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the relatives of three former presidents to his climate change summit.

And, as proof that Crist had become a national name, conservative columnist Robert Novak suggested in March that Crist would be a logical vice presidential contender for the Republican nominee, and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez last month touted Crist’s credentials for the No. 2 job as ”a very good campaigner from a very pivotal state.”

But as the 51-year-old Republican begins his second year as governor, he will need more than political popularity and charm to handle what Florida House Democratic leader Dan Gelber believes could be ”the perfect storm of trouble.”

Florida has had more home-mortgage foreclosures than any state except California.

The state budget is $2 billion in the red. Moving companies say that more families with children are leaving Florida than are moving in. The insurance reform that Crist sought two weeks into office has been so unsuccessful that he is threatening to sue the industry. And property taxes have now surpassed insurance fears as the top concern of Florida voters.

The sign on the desk of the governor of the fourth-largest state reads, ”It can be done,” and the man behind it handles his woes with seemingly endless optimism.

”In challenging times, you get challenged the most. It’s exciting,” Crist said, as he looked ahead to his second year in office. ”We have it well in hand. We’ll be OK.”

Crist said he will propose a balanced budget on Feb. 4 that protects education from the budget cuts of declining revenues and additional losses if the property-tax amendment he supports is approved on the Jan. 29 ballot. His budget also would reward teachers with a pay raise and enable plans to give the uninsured more healthcare options, although he doesn’t say how he would pay for them.

He is considering a state-based trading system that would reward companies for not polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. He wants to privatize toll roads and revamp the FCAT testing system for public schools so that it ”focuses on the joy of learning rather than the fear of testing.”

[…]

Crist says he is focused on being governor, not vice president, but he is clearly stoking his prospects. While he gave Florida reporters 15 minutes for year-end interviews in December, he devoted more than three hours to reporters for The New Yorker and Time magazine.

It is the kind of political capital abundantly available to Crist’s predecessor Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, but Crist has cultivated it without the family connections.

”Charlie Crist is going to be vital if the Republicans have a prayer of retaining the White House,” Towery said.

Fellow Republican Bill McCollum — who has criticized Crist for his push to restore felons’ voting rights, opposes the gambling compact, and doubts the science of global warming — believes that Crist’s policies have spawned ”unrest” among conservatives in the party’s base. But McCollum also sees a silver lining to Crist’s pursuit of the national stage.

”At the end of the day, the focus for the Republican Party is on next year’s presidential election,” he said, and Crist is ”very much aware” that ”Florida is crucial on Election Day.”

Memories of The Prophet: Every hip teenager got a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s book of poetry as a gift in the 1960’s; usually from a girlfriend. (Even I got one.) Joan Acocella of The New Yorker looks at the wistful man behind the words that have become part of our life without most of us knowing where they came from.

Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet of all time. Second is Lao-tzu. Third is Kahlil Gibran, who owes his place on that list to one book, “The Prophet,” a collection of twenty-six prose poems, delivered as sermons by a fictional wise man in a faraway time and place. Since its publication, in 1923, “The Prophet” has sold more than nine million copies in its American edition alone. There are public schools named for Gibran in Brooklyn and Yonkers. “The Prophet” has been recited at countless weddings and funerals. It is quoted in books and articles on training art teachers, determining criminal responsibility, and enduring ectopic pregnancy, sleep disorders, and the news that your son is gay. Its words turn up in advertisements for marriage counsellors, chiropractors, learning-disabilities specialists, and face cream.

“The Prophet” started fast — it sold out its first printing in a month — and then it got faster, until, in the nineteen-sixties, its sales sometimes reached five thousand copies a week. It was the Bible of that decade. But the book’s popularity should not be laid entirely at the door of the hippies. “The Prophet” was a hit long before the sixties (it made good money even during the Depression), and sales after that decade have never been less than healthy — a record all the more impressive in that it is due almost entirely to word of mouth. Apart from a brief effort during the twenties, “The Prophet” has never been advertised. Presumably in honor of this commercial feat, Everyman’s Library has now brought out “Kahlil Gibran: The Collected Works” ($27.50), with a pretty red binding and a gold ribbon for a bookmark. While most people know Gibran only as the author of “The Prophet,” he wrote seventeen books, nine in Arabic and eight in English. The Everyman’s volume contains twelve of them.

The critics will no doubt greet it with the same indifference they have shown Gibran ever since his death, in 1931. Even his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, brushed him off. When Knopf was asked, in 1965, who the audience for “The Prophet” was, he replied that he had no idea. “It must be a cult,” he said — an ungrateful response from the man to whom “The Prophet” had been a cash cow for more than forty years. In 1974, a cousin of the poet’s, also named Kahlil Gibran, and his wife, Jean, published a good biography, “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World.” Then, in 1998, came the more searching “Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran,” by Robin Waterfield, a translator of ancient Greek literature. But until the first of those books appeared—that is, for forty-three years after Gibran’s death—there was no proper biography of this hugely influential author. Both Waterfield and the Gibrans complain about the literati’s lack of respect for their subject — Waterfield blames it on snobbery, “hard-hearted cynicism”—but the facts they dug up were not such as to improve his reputation.

[…]

What made “The Prophet” so fantastically successful? At the opening of the book, we are told that Almustafa, a holy man, has been living in exile, in a city called Orphalese, for twelve years. (When “The Prophet” was published, Gibran had been living in New York, in “exile” from Lebanon, for twelve years.) A ship is now coming to take him back to the island of his birth. Saddened by his departure, people gather around and ask him for his final words of wisdom—on love, on work, on joy and sorrow, and so forth. He obliges, and his lucubrations on these matters occupy most of the book. Almustafa’s advice is not bad: love involves suffering; children should be given their independence. Who, these days, would say otherwise? More than the soundness of its advice, however, the mere fact that “The Prophet” was an advice book—or, more precisely, “inspirational literature”—probably insured a substantial readership at the start. Gibran’s closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.

Then, there is the pleasing ambiguity of Almustafa’s counsels. In the manner of horoscopes, the statements are so widely applicable (“your creativity,” “your family problems”) that almost anyone could think that they were addressed to him. At times, Almustafa’s vagueness is such that you can’t figure out what he means. If you look closely, though, you will see that much of the time he is saying something specific; namely, that everything is everything else. Freedom is slavery; waking is dreaming; belief is doubt; joy is pain; death is life. So, whatever you’re doing, you needn’t worry, because you’re also doing the opposite. Such paradoxes, which Gibran had used for years to keep Haskell out of his bed, now became his favorite literary device. They appeal not only by their seeming correction of conventional wisdom but also by their hypnotic power, their negation of rational processes.

Also, the book sounds religious, which it is, in a way. Gibran was familiar with Buddhist and Muslim holy books, and above all with the Bible, in both its Arabic and King James translations. (Those paradoxes of his come partly from the Sermon on the Mount.) In “The Prophet” he Osterized all these into a warm, smooth, interconfessional soup that was perfect for twentieth-century readers, many of whom longed for the comforts of religion but did not wish to pledge allegiance to any church, let alone to any deity who might have left a record of how he wanted them to behave. It is no surprise that when those two trends—anti-authoritarianism and a nostalgia for sanctity—came together and produced the sixties, “The Prophet” ’s sales climaxed. Nor is the spirit of the sixties gone from our world. It survives in the New Age movement—of which Gibran was a midwife—and that market may be what Everyman’s had in mind when it decided to issue the new collection.

Doonesbury: Hanging out in the lobby.

Opus: What do you believe?