Maxing metaphors

T.A. Frank is an editor at the Washington Monthly.

When Hannah Arendt described metaphor as the "greatest gift language could bestow on thinking," she may not have anticipated that the gift would take the shape of NOW-New York State calling the Democratic presidential campaign a "psychological gangbang." But something about the Democratic primary season this year has inspired the poet within us all, particularly in our comparisons of Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama. Hillary is the warrior and Barack the priest, says columnist Ronald Brownstein. Barack is Mozart and Hillary is Salieri, according to MSNBC's Chris Matthews. It's "Hillzilla" versus "Obambi," says Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.

Your choice of metaphor depends mainly on whom you support. As an Obama-leaner, I'm less receptive to metaphors pushed by the Clinton campaign. Speaking to Tim Russert, Clinton, for instance, labeled herself a "workhorse" as opposed to a "show- horse" (without mentioning any names of course), assuring Russert that this was "a wonderful phrase in Senate lexicon." Given my prejudices, I ought to be more in favor of Obama's preferred metaphor -- the "past versus the future." And it's not all bad. When I see old-time Clintonites gearing up for a restoration, looking rather like the onetime party pooh-bahs they pushed aside in 1992 when Bill Clinton first ran for president, "past" and "future" certainly come to mind. But does that even count as metaphor? It's pretty anodyne stuff.

There's also a category of metaphors that are amusing but not that helpful.

For instance, Noam Cohen of the New York Times, reviewing the websites of the two candidates, recently noted in his paper: "On one thing, the experts seem to agree ... Barack Obama is a Mac, and Hillary Clinton is a PC." That's probably true in a way, but that alludes too heavily to Obama's not-always-lovable hipster base. (Plus, I like my PC fine, and I don't care if it has no charm. By that standard, I'd probably go for Clinton.)

I also can't quite get down with a Los Angeles Times editorial that said, “Clinton is an essay, solid and reasoned; Obama is a poem, lyric and filled with possibility." Sorry, but that's a little, um, fey. And then there's Peggy Noonan, who has had some harmless Adlai-analogies for Obama but regularly finds reserves of venom for Clinton: "Deep down, journalists think [Clinton] is a political Rasputin who will not be dispatched. Prince Yusupov served him cupcakes laced with cyanide, emptied a revolver, clubbed him, tied him up and threw him in a frozen river. When he floated to the surface, they found he'd tried to claw his way from under the ice. That is how reporters see Hillary."

As a journalist, I suppose I ought to stop loitering in the gift shop of metaphor and either buy the proverbial T-shirt or leave. But instead, I'll simply shoplift a metaphor that Obama came up with in a recent speech in Selma, Ala., and rework it. The terms he employed were the "Moses generation" and the "Joshua generation," and the speech concerned the obligations of Joshua to build on the achievements of Moses. That's all fine, I suppose, but it also struck me that the Moses and Joshua comparison goes a little further -- namely, to what I think is an important difference between Clinton and Obama.

Here's my case: Clinton, or Moses, has generally shown a preference for a fairly secretive, top-down approach to governance, while Obama, or Joshua, has vowed to aim for something more transparent and bottom-up. Clinton needs our help reaching Mt. Sinai, but once we get there, she'd prefer we waited with the camels. As Moses did, she'll deal with God in private. Obama, on the other hand, is Joshua with his armies preparing to invade Jericho. Not only does he need the help of us Israelites in knocking down the walls, he also needs us to stay involved as we sack the city. Hence, all the "we are the ones we're waiting for" stuff.

Now, I'll admit my choice of Joshua becomes less appealing considering what followed in the Bible, what with every living thing in Jericho being destroyed (except for Rahab and her family, who nevertheless must have felt uncomfortable). But I'd like to think Obama would have more mercy on Washington. Hey, no metaphor needs to be perfect.

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