A wanderer arrives

by Michael O. Allen on August 25, 2008

When I was a young newspaper reporter (a nerdy one, at that) at The Record in Hackensack, N.J., one of the journalists I looked up to was Michael Powell. Mr. Powell was then at New York Newsday but he had passed through The Record in what was becoming an itinerant career, with stops at Newsday, the Washington Post and now The New York Times.

When some of us would get discouraged about something in journalism, we would reach for some of Mr. Powell’s old stories, particularly his profile of Frank E. Rogers, the long-serving mayor of Harrison, N.J. His stories in The Record and Newsday gave us hope. He was the writer we aspired to be when we grew up as reporters.

I recount this to say that Michael Powell is a phenomenal reporter and a great writer.

I don’t know whether Mr. Powell aspired to a career at The Times (as most of us did) but we heard that he turned down The Times to go to the Washington Post when New York Newsday imploded. Some writers have been known to spurn the stultifying culture of The Times, some of them preferring the Post (Washington) and the Los Angeles Times.

In any case, Mr. Powell is at The Times now and The Times that he comes to, though still a colossus, is somewhat tarnished, prone to getting in its own way. And the Mr. Powell that I now read in that newspaper seems different. His work here, especially covering the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic Party nomination and for the presidency of the United States, has bothered me at times.

Which is a long way to come around to what I want to say, which is that I enjoyed immensely Mr. Powell’s “American Wanderer . . . “ piece in Sunday’s “This Week In Review” section. The piece is well researched and well written. In fact, it may be over-written, especially the opening section:

That an air of the enigmatic attends Barack Obama is a commonplace; he is a man of fractured geography and family and wanderings.

He came of age in far corners, Indonesia and Hawaii, went to schools on both coasts and landed in Chicago, where he had no blood tie. With talent and ambition, he has leapt for the presidency at a tender age and will go to Denver to claim his Democratic nomination for the office.

There is to Mr. Obama’s story a Steinbeck quality, like so many migratory American tales: the mother who flickers in and out; the absent and iconic father; the grandfather, raised in the roughneck Kansas oil town of El Dorado, who moves the family restlessly, ceaselessly westward.

The American DNA encodes wanderlust ambition, and a romance clings to Mr. Obama’s story. The roamer who would make himself and his land anew is a familiar archetype.

And yet to describe such a man as rootless, as some people do, can stir up more questions, and an ambivalence reflected in the answers. What is rootlessness anyway? The word connotes something both celebrated and feared. Early on in Mr. Obama’s time in Chicago, the Democratic machine types would ask of this preternaturally calm young pol: Who sent him?

That question, probing and suspicious, has tendrils extending deep into our history. Again and again in American culture, the rootless outsider becomes an insider, and begins to guard his prize.

First he has to find that prize. For four centuries hope and despair pushed immigrants to these shores. Royalist Cavaliers found in the Virginias a new hierarchy. Puritans spread insistently across not always fruitful lands of New England. The Highlands English and Scots no sooner landed in Philadelphia in the 18th century than they lit out for the hills of Pennsylvania and down the mountain ridges of the Appalachians. In their sackcloth and baggy trousers, they were unceremonious and warlike wanderers.

“When I get ready to move, I just shut the door, call the dogs and get started,” is a Highlands saying transposed to a new world. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1893 in his influential “Frontier Thesis” that the key to American vitality could be found in this relentless, drifting movement.

My only quibble with this section is that what Mr. Powell claims as a uniquelly American trait is actually a universal one. It transcends every culture. It is the linchpin of every fairy tale, adventure, or fantasy, from “Beowulf” to “Harry Potter” and everything in between.

Every society fears-lionizes the stranger who by dint of talent, vision, unique strength, or magically power overcomes to lead.

After this immensely enjoyable, yet strained, opening, the piece settles down and reaches some surprising conclusions:

Of the two nominees, Sen. John McCain has been the more peripatetic figure, with Obama the more rooted one. Obama is the one who sought out community and has stayed in one place, Chicago, for two decades. He is the one who is not divorced and has raised a family with his wife while Mr. McCain abandoned one family to marry a much younger and wealthier woman.

I hope Mr. Powell stays and that his career flourishes at The Times. I want him to take everything that is good about the place without being infected by its many maladies.

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