Let battle begin for the soul of America
Gene Kerrigan says it's best for all of us if Barack Obama defeats John McCain in November
It's a long time since a political campaign has been this exciting. How often have any of us thought it worthwhile to stay up until 3am to hear an American politician -- or any politician -- deliver a speech? How often do we get to see the astonishing mixture of political smarts and cold-eyed cynicism of Bill Clinton in full flow? How often has the result of an election campaign seemed to truly matter?
As an exciting yarn, as political intrigue, and as a matter of importance in the real world, the current US campaign ticks all the boxes.
In the US itself, 38 million people watched Barack Obama's acceptance speech, according to Neilsen Media Research. More Americans than watched the Olympics opening ceremony. And twice the number that watched John Kerry's equivalent speech in 2004. Add the millions who watched the specialist channels, C-Span and PBS. Then add the millions who watched online. The total could easily be 50 million -- a sixth of all Americans.
This time last week, drug addict Tharin Gartrell was partying in a Denver hotel with Nathan Johnson and his cousin, a would-be presidential assassin. They were enjoying the delights of methamphetamine, along with an unnamed woman.
This time last week, the Democrats were nervously preparing a major show business presentation of their candidate.
And this time last week John McCain was reluctantly concluding that it wouldn't be advisable to select his friend Joe Lieberman as his vice presidential candidate. And none of the other weak options would "shake up the campaign". Now, with days to go, he asked his staff, who the hell else was there?
Today, all those little stories have worked their way to some sort of conclusion. Next week the Republicans mount their show business presentation, and then -- let the games begin.
The assassination plot, such as it was, ended when Tharin Gartrell ran out of cigarettes. Nathan Johnson's cousin gave him the keys to his pickup truck, so he could go get some. And at 1.30am, Tharin was stopped by police. Short of accusing him of driving in charge of a seriously bad haircut, the cops had little on Tharin, until they saw the guns and the drugs behind the seat.
Tharin gave up Nathan Johnson. When arrested within hours, Johnson began crying and gave up his cousin. When the cops arrived at the cousin's hotel he jumped out a sixth-floor window. An awning broke his fall, and his ankle. His name is Robert Adolf and he wore a swastika ring. Seeing himself as an example of the superiority of the white race, he allegedly wanted to shoot Obama because the White House shouldn't be soiled by a "nigger" president.
So ended the great meth-head assassination plot.
The Democratic convention had two jobs to do. Unite the party, and improve Obama's standing as a candidate. The first revolved around the Clintons, the second depended on Obama's acceptance speech.
The Clintons were bitter -- so much so that in scorning Barack Obama in recent weeks Bill Clinton was sometimes unable to mention the man's name. But the Clintons know that principles, beliefs and personal feelings, must not get in the way of ambition. Both need to continue to exert power, and if that requires accepting an Obama regime, so be it. Hillary agreed a face-saving manoeuvre that stage-managed her as a kind of king-maker.
Bill was something else. He was told to speak on international affairs. Instead, he took the stage like he owned it. His every gesture seemed to say, this is how a pro does it.
His speech was respectful of Obama, the man he scorns. And it was political in the wide sense. It placed the election in the context of the "extreme philosophy" of current Republicanism. The Republicans already controlled Congress in the 1990s, and when they won the White House in 2000 the shackles were off. And, said Clinton, "the policies they had talked about for decades were implemented". The result has been domestic economic chaos, huge debt, international alarm, unnecessary war and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands.
Clinton delivered his attack with grace and timing. His bogus enthusiasm for the man he despises was made to appear genuine. It was a breathtaking display of sheer political professionalism.
Obama wrote his own autobiography. He writes his own speeches. This time his speech needed to enthuse the new millions he has drawn into political activity -- and assuage the fears of conservatives who are unhappy with the extremism of the Bush/McCain tendencies but who are nervous about a young black man with a strange name.
In our terms, Obama would be a social democrat, slightly to the left of our Labour Party in some matters, much to the right on others. His significance is not that he embodies radical change -- but what his victory could do is neutralise the toxic extremism that currently prevails. As president, John McCain will find new extremes and new wars. Obama has other priorities.
Obviously a thinker, he has no choice but to embrace the theatrical nationalism that's now mandatory in American politics. Candidates must loudly proclaim their love of country and repetitively call down the love of God on that country.
The juvenile nationalism is overlaid with a militaristic fetishism. Deference to the military is mandatory. To even question a military strategy is to "betray the troops". Loud, repeated and unthinking veneration of "the troops" is obligatory. It seeks to trump all logic -- as in the mad invasion of Iraq -- never mind alternative points of view. The militaristic fetishism approaches that of Thirties Japan.
Partly this arises from national guilt about public attitudes to soldiers in the Vietnam era. Combined with post-9/11 fear, it has produced a poisonous atmosphere.
Obama made the accommodation to that atmosphere that is unavoidable for anyone seeking public office. But his speech brought onto the political stage all sorts of people who are customarily treated with loathing by national politicians.
He had fresh words on gun control, on immigration. He referred with approval to workers on picket lines. He used the kind of detail that goes beyond the usual tokenism about "inclusion". He knows whereof he speaks.
Obama is impressive in his performance and freshness. But he's also impressive not so much for what he is as for what he's not.
His election might or might not bring useful policies to Washington -- what it would undoubtedly do is flush a whole load of crap that has gathered in the US political system over the past eight years. Crap within which John McCain seems happy to wallow.
The Democratic strategy is to embrace McCain as a decent man brought low by Washington cynics. In truth, McCain is a bad-tempered, hair-trigger right-winger. His selection of Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate is calculated to win Christian evangelicals and the rump of the angry Hillary fans. It might work. The fact that Palin opposes choice on abortion will work with the evangelicals, and some ex-Hillary fans are so bitter it won't bother them.
Palin is fresh. Within limits, she seems genuinely opposed to the routine corruption that dominates US politics. Questions raised about her alleged abuse of power as governor may well be a ball of smoke. However, McCain's choice seemed impulsive, last-minute, born out of frustration and an eagerness to one-up Obama's big speech.
The choice is perhaps too blatantly about electoral manoeuvring, rather than suitability for governance.
And Palin's extreme lack of any but the most trivial thought about national economics or international affairs also makes her a big risk.
Meanwhile, Tharin Gartrell and his fellow hillbillies languish in jail. But they have many spiritual cousins, and such people and their sniper scopes are every bit as much a part of American politics as a party convention.
Let the games begin.
And may God bless America.