Saturday, November 01, 2008

Obama through the prism of "All the King's Men"

Our Hillsdale reading group chose Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” as its book of the month. Actually, we chose the “story” not necessarily the book. Some of us chose to watch one of the two film versions.

We clearly are using the words "read" and "reading" loosely.

The discussion veered widely from the plot and characters even though the story's duplicity and corruption guided us.

The only person to address Warren's work directly was Robert, who couldn’t make the meeting. He wrote us a thoughtful e-mail. Here is part of it:

In the movie, there is one intriguing scene, which I ask you to consider in your discussion: The drunk adopted son of Willie Stark, the governor and protagonist, has crashed his car, severely injuring his girlfriend, who eventually dies. The girl's father visits the governor's official residence, the son confesses, and Willie offers to find a government contract for the father's trucking business to keep him quiet.

Of course, the father (later found beaten to death) refuses the offer, but makes the following comment: "I listened to you when you got started. I supported you. Your words were good then. Your words are good now. But, you're not. And I don't think you ever were."

Thus, the question is raised: Was the populist Stark ever about "helping the people"? Or, was it always about Willie Stark?

Nature versus nurture?

In other words, were the seeds of Stark’s corruption already within him or did the system plant the seeds?

We applied the question to trying to predict what a Barack Obama would do if he is elected president next Tuesday.

Here’s a sampling:

Sidney said he would launch a new New Deal replete with a CCC and WPA. The financial system will be totally revamped.

Joan predicted that Obama would revive the automobile industry, but Mike noted that the present “planned obsolescence” model for the industry first needed to be replaced. He expressed skepticism over whether the industry would accept a new economic model dictated by the electric vehicles that require virtually no maintenance.

Mike foresees an Obama jobs program that supports alternative energy and rebuilds the nation’s infrastructure. The unemployment rate will eventually go down as a result.

In general, Mike said that the entire culture of consumption needs to change,

Rick N. said that was unlikely, but said that Obama might be able to “change the conversation” by emphasizing community and its importance.

Dianna said Obama would bring the troops home, but Dick sees a shift of the forces to Afghanistan and a re-equipping of the military.

Rick N. predicted the tax burden would be shifted to the wealthy. He also sees an Obama Administration working in collaboration with world partners and being more conciliatory with adversaries.

Joan said there would be more racial harmony and more talk about community.

Harkening back to “All the King’s Men,” I questioned whether Obama would buck the lobbyists and the special interest. I doubted that there would be significant change in health insurance, for instance. I noted that it took Colin Powell to highlight prejudice against American Muslims and to chide Obama for utterly failing to address it.

I also said shifting troops to Afghanistan seemed to be moving from one quagmire to another.

Nor, on reflection, do I see “real change” or “change we can believe in” emerging from an administration that is made up largely of a cast from the Clinton years.

In short, my colleagues were more on the side that the “nature” of Obama — his innate character if you will — would shape his administration. My view was more that the political system would “nurture” half-measures.

No one seemed willing to lay odds on their predictions. We all were well aware that election day stood between our discussion and the inauguration of a new administration.

We are considering reading something by the late John Kenneth Galbraith as our next book. Robert Hamilton had suggested “The Affluent Society.”

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suggest reading Galbraith's The Great Crash, 1929. Very relevent to the current financial crisis.

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rick, try to type 10,000,000,000,000 into a standard calculator. If you are unable to, how else could you compute? Use paper and pencil? Welcome back to the stone age.

6:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was assigned "All the King's Men" for a class at Harvard. I cheated a bit and have started watching the 2006 movie as well. I am only thirty minutes into the movie, but I am already finding parallels to our president, Barack Obama. I had to Google the movie to see if others felt the same way. Rick, apparently you do.

6:10 PM  

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