Saturday, September 29, 2012

What Itzhak Perlman Could Teach Mitt And Barack

What Itzhak Perlman Could Teach Mitt And Barack

The New York Philharmonic had its Grand Opening Gala this last week, Alan Gilbert at the baton, and the violinist Itzhak Perlman as the principal soloist. 

Since my tuxedo was at the dry cleaners (and my free cash invested in tuition) I had to content myself with watching on PBS.  The orchestra, as always, was superb, and Maestro Gilbert in complete command.  And Perlman?  Wonderful.  Find the clip on PBS if you have the opportunity.  Look at his face as he plays the Sarasate.  He loves it-loves the music, loves what it does for his soul, and ours.  Perlman finds joy in playing, joy in the genius of the composer, and to watch him is to get a tiny peek into a world of complete contentment.  He has a joyous passion.

He’s the perfect break from the tendentious slog that has been the 2012 campaign; the charges and counter charges, speeches, fundraisers, polls, gaffes, feigned outrage and spin.

Not one iota of joyous passion.  Anger, yes, because it drives the base.  Lust for power, yes.  Even dispassionate writing of checks, not for the public good, but coldly calculated to bring the maximum return on investment

Joyous passion? Not so much. Mitt Romney doesn’t have it.  He wants the job, of course, even craves it.  But his ardor is that of the corporate raider; he sees the target, has his staff do some analysis, devises a strategy, and plans for what he intends to “harvest” from the asset after the acquisition.   

Barack Obama?  After four years in office, hard years with huge challenges, we aren’t sure whether he has joyous passion either.  Passion can be tough to show, and oratorical skill is not the same.  Being President is a lot harder than campaigning for it.  It’s the endless hours of rehearsals, the sore wrists, tight fingers and bleary eyes; the sweat that the artist never lets you see.  Because 99 percent of the time, it’s not standing in an artfully lit concert hall wowing rapt aficionados.  It’s hard work.

Not every President has joyous passion, nor is it necessary to be a competent one.  George Herbert Walker Bush is a perfect example. But the best, and the best loved, had it.  JFK did, and inspired.  FDR had it.  Listen to his speeches, read the contemporary accounts, and you can tell he loved the job, and the electorate knew it, and loved him back.  Reagan had the sunniness, and no one seemed to care whether he involved himself in the nuts and bolts.

And Bill Clinton had it abundance. He embraced all of it-the job, the speeches, the challenges, the little details of policy, the back and forth of negotiation.  It kept him going at the worst of his troubles and projected itself into the electorate.  They knew he was a cad, but they also knew every day he rolled up his sleeves and got down to work, trying to make things a little bit better for everyone.  It remains the secret of his incredible popularity.  He still has that special grin that comes from having a great time at what you do, and you can’t help but grin right back at him.

But for Mitt and Barack, there’s been precious little fun.  This election, more than any other than I can remember, resembles cold trench warfare.  The logistical challenges of the ground game.  The massed artillery of the infinite variety of negative ads.  The propaganda machines inside the campaigns and their sympathetic media friends.  Not much in the way of joyous passion.

In a few days, we are going to see the gladiators directly engage, and we can take our measure of them.  The two sides have been feverishly engaged in pre-game planning, which primarily takes the form of intensive prepping, and an equally intensive lowering of expectations.  From Obama’s side, Mitt is a master who won 19 out of 24 GOP debates.  From Mitt’s, Obama is one of the great orators of the age, one who can make grown men weep and women sigh in (platonic) ecstasy.   

Substantively, you would think these two have a lot to talk about.  Mr. Obama has been anything but a caretaker President. He’s had the largest recession since the Great Depression, Obamacare, two wars to wind down, Osama Bin Laden, Arab Spring, and multiple threats of government shutdowns and defaults. A full plate of both accomplishment and failure.  Mitt, of course, would do everything differently (except Bin Laden, the credit for which really belongs to George Bush). 

But, I’m not sure we are going to get that much substance. While Mr. Obama has a clear record, Mr. Romney seems unwilling to actually get into the hard details of his plans.  The past couple of weeks he’s been doing something particularly odd, essentially agreeing with Mr. Obama on a number of points, while denying they have anything in common.  On Iran, there doesn’t seem to be a dime’s worth of difference between them, except that Mitt shouts more.  On healthcare, Mitt has not only taken a shine to some of Obamacare’s strong points, but actually, and affectionately, resurrected the ghost of Romneycare past.

So, policy is likely to be dull.  As for atmospherics, there’s always the possibility of a gaffe, or some display of an unpalatable personality quirk, but the parties are training for it.  Romney’s folk want him to loosen up a little, while appearing Presidential.  Obama’s would like him to shorten his answers and seem less like the boring Professor for a required course.

I know the policy.  What I’m really looking for is a little Itzhak Perlman--a little joyous passion.  I read a great story in the New York Times last week.  It was about John C. Flynn, a priest who served in the South Bronx for 50 year, in the toughest of neighborhoods, helping the hopeless, fighting drugs and despair and homelessness and poverty.  He turned down promotions and transfers, because he wanted to serve his community.  And when he died last Monday, he was mourned as “The People’s Priest.”

You can serve yourself by serving others....or you can just serve yourself.  

Joyous passion.