Richard Cohen's sister is canceling her inauguration party because of President-elect Obama's choice of Rick Warren to bless Mr. Obama's taking the office of the Presidency of the United State. According to her brother's column in the Washington Post, what made her do this is the way in which Mr. Obama's choice to pick this pastor for this occasion serves as a special sort of condoning of Mr. Warren's views about gays and lesbians. I agree with Richard Cohen, and apparently his sister, that these views should be regarded as totally unacceptable by anybody who has any sense of the importance of civil rights and indeed of human rights. I also agree with Richard Cohen's view that as a somebody running for the office of President and who was at the time a U.S. Senator, Mr. Obama had a particular responsibility for denouncing his then-pastor's church, Trinity United Church of Christ, for giving the anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan a special award during the primary season. I find it troubling that neither Mr. Cohen nor apparently his sister have not been, as far as I can tell, overly concerned by President-Elect Obama's equally eloquent silence and inaction regarding the sexism and misogyny directed at Senator Clinton and her supporters, particularly the sophomoric expression of these attitudes by Jon Favreau, the man writing President-elect Obama's inaugural address. (I shudder to think what the reaction of the Cohen family would have been if Favreau had been found on YouTube horsing around calling somebody a "homo" - maybe then Richard Cohen's sister would join us in our demand that the President-Elect fire this sophomoric bigot as his chief speech-writer. Whether a bigot is slick (Warren) or juvenile (Favreau), he is still a bigot.)
It is tempting to forget in this sort of dynamic who the real problem is. As is clear from what I have written so far, I wish Richard Cohen and his sister would be, respectively, writing about and canceling inauguration parties as much over Mr. Obama's inaction in the face of sexism and misogyny as they are in the face of anti-Semitism and gay-bashing. And yes, I wish that Richard Cohen's sister had paid attention to and given greater weight to the fact that she had the option to work to elect somebody who, both as a Senator and as a Presidential candidate, repeatedly marched in Pride parades and met with editors of gay newspapers across the country rather than working for somebody who would not even have his photograph taken with Gavin Newsome.
But I am not falling into the trap that lies that way. Just because people got it wrong before does not mean they cannot help matters now. People can learn. So despite the bit of complaining above, I am not going to point a finger at Richard Cohen's sister (or, for that matter, at Katha Pollitt for decrying the misogyny involved in the Warren choice when Pollitt, like Richard Cohen's sister, opted to support Mr. Obama for the presidency when it was already obvious that he was complacent, to say the least, about sexism and misogyny). I am just pleased that they are starting to pay attention now and apparently coming to understand better who they voted for. To quote Richard Cohen: "The real problem has nothing to do with ministers and everything to do with Obama's inability or unwillingness to be a moral leader. Sooner or later, he just might have to stand for something."
Aye, there's the rub. During the primary season and the general election a friend of mine who spent some considerable amount of time listening to me lament the Democratic Party's poor judgment in making then-Senator Obama their poster-child, kept saying to me that the real problem with Mr. Obama is that he is an "empty suit".
That term seemed to me too tepid back then. But I have come to see it as the essential problem behind the problem of Mr. Obama's inability or unwillingness to be a moral leader, and possibly any kind of leader. To be a moral leader, to stand for something means that you have to fill out your suit, your office, your position. To be an "empty suit" is to be a person who cannot draw a line in the sand, precisely because you do not have an arm and hand within that suit to use to reach out and draw that line. To be an "empty suit" is to be devoid of the weightiness that real leadership requires, including the gravitas to admit to a mistake and change one's position (drop the bigoted minister and lose the bigoted speechwriter; say you have been wrong to dig in your heels rather than listen to the concerns of so many of the people who worked so hard to elect you). To be an "empty suit" is to be a moral vacuum.
I refused to vote for John McCain for a number of reasons but among them was the fact that while I knew he had the capacity for moral leadership, I did not care for the directions toward which his moral commitments would lead my country. I refused to vote for Barack Obama because I knew he came up empty on the capacity for moral leadership.
In some ways, moral emptiness, especially in a President, is worse than moral wrong-headedness. The morally wrong-headed leader takes a stand, e.g. George W. Bush's legitimization of torture, and one can rally people against the stand she or he takes. The morally empty leader takes no stand. Under these circumstances, her or his silences often allow people to forget that the blank that exists in lieu of a leader is the appropriate target of criticism. After all, it seems easier to go after people who actually do take stands (Rick Warren, for example) rather than the person who silently enables wrong-headed person to gain in stature. But this is sleight of hand. The real problem is the enabler, the person who allows the sophomoric sexist to put words in his mouth, the person who lets bigoted clerics and their churches affiliate with him.
So, to Richard Cohen's sister and to Katha Pollitt, I say welcome to my party - the one that got lost in 2008, the one that expected moral leadership of a certain kind from a Democratic president. Now that you are here, I hope you can help me figure out what we are going to do with the empty suit about to occupy the Oval Office. If that empty suit thinks he can pick up sufficient evangelical money and votes in 2012, he is not going to listen to bloggers and op-ed columnists whose votes and followers he thinks he can replace with the support of the evangelicals, regardless of the detestable content of many of their views and some of their conduct. Personally, I do not think we can give the empty suit the backbone necessary to resist the lure of that support. If we cannot give this empty suit some backbone, we need, as I have written before, to start figuring out how we can have a better candidate on offer in 2012. So to the people who are canceling their celebrations, may I suggest that they use the time and effort saved to start solving that problem. We need to coalesce now around somebody who can fight for a nomination by a major Party - probably the the Party formerly recognizable as the Democratic one - who is what Obama's supporters hoped he would be and what I fear he is not.