The New York Times
WASHINGTON Ñ At the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on MarthaÕs Vineyard, the sojourning President Barack Obama bought a few books, including ÒTo Kill a MockingbirdÓ by Harper Lee. It was for his daughter, but it also may have conjured a sweet memory for the beleaguered president. Only a couple of years ago, when he was campaigning, Obama inspired comparisons with the noble lawyer Atticus Finch.
Now, after flipping about on some hot-button issues, most recently the plan for an Islamic community center and mosque near New YorkÕs ground zero, heÕs more likely to be painted by disillusioned supporters as Atticus Flinch.
The president also bought ÒFreedom,Ó a new novel by Jonathan Franzen about a dysfunctional family in America. This is apt, since Obama is the head of the dysfunctional family of America Ñ a rational man running a most irrational nation, a high-minded man in a low-minded age.
The country is having some weird mass nervous breakdown, with the right spreading fear and disinformation that is amplified by the poisonous echo chamber that is the modern media environment.
The dispute over the Islamic center has tripped some deep national lunacy. The unbottled anger and suspicion concerning ground zero show that many Americans havenÕt flushed the trauma of 9/11 out of their systems Ñ making them easy prey for fearmongers.
Many people still have a confused view of Muslims, and the president seems unable to help navigate the country through its Islamophobia.
It is a prejudice stoked by Rush Limbaugh, who mocks ÒImam ObamaÓ as ÒAmericaÕs first Muslim president,Ó and by the evangelist Franklin Graham, who bizarrely told CNNÕs John King: ÒI think the presidentÕs problem is that he was born a Muslim. His father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father, like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother.Ó
Graham added: ÒThe teaching of Islam is to hate the Jew, to hate the Christian, to kill them. Their goal is world domination.Ó
A poll last week by the Pew Research Center tracked a strange spike in the number of Americans who believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Obama is a Muslim. And even the ones who donÕt think heÕs a Muslim donÕt necessarily believe heÕs a Christian.
The percentage of Americans who now believe that our Christian president is a Muslim has risen to 18 percent. It was 12 percent when Obama ran for president and 11 percent after his inauguration.
Just as some Americans once feared that John Fitzgerald Kennedy (who was a Catholic) would build a tunnel to Rome, now some fear that Barack Hussein Obama (whose name sounds scary) will build a tunnel to Mecca.
In ÒExtraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,Ó a history of such national follies as EnglandÕs South Sea Bubble and HollandÕs Tulip Frenzy, the Scottish historian Charles Mackay observed: ÒMen, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.Ó
He also concluded that people are more prone to believe the ÒWondrously FalseÓ than the ÒWondrously True.Ó
ÒOf all the offspring of time, Error is the most ancient, and is so old and familiar an acquaintance, that Truth, when discovered, comes upon most of us like an intruder, and meets the intruderÕs welcome,Ó Mackay wrote, adding that Òa misdirected zeal in matters of religionÓ befogs the truth most grievously.
You can have an opinion on the New York mosque, for or against. But there arenÕt two sides to the question of whether Obama is a Muslim.
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, ÒEveryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.Ó
How can a man who has written two best-selling memoirs and been on TV so much that some Democrats worried he was overexposed be getting less known and more misunderstood by the day?
The president who is always talking about wanting to be perfectly clear is ever more opaque. The One, who owes his presidency to the intense feeling he stirred up, turns out to be a practical guy who canÕt deal with intense feeling.
He ran as a man apart Ñ Joe Biden was enlisted to folksy him up Ñ and now he must deal with the fact that many see him as a man apart.
Too lofty to pay heed to the daily bump and grind of politics, Obama has failed to present himself as someone with the common touch. And to the extent that people donÕt know him or donÕt get him, he becomes easier to demonize.
Obama is the victim of the elevated expectations he so skillfully created in 2008.
He came as a redeemer and then Ñ tied up in W.Õs Gordian knots, dragged down by an economy leeched by wars and Wall Street charlatans Ñ didnÕt redeem. And nothing bums out a nation that blows with the wind like a self-appointed messiah who disappoints.
If weÕre not the ones weÕve been waiting for, who are we?
Ñ The New York Times