Monday, August 18, 2008

Currying Favor

Barack Obama blew through San Francisco last night, one last time before next week's Democratic National Convention in Denver. And while he was here, he blew away the all-time single-event presidential fundraising record.

Obama raked in an astounding $7.8 million during three hours at the Fairmont Hotel. A million-dollar haul is good for one of these stops; two million is a great night. But almost eight million? That is simply astonishing. One could argue this wasn't a single event; the Illinois Senator went from room to room, knocking off two VIP receptions and a gala dinner in the Grand Ballroom (heirloom tomato salad, lavender salt-crusted beef tenderloin and carrot cake mousse, if you must know). But it was still a one-stop haul that dwarfed anything any other candidate has ever done high atop tony Nob Hill, or anywhere else in America for that matter.

Much of the money was sucked out of the deep pockets of about 200 South Asian and Asian Pacific Islander donors. It was an elegantly dressed crowd, with some of the women in beautiful saris. They certainly looked like they could afford the $14,000-a-head ticket.

Yes, you read that right: 14k per person. You could get in for a mere $2300, the federal maximum contribution to Obama's general election campaign. But that only got you that plate of beef and a chance to see the candidate deliver his usual stump speech. For the extra $11,700 - most of it going to the Democratic National Committee - you could shake hands with The Man himself, exchange a few words, and pose for a picture.

We've all heard Obama adopt a Southern drawl when campaigning in Alabama, or sound like a brother from the hood when he's back home in Chicago. But he struck quite a different tone in the VIP room with the Indian and Pakistani crowd.

"I not only think I'm a desi, I am a desi," he told them, using a Hindi word, derived from the Sanskrit, that means a person of South Asian descent. In India, it also can mean local, or indigenous. "I'm your homeboy." He told the well-heeled donors that he became an expert at whipping up dal during his freshman year at Occidental College, where his roommate was from Pakistan. "But someone else made the naan," he joked.

Well, he's certainly learned how to make bread since then.

There's nothing wrong with trying to connect with a crowd. I do the same thing when I interview someone. I try to find something we have in common, so that we click and become comfortable. I've lived in six different states, have eight far-flung siblings, and have had a pretty full life, so there's usually some sort of connection to be made.

But Obama's getting awfully close to pandering to some of these audiences, especially when he's asking for their money. Now he's a South Asian homeboy? Last time I checked, he's half-Kenyan, half-Kansan. Yes, he was raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, but that's not exactly Mumbai. Technically, Indonesia is part of Southeast Asia, although since it's in between South Asia and the Pacific Islands, I suppose I should cut him some slack, given the diversity of this particular audience.

I just find the whole campaign fundraising thing unseemly, and the ingratiating tone doesn't make it any more attractive. And I wonder whether Obama should be describing himself as a "South Asian homeboy" at a time when the conservatives are putting out best-selling books portraying him as an un-American, Arabic-speaking, closet Muslim, radical. He needn't deny his heritage; he should embrace it. But that doesn't mean pretending to be all things to all people.

Do they even know what dal is in Iowa or New Hampshire?

He'd better hope swing voters don't select "naan of the above" in November.