Last night in 417 IAB, Professor Alan Brinkley, The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, and The Nation‘s Katha Pollitt came together to discuss the election. Bwog Daily Editor James Downie was there.
If nothing else, last night’s panel discussion between Alan Brinkley, Hendrik Hertzberg, and Katha Pollitt proved that smiles are contagious. Brinkley (who served as unofficial moderator in the absence of a real one) opened the night by joking, “Four years ago, I hosted a similar event, and I never saw a more depressed group of people. Tonight, I suspect most people are not depressed.” The room burst into applause, and a buoyant mood was set for the next two hours.
Perhaps because the panelists had spent the previous 22 hours in a state of bliss, there was little in the way of prepared speeches. When Brinkley asked the guests to share their thoughts, both Pollitt (who recieved her M.F.A. from Columbia) and Hertzberg admitted that they were still absorbing the results of the election. Pollitt’s thoughts were mostly about how happy she was. “I learned that people are not so dumb, and that’s really good,” she said. She also commended in particular Obama’s temperament, comparing him favorably to her original favorite, John Edwards. Unlike Edwards, she said, Obama “communicated being a good person.”
Hertzberg began by sharing his astonishment at the outcome, both on a racial and partisan level: “I never thought I’d live to see a brown man become president. I never thought I’d live to see a competent Democratic presidential campaign.” When a person in the audience suggested that now a writer had become president, Hertzberg agreed, even suggesting that Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope would become part of the American canon, “along with his speeches.” He also aggreed with Pollitt that “temperament counts,” and suggested that Americans had finally moved beyond Bush’s “guy you’d have a beer with” temperament to the “cool and calm” temperament of Obama.
Brinkley then offered his thoughts. He noted the favorability of this election to the Democrats, even saying that “perhaps the best chance at losing was nominating Obama” (the other panelists nodded in agreement at this point). He also complimented Obama’s handling of race – the issue did not disappear, but it was not the main issue of the campaign.
The panelists then asked each other some questions. Brinkley opened by asking how Obama would work with the new Congress. Hertzberg responded, “It’ll be easier than one might suppose. There’s not a lot of resentment of him as usurper.” He also said that Obama has the right level of socialbility for Washington, in between Jimmy Carter’s ignorance of parties and Bill Clinton being “too social.”
Brinkley then wondered if Obama could live up to expectations. Hertzberg and Pollitt both thought he had a good chance, especially when contrasted with the Bush administration. “We’ve really kind of been this rogue elephant country for eight years,” Pollitt said, “There are so many people who want to admire this country.”
Pollitt requested that Brinkley compare the GOP of the 1930s with the modern GOP. Brinkley suggested that it was a narrower party today than in the 1930s, but that it was also a stronger party now. He also noted the many elections (1968, 1994, and so on) that were disasters for Democrats almost immediately after big successes.
The audience portion focused almost entirely on Obama’s policies. To a question about how Obama will handle the economic crisis, Hertzberg suggested that Obama will handle it with the same tempered reaction that had served him so well in the campaign. Bringing temperament back up, Hertzberg suggested that the economic crisis in fact served as the “testing” moment that so many thought would be a foreign policy crisis.
An questioner suggested that Obama had a chance to change how Americans talk about government involvement, and the panellists agreed. Hertzberg expressed optimism that there could be a shift back to more acceptance of government. Brinkley chimed in to say that there are always paradigm cycles in the definition of government, and it was unclear at this point. Hertzberg jumped back in to point out “It looks at this point to be more like one than in 1980, which many thought was a fluke,” but the GOP turned into a paradigm shift.
Perhaps the most interesting question came from a man skeptical of Obama’s credentials as a liberal. Pollitt admitted that she did not agree with all of his positions (to which the other panellists nodded their heads), and she said it was up to “all of us” to put pressure on Obama. That line drew applause from the room, though she concluded by saying “those who were worried even now were too cynical, and I’m saying that.”
Another audience member wondered how Obama would affect the U.N. and diplomacy in general. Brinkley suggested that the US simply can’t influence the world the way it used to, because “we aren’t willing to use a draft, and we’re bankrupt.” Hertzberg said he anticipated significant change, commenting that it wouldn’t be difficult to follow the Bush administration.
The evening ended on one last Bush-hatred note, with a question about whether Bush administration figures would be “held accountable.” Hertzberg suggested a trtuh commission might be possible, and Brinkley ended the night by suggesting that they’ll be forgotten.
– Photos by Hans Hyttinen