Did you notice what Barack Obama and Tiger Woods have in common lately? No, not that: It's that both were told by a Washington insider this week that he needed to say a magic word in order to gain true acceptance from the American people.
Congressman Peter King (R-NY) and pundit Brit Hume (R-Fox) told President Obama and Tiger Woods, respectively, to say "terrorism" and "Jesus" more. If only these successful, menthol-cool, mixed-race men would come to terms with these terms, they could then spin their way into passing: Obama would pass as president for a war-loving public that isn't satisfied by 50,000 more troops sent to a losing war, and Woods would pass as a member of the cult we call the Republican Party and, ipso facto, be reaccepted by the corporations who once found his touch so golden.
First, "terrorism." When asked by George Stephanopoulos to name one "specific recommendation the president could implement right now to fix" our Swiss-cheesey national security network, Peter King answered: "To use the word terrorism more." King, of course, was nostalgic for those days when a president poured "terror" over national policy like ketchup. But we all know that merely using the word--or following any GOP demand--would ever be enough, as Jon Stewart pointed out (starting around 6:50).
Remember how these same people objected to Obama correctly emphasizing the last syllable of Sonia Sotomayor's name? As it turns out, Obama's been saying "terrorism" and reminding us that we're at war with Al Qaeda like it's going out of style, as this Daily Kos clip drawn from 27 presidential speeches shows. The real problem for guys like King is that Obama has been pursuing a Bush-like agenda with Clintonian relish, leaving the right with very little of substance to complain about besides rhetorical window-dressing.
Back on the home front, Brit Hume managed to ring all the media bells by saying, "My message to Tiger would be, `Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'"
Never mind that Hume's underlying point--that Jesus is the best whitewash for multiple adulteries since flowers and candy--might be considered more than a little insulting to true Christians. The really breathtaking assumption made by Hume's statement, in the wake of John Ensign, David Vitter, Mark Sanford, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, et. al., is the idea that a public figure could still use a public avowal of religious faith as a testament to renewed personal virtue. Hume is saying, in effect, that he can make Tammy Faye's mascara run back up into her eyelashes just by shouting Jesus--and it does seem we're past that point as a country now.
But the Magic Word gambit is revealing of the GOP's basic approach to governing, which is all about spin. Call a proposal to relax air quality standards the "Clear Skies Initiative," for example, or an expansion of our military dependencies abroad "Operation Iraqi Freedom." Or demand an end to abortion on moral grounds, but for the eight years they were in power shy away from actually do anything about it. Is that really so different from asking the avowedly Buddhist Tiger to say he now loves Jesus as if He were a cute blonde reality show contestant?
You don't have to be as talented as Mr. Ripley to know that passing is an essential trope in American culture and literature. Gliding past social, racial, or economic barriers is what American society is all about--it's the plot of just about every Henry James novel, and if you Blog Like Me you know dreams of successful transformation thrive on the Internet. It's just that we have a love/hate relationship with those who do it very well, like Obama and Tiger.
And that's the bottom line--both Obama and Tiger have already passed, they've already been accepted. That's what living in the White House and being the richest, most successful athlete in history means. It may be true that what we really need are more Hester Prynnes, who, when offered the chance to pass as a good Christian, instead defied the sanctimony of her accusers; in fact, it's almost a lead-pipe cinch that that is what the GOP needs right now. But they're not going to find it bathing in the bromides of purity offered by Hume or King (or Dick Cheney or Pete Hoekstra).
It's a paradox of victory: The Republicans' very successes over the past 30 years need to be unwound before the party can move ahead. The instinct for aggression, the supreme moral confidence, the jarring assertion of unearned authority have to go before they can win majority support ever again. It would be nice if it were as simple as whispering a formula to the doorman to get you into the country club, but building support has always meant reaching out to other groups, not insulting their values by promoting your own. And there's no better illustration of the shrinking base for intolerance than the reaction of fellow Fox News Sundaypanelist Bill Kristol to Hume's initial advice to Tiger.
Kristol is himself a grand enabler of rightwing Christian fear-mongering, a big neocon and Israel-right-or-wrong idolator, who was largely responsible for the GOP's love affair with Sarah Palin. He's also a Jew, however, and immediately after Hume said that only one religion can save the star of country club athletics, Krystol said, through a nervous smile, "Brit is concerned about Tiger's soul, which is admirable, but I'd just make a more straightforward sports prediction that he'll come back to win the Masters."
Kristol did not object to any implied insult to his own religion, or quibble that Hume's comment revealed a certain exclusivity of moral righteousness. But he did mumble a few words to help himself pass among the Christian right--asserting that religion is good, though results matter. Yet, if he thinks that will pass muster with Tea Partiers who are looking for someone to blame inside the Republican Party for their rage, he's just not as talented as he thinks he is--or as Mr. Ripley.