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Let's Hear It for Politics As Usual

06/16/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick told the Boston Globe the other day, "I think the country is so hungry for leadership -- uplifting, visionary leadership -- that a lot of our traditional differences don't matter."

Well, maybe. But I have been around politics long enough to be a bit cynical about the vision thing. JFK offered a vision, a generational change and a New Frontier. But he also had Dick Daley in Chicago counting votes and his dad, old Joe, who said, ""We're going to sell Jack like soap flakes."

Yes, I love Barack's soaring rhetoric and his ideas about a new politics of hope. I was at the march on Washington where Martin Luther King made his " I Have a Dream" speech, I though then that a new day had arrived in America, that the soaring power of his words would change everything.

It was not to be. He was murdered, and many American cities burned, Robert Kennedy was killed, the Vietnam War split the nation and Richard Nixon was elected president.

I backed Hillary Clinton because the other great cause of my life was the women's movement, and I thought Hillary was tough enough to take everything the Republican attack machine could throw at her, and then some. I figured she's get her teeth into McCain's ankles (or any other spot on his anatomy) and not let go.

I worried that Obama was more Harvard law than Chicago street fighter, that he might not have the stomach for all the GOP 527's flak. But after a few stumbles, he seems to be getting the hang of hardball politics, and that's good. At the AIPAC conference (the major Jewish lobby) , he sounded and looked, except for the blue eyes, more like Paul Newman in Exodus than like the electoral choice of Hamas. (If you don't remember Exodus, rent it. It's the Jews-as-Good-guys narrative with no shades of grey in full Hollywood swing, including a theme song that would make Israeli doves of today blanch: "This land is Mine, God gave this land to me." )

But I worry that some of the Obamanauts who want the rock star, the pure visionary who will change everything with a few drops of political fairy dust, will be disenchanted when he gets into the real nitty gritty of politics, as he must.

Early on, he made a big mistake by not wearing the flag pin. Sure, he was exactly right about it as an empty gesture of pseudo patriots, but America a loves the flag and loves even ersatz patriotism. He should clip on a really big flag pin and wear it everywhere. Is this cynical politics? You bet. But it's a winner.

Barack needs to get his story out in any medium available, and not let the GOP brand him as a radical who hates America, hangs out with very strange men of the cloth and has a Muslim middle name.

That's what the 527s will be peddling, but Obama's true story is really much more compelling--and much more American. Before 2008, if you wrote a novel about a young man with a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, who graduated from Harvard law and instead of grabbing a big-bucks job, went into community organizing in a black neighborhood, got elected to the senate and became the Democratic nominee for president, you'd be laughed at. Even Horatio Alger couldn't dream up a story that improbable.

It's a story that could indeed be sold like soap flakes. George Lukas is an Obama supporter, maybe he could do a nifty ad spot with Luke, Han Solo and Obama saving the universe, and casting John McCain as Darth Vader, an ally of George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, all inhabitants of the death star.

(When you think of all the casualties in Iraq that image does get a bit too close for comfort.)

John McCain will try to present Obama as young and inexperienced. Obama will have to picture McCain as old and out of touch. He has to harp on all of McCain's flip-flops, as the straight talk express became the double-talk express.

Even McCain's war hero status can have its downside. Republican senator Chuck Hagel notes that McCain is more prone to see the military as always right than other Vietnam war vets in the congress. McCain, because he spent his years as a POW, never experienced the disillusion of many combat soldiers who saw first-hand how the war went sour and how the generals made so many mistakes.

Don't hold Barack to too high a standard of civility. Yes, all Americans claim to want a more, humane, more uplifting brand of political discourse, but in the end, they are full of s---. They always fall hard for the politics of personal destruction. Negative politicking works - -that's why there's so much of it. Willie Horton, and the Swift Boaters may sound like an 80s band, but their tunes are seductive.

In fact, I was covering the Congress when everyone was quite civil. But the price of that was, "to get along you go along" and powerful Southern senators bottled up any talk of civil rights. All in all, in many ways I prefer today's cantankerous politics to the civility of conformity.

And today's media is tailor-made for the nasty sound bite. Can we in fact even have a civil discourse when advocates on every side are putting stuff up on the internet every hour of the day, the political talk shows need red meat for the hungry maw and high-paid consultants use their grey matter 24-7 to think of something horrible to say about the other guy--or gal? In a just-released report, the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that the most covered story of the entire primary season was the Reverend Wright episode. (So much for the notion that the liberal media always ensure good stories for their faves.) Bad news sells, that's the simple fact. Just as the swiftboaters turned war hero John Kerry into an alleged liar and coward, so too will the attack squads portray Obama as an anti-American radical whose best buddies are a pastor who spews hate, a priest who cozies up to Farrakhan and a former sixties' Weatherman. Will people believe it? You bet, if the purveyors of the message aren't hit hard and often.

So Obama should keep up with the Vision Thing. Words do count, and good ones are often remembered long after the political season is over.

But to get elected, you have to play politics, and in hardball, that sometimes means sliding into second with your cleats up. Because make no mistake, the other guys are going to do it to you.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety,: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England.)