John McCain, trying to fake a smile.
Obama met with John McCain earlier this week: a magnanimous gesture that turned into an awkward event. If you look at any of the photos or videos from the event you’ll know what I mean: McCain was squirming throughout, like he was about to be recaptured by the Vietnamese.
When I saw the pictures of the meeting, I thought, there’s something going on here. It’s not just partisanship or McCain being a sore loser. Other politicians are similarly made awkward around Obama. I’ve seen that McCain squirm on Joe Lieberman’s face as well. As Stephen Colbert has noted, whenever Bill Clinton forces himself to say the name “Barack Obama” he looks like he’s passing a kidney stone.
The big election issue of Newsweek offers a clue. The editors of that magazine at one point note:
On the night she officially lost the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a long and friendly phone conversation with McCain. Clinton was actually on better terms with McCain than she was with Obama. Clinton and McCain had downed shots together on Senate junkets; they regarded each other as grizzled veterans of the political wars and shared a certain disdain for Obama as flashy and callow.
As this analysis makes clear, what we have here is a generational issue, more than a racial one. Obama is a good decade or two younger than everyone else on the national stage (except for Palin, whose debut has hardly been auspicious). Politicians like McCain and the Clintons rose through the ranks the old fashioned way, spending years working their way up. They expect to be rewarded for their seniority. And here comes this upstart Obama, practically unknown 4 years ago, and he turns out to be the most gifted politician in a generation.
Aside from making them jealous, Obama is also a reminder to the old that their day is done. He’s a walking memento mori. Every politician older than him knows that their time has passed and they’ll be soon dead. That’s what makes them pickled face in Obama’s presence.
This perhaps also explains a secret power Obama has displayed time and again. He has the ability to provoke his political opponents so they say stupid, self-discrediting things. Think about Bill Clinton’s various racially tinged comments during the primaries. Or McCain’s flustered anger in the weeks leading up to the election. Or Ralph Nader’s tone-deaf suggestion that Obama might turn out to be an “Uncle Tom.” Even Al-Qaeda has fallen into this trap with Ayman al-Zawahri calling Obama a “house Negro”.
In each one of these cases someone older than Obama fails to gauge his strength and hurls an insult that makes the speaker, not the intended target, look foolish. Call it the Obama effect, the ability of a fresh face to throw the old off guard and make them embarrass themselves.