Monday, July 21, 2008

No Ordinary Time: Eleanor's tourist lesson for Obama

Noam Scheiber, dismissing the inevitable Potemkin Village quality of Obama's foreign tour, cites Obama's own world-weary account of VIP fact-finding and good will tours:
Obama, as is his wont, actually lodged a version of this complaint during the primaries, when the topic was the knowledge Hillary had supposedly gleaned from her own globe-trotting: "You get picked up at the airport by a state convoy and a security detail. They drive you over to the ambassador's house and you get lunch. Then you go take a tour of some factory or some school. Children do a native dance." Replace "ambassador" with "chancellor" or "prime minister" and you have a reasonable summary of this week's itinerary. A term as National Security Advisor it is not.
Sounds worldly, but it's a half-truth. Compare Eleanor Roosevelt's approach to this process (albeit in less-hyped and less-watched settings) as recounted in Doris Kearns Goodwin's magnificent No Ordinary Time: was Franklin who had encouraged her to become his "eyes and ears," to gather the grass-roots knowledge he needed to understand the people he governed. Unable to travel easily on his own because of his paralysis, he had started by teaching Eleanor how to inspect state institutions in 1929, during his first term as governor.

Her first inspection was of an insane asylum. "All right," Franklin told her. "Go in and look around and let me know what's going on there. Tell me how the inmates are being treated." When Eleanor returned, she brought with her a printed copy of the day's menu. "Did you look to see whether they were actually getting this food?" Franklin asked. "Did you lift a pot cover on the stove to see whether the contents corresponded with this menu?"...

In time, Eleanor became so thorough in her inspections, observing the attitudes of patients towards the staff, judging facial expressions as well as the words, looking in closets and behind doors, that Franklin set great value on her reports. "She saw so many things the President could never see," Labor Secretary Frances Perkins said. "Much of what she learned and what she understood about the life of the people of this country rubbed off onto FDR. It could not have helped to do so [sic] because she had a poignant understanding" (pp 27-28).
Obama's candor is generally refreshing. He often comes off as knowing, wise to process without being corrosively cynical. By many accounts he's skilled at probing deeply into people's thinking and needs. And his dismissal of Hillary's globe-trotting had an obvious political purpose. the donut, Senator. There are things to be learned on this trip.

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