Monday, July 21, 2008

I was among the millions of Americans to whom such faded words as “change” and “hope” in political campaigns began to brighten as Barack Obama was energizing both new votes while tempering the hardened skepticism of those of us who had been gulled by glowing politicians who wound up like the enticing con man played by Robert Preston in the classic movie, “The Music Man.” Now, more of Mr. Obama’s followers are feeling newly gulled by him.

Mr. Obama’s deflation has not been due to ruthless opposition research by John McCain’s team but by the “change” candidate himself. Like millions of Americans, I, for a time, was buoyed - by the real-time prospect of our first black president and much more by the likelihood that Mr. Obama would pierce the dense hypocrisy and insatiable power-grabbing of current American politics. Also, as a former teacher of constitutional law, Mr. Obama gave me “hope I could believe in” that he would rescue the Constitution’s separation of powers, resuscitate the Bill of Rights and begin to restore our reputation around the world as a truly law-abiding nation.

Savoring the high expectations he had secured among so many Americans, Mr. Obama has decided he can also come closer to securing the Oval Office by softening his starlight enough to change some of his principles toward the calming center of our stormy political waters. In a defense by Dan Gerstein, a New York political consultant - echoing what you’ll be hearing more of from Mr. Obama’s campaign operatives - the gossamer script goes: “He is trying to broaden his appeal to a larger electorate and to be true to this postpartisan, unifying message that he’s been campaigning on.”

But instead of the ennobling clarion trombones of change we have been promised, this “adjusting” of one’s principles has long been the common juggling of our common politicians. Accordingly, as his presidential campaign gathered such momentum, Mr. Obama, with justifiable pride, pointed to the resounding fact that most of the bountiful funds he was raising came from small donors, “the people,” not the sort of supporters who move above us in private jet planes.

But after abandoning his pledge to abide by public financing, this apostle of cleansing the political culture is now going after the high rollers. As the July 3 New York Times reported, “Last week, the Obama campaign collected about $5 million at an event featuring celebrities in Los Angeles. The evening began with a dinner at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for more than 200 people who had contributed $28,500 per couple, or raised $50,000.”

Then there is the current furor among a rising number of Obama contributors with wallets far below the $50,000-a-pop crowd about his change on the “compromise” FISA Amendments Act of 2008 that passed the House and Senate, and has been signed by the grateful president. The flimflam candidate had assured his faithful enthusiasts that he would filibuster this bill (which will immunize the telecommunications companies that enabled the president to break the law in his once-secret warrantless wiretapping) that turned our privacy rights upside down and out.

Now, by dismissing the scores of lawsuits against these companies from Americans wanting to know whether they’ve been ensnared in this giant government-spun Web, the president and such supporters as Obama will have made it close to impossible to conduct meaningful investigations of the intricate nexus of the ways these telecommunications giants can collect leads to Americans with no connections to terrorism - and could continue to so as long as they’re assured by a future lawless administration that national security demands breaking another law.

But what could be wrong with a new Obama approach - to assert his religious faith by, if elected, expanding the government funding of faith-based social services through churches and other religious institutions? The former constitutional law professor does avoid one separation-of-church-and-state problem by pledging that the recipients of these taxpayer funds could not engage in hiring discrimination on the basis of an employee’s religion, thereby not limiting those hired to that particular faith.

However, I expect Professor Obama knows of the importance in constitutional case law of the need to avoid excessive entanglements of the state with religious institutions. To prevent churches and other religious groups that get government funds from discrimination in their employment practices and proselytizing with taxpayers’ money will require careful and extensive monitoring by the state.

Says the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister and president of the Interfaith Alliance, in the July 4 Jewish Week: “You can say none of this money should be used for proselytizing or that there shouldn’t be discrimination, but what does that mean for the little storefront agency, where there can be a subtle or even more blatant form of discrimination, and where proselytizing does occur?” And not just storefront recipients.

But Mr. Obama insists this program will be the “moral center” of his administration. Just where is his own center of credibility?

I remember the surge of hope for a national change as a child, during the Great Depression, when, while my mother would walk blocks to save a few cents on food, there came Franklin Delano Roosevelt! I haven’t seen such a surge since Mr. Obama’s first chorus, but I can no longer believe in this messenger of such tidings.

Nat Hentoff’s column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.

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