In the Arena

Another Sort of New Deal

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Peter Brown makes the excellent point that Barack Obama will be our first urban President…at least, since modern urban culture–that Starbucks admixture of young urban professionals and impoverished minorities–came to pass in the last 30 years.

In fact, we’ve had precious few urban sorts as President in the nation’s long history. There have been more Presidents born in log cabins than in tenements. The last flagrantly urbanite to be nominated for the office was New York’s lovely Roman Catholic Al Smith, who really was born in a tenement and had an accent like my grandmother’s. (Her “Have some more toikey” has been sorely missed at Thanksgiving since her passing.) Teddy Roosevelt was born in a New York row house, but spent most his adult life trying to prove that he wasn’t a city-sissy. Richard Nixon may have been the last U.S. President–indeed, the only one–to live a significant part of his adult life in a luxury apartment building (during the six years after his failed 1962 attempt to become Governor of California). 

This says a great deal about the presiding American fantasy that rectitude and our national soul reside in small towns. As I wrote during the campaign, that was the Sarah Palin mythology…and it didn’t work, at least, not this time. Indeed, as the weeks have passed since the election, I’ve felt–as an urban creature myself–less restricted, less defensive. Empowered, almost. Is it possible that, as a nation, we’re shedding our childlike, rural innocence and becoming more mature, urban, urbane…dare I say it, sophisticated? Cosmopolitan, even? (Rudy Giuliani–that noted Brooklyn hayseed–attempted to slur Obama as too “cosmopolitan” during the Republican convention.) Did someone mention the price of arugula at Whole Foods and still get himself elected President? Yes, we can. Would anyone care for a latte? Yes, we can. (Or a corned beef sandwich from Chicago’s fabulous Manny’s, where every sandwich comes accompanied with the fattest potato pancake I’ve ever seen. Oy, we shouldn’t!) 

This is not to slag rural life. Dirt is fine with me. But so is pavement. It will be spiritual progress–perhaps of a profound sort–to live in a country where dirt and pavement are celebrated equally. That is yet another sort of a deal–such a deal! as my grandmother would say–inherent in the Obama presidency.