Losing my derision

An early casualty of a journalism career is your capacity for idolatry. You go to your first “celebrity” interview all big-eyed, thrilled to be in the presence of a person you’ve seen on the big screen or the cover of Rolling Stone. Before long, you find yourself muttering, “Christ, Clint Eastwood again?”

My first job was with a magazine in Los Angeles, and Eastwood actually was my first big celeb. He was pleasant enough and didn’t spread the studio BS any more than he had to, but I soon realized there was no story. He’d been interviewed hundreds of times. Even if I came up with a question more perceptive than, “So, how did you get into the business?” he wasn’t going to blurt a confession about a ménage-a-trois with Sergio Leone and Andy “Jingles” Devine. My story read as though I’d interviewed him by mail, and I might as well have.

I was more impressed with some racing drivers who came earlier. In the way some people admire Brett Favre or Lebron James, I followed Dan Gurney, Phil Hill and Mark Donohue. One of the proudest moments of my early career came when I passed Hill, America’s first Formula 1 champion, and actor/driver Paul Newman in conversation at a track and both troubled themselves to nod. I was like a 10-year-old third baseman who’d been acknowledged by Alex Rodriguez.

Long time gone, that feeling. The more celebrities you encounter, the more you realize they average, at best, no better than average.

This realization is a valuable part of a journalist’s education. Cynicism is never out of place, for instance, when interviewing a politician. The last one I believed was the pre-presidential Bill Clinton, and look how that turned out.

Knowing this, even taking pride in it, I can’t help wondering if I’m missing something about Barack Obama.

Oh, I’ll vote for him, because, Jesus, John McCain? If I’ve completely misjudged every facet of Obama, still I ask: John McCain?

My enthusiasm, though, makes me a little nervous. In the primaries, Obama was at best my third choice. Now, suddenly, he’s looking and sounding good—not just hold-your-nose-and-vote good, but good in a way I haven’t seen since I was in high school, and John Kennedy galvanized the nation.

But what am I missing? He’s ambitious? I hope so. Two slacker presidents in three decades are more than enough. Anyway, I suspect when people say “ambitious,” a lot of them are thinking “uppity.”

Elitist? If I want a down-home chief exec, I’ll write in Dolly Parton.

Too “exotic,” whatever that means? Hooray. I’ve had all the common-as-pig-tracks shucking and jiving I can stand from Bush, who by the way was born in Connecticut, not Texas, to the closest thing to a royal family our nation still tolerates.

This goes beyond liking Obama’s proposals, which by and large I do. Clinton’s health care plan may have been better, but McCain’s is far worse, and that’s that. McCain’s fervor for deregulation is a big reason we are where we are economically, and his attempts to disown it now are pathetic.

McCain’s cognitive abilities sometimes seem to desert him, scary in a world leader. And—it’s fair to note this—his statistical chance of surviving two terms is no better than 2 in 3, even without considering his medical history, Vietnam injuries or the stress of the job he’s so desperate to capture.

Maybe, at bottom, I’m seeing Obama as the last barricade between my country and a 33 percent chance of a Sarah Palin presidency. That’s enough to make almost anybody look good.