Obama vs Lieberman: A Failure To Smite

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When the false prophets of Baal challenged Elijah's God to a fight to the finish and lost, Elijah's God did not merely pick up the people of Israel and march them off to the promised land. His actual command to the Israelites, after the Baalist priest had failed in their yelling and rending of garments and general whining into the microphones, was "Take them out and smite them."

Joe Lieberman did not create the Joe Lieberman we have before us today. Lieberman was created by a vacuum of power, just as surely as a little limp balloon will inflate to fill the entire volume of a vacuum jar. Suck the power out of the Senate and the droopiest empty vessel will always expand to fill the void.

Aristotle defined real tragedy as when a great man is destroyed by an essentially human tragic flaw. The tragic flaw can be overwhelming pride, as it was with Aeschylus, or, in the instance of our President, it can be the flaw that is also one of his great strengths as a human being -- his ability to seek out the good in others, to assume that it is there. This decency has served him well until this moment, and it may even stand us all in good stead in what remains of this possibly tragic presidency. But this decency does not just appear as weakness in great battle, it actually is weakness.

When Obama said in Oslo last week that there is evil in the world, this Niebuhrian recognition of how the world really is was called upon to steel the ever-decent Obama to accept the necessity of war. That same recognition of the possibility of evil is not being drawn upon now, and we are all the victims because of that failure.

LBJ would not have let his vision for the Great Society be undermined by the likes of a Joe Lieberman. LBJ would have moved Lieberman's office to the smallest, smelliest cubicle in the lowest building in D.C. He would have grasped Lieberman by the neck and breathed into his scrawny face. He would have reopened an investigation into the tax receipts of Lieberman's father's liquor store even though the place had been closed for thirty years. There is nothing LBJ wouldn't have done to get his bill passed the way he wanted it passed.

There will be plays and maybe even an opera written about this bleak winter of 2009. And the story will be simple -- a nation summoned to a new beginning with the promise of hope, and the nation will have given in to that hope for a brief shining moment. Then the test arises, as tests always will. The sniveling Lieberman, whom the librettist will struggle to portray with any redeeming quality, and Obama, the good, the wise, the decent, unable for his sake or ours, to smite the foe. Evil triumphs, Obama loses, and all of us are diminished.

It is has been said that the differences between great comedy and great tragedy are slight. Maybe the true difference is who the piano lands on. At the moment, we can see it coming, dropping out of the sky, and there's nowhere to run.