Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sunday Reading

Looking Back: In January 2007, word got out that Barack Obama was forming an exploratory committee for his run for the presidency. This is what I wrote at the time.

It’s not a big surprise that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has decided to form an exploratory committee to consider running for president in 2008. (Keith Olbermann said last night that using the term “exploratory” is ridiculous; of course he’s going to run.)

The pundits are making a big deal out of this; not because Mr. Obama is a dynamic and commanding speaker, charismatic to the point of stellar, and has the refreshing pedigree that is as old as America but never before seen as a serious contender for the nomination. No, they’re painting it as a tabloid-level battle between him and Sen. Hillary Clinton; CNN even went so far as to put up a caption of “Hillary vs. Obama,” being slightly un-PC by referring to Ms. Clinton by her first name and Mr. Obama by his last. The way Wolf Blitzer discussed it on “The Situation Room” made me think I was watching an episode of “Access: Hollywood.”

The right-wingers will have a tough time trashing Mr. Obama without coming across as racists, although that hasn’t stopped nutballs like Debbie Schlussel from attacking him for something he has no control over such as his name and his father’s ancestry. They will go after his lack of experience in government and foreign policy, although they will have a little trouble doing it with a straight face given the current occupant of the Oval Office. (Mr. Obama has said he will address that issue immediately by launching his campaign in Springfield, Illinois, the home and burial site of Abraham Lincoln, who served all of two years in Congress before becoming president.) They will dig up the fact that he once used cocaine, but Mr. Obama already brought up that issue several years ago in his own book and actually uses it as a talking point for showing how a young man on the road to ruin can turn himself around. Again, he’s inoculated himself against attacks by the likes of well-known vice admirals like Rush Limbaugh (although rank hypocrisy and self-inflicted irony has never stopped him before) and Bill Bennett.

Then they will play their last card and do a big build-up to ask the most irrelevant yet brow-furrowing question of all: Is America Ready for a President Obama? Ah, the open-ended question; leaving it up to the responder to define what being “ready” means: are we ready for a black man in the White House? Are we ready for a president whose middle name is Hussein and whose last name ends with a vowel?

The answer is that it’s a bullshit question and the only reason they ask it is because they can’t come up with anything else that doesn’t sound racist, trivial or just plain stupid. The questions about whether or not Sen. Obama should become the next president should be based on his leadership and the ability to use his skills and intelligence to guide the country and balance the politics with his vision. He has to rely on other people to tell him what to do and surround himself with smart people who may disagree with him, and he has to be able to listen to them. He has to be able to perform the job recognizing the fact that a president is both a partisan politician and the leader of the whole country, including the people who voted for someone else. It’s a delicate balance, so throwing in trivialities such as his ancestry or the origins of his cognomen do nothing but skew the scale, and we might as well throw aside all pretense of considered debate and elect the next president using the same technique as they do on American Idol. If we’d asked those questions of several candidates in the past (and at least one that I can think of right now) and assuming that the electorate had paid attention to the answers, we might have gotten far different results.

Overcoming in Ohio: In bellwether Perry County, the Ku Klux Klan once thrived. Now, Republican truckers and coal miners are backing Barack Obama.

NEW STRAITSVILLE, Ohio — The Saturday afternoon scene seemed ripped out of a Republican playbook. A campaign canvasser wearing a black cowboy hat stood on the threshold of a mobile home in a hardscrabble, virtually all-white rural county talking about God’s will and the White House with a retiree who once was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher.

“I think God had it all planned out for Barack-o to be our man,” said Tom Morris, 73, a lifelong Republican whose career was mostly as a self-employed truck driver and electrician. Eighty-two-year-old retired coal miner Rufus Fultz, one of the most active Obama volunteers in Perry County, chimed in, “I believe it too.” Morris and his wife, Ernestine, who also crossed party lines to vote early for Obama, live in a trailer in their backyard because they lack the money to repair their ramshackle house. Morris confessed, “I pray every night that Barack and his wife will be elected to the White House unanimously.”

There is nothing unanimous about politics in Perry County, located about 60 miles southeast of Columbus at the point where Midwestern Ohio gives way to Appalachia. With only 15,000 voters in 2004 (New Lexington, its largest town, has fewer than 5,000 residents), Perry County appears to be a fly speck in a swing state where turnout is expected to exceed 6.5 million.

But Perry County has an uncanny knack for being a political soothsayer. In both the 1988 and 2000 presidential elections — the prior two contests without an incumbent on the ballot — Perry came closest among Ohio’s 88 counties of mirroring the presidential vote. In 2004, Perry County came within 1 percent of matching the George Bush and John Kerry vote margins. The Political Research Center at Suffolk University, which identified the county as a bellwether for its Ohio polls, found that Obama led John McCain by a 45-to-41-percent margin in Perry County in mid-October, relatively close to the survey’s statewide result. “There is a chance that the bellwether model will not work this year because of heavy urban registration in Ohio,” said David Paleologos, the polling director at Suffolk University. “But it has worked in the past.”

Even though the minority population of Perry County is little more than a few guys who checked the “Hispanic” box on the Census form as a joke, Obama appears to be holding his own in a place where the Ku Klux Klan thrived through the 1920s. Typical of today’s Obama voters is Rick Barnette, a beefy school bus driver with a goatee, who said, “I can’t see myself 10 years ago voting for an African-American like Obama. It was how I was brung up. I’ve seen the Ku Klux Klan pictures.” But now Barnette’s major objection to Obama is that he did not choose Hillary Clinton as his running mate.

Shortly after noon Saturday, Barnette was sitting in the unused keno room at Fiore’s restaurant and bowling alley in New Lexington helping devise schedules for the high-school bowling league. His companion and fellow Obama supporter Mike Shiplett, whose daughter is in the Air Force in Guam, tried to explain the transition in Perry County. “It’s generational,” said Shiplett, who is a self-employed truck driver and the operator of a cleaning service. “People our age are different from our parents. My daughter dated a black guy and he was a hell of a nice guy. Things are changing.”

Frank Rich: Remembering Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

AND so: just how far have we come?

As a rough gauge last week, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen since it came out when I was a teenager in 1967. Back then “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was Hollywood’s idea of a stirring call for racial justice. The premise: A young white woman falls madly in love with a black man while visiting the University of Hawaii and brings him home to San Francisco to get her parents’ blessing. Dad, a crusading newspaper publisher, and Mom, a modern art dealer, are wealthy white liberals — Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, no less — so surely there can be no problem. Complications ensue before everyone does the right thing.

Though the film was a box-office smash and received 10 Oscar nominations, even four decades ago it was widely ridiculed as dated by liberal critics. The hero, played by the first black Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, was seen as too perfect and too “white” — an impossibly handsome doctor with Johns Hopkins and Yale on his résumé and a Nobel-worthy career fighting tropical diseases in Africa for the World Health Organization. What couple would not want him as a son-in-law? “He’s so calm and sure of everything,” says his fiancée. “He doesn’t have any tensions in him.” She is confident that every single one of their biracial children will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”

What a strange movie to confront in 2008. As the world knows, Barack Obama’s own white mother and African father met at the University of Hawaii. In “Dreams From My Father,” he even imagines the awkward dinner where his mother introduced her liberal-ish parents to her intended in 1959. But what’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears “so calm” and without “tensions” — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being “clean” and “articulate,” he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years ago.

Biden’s gaffe, though particularly naked, prefigured a larger pattern in the extraordinary election campaign that has brought an African-American to the brink of the presidency. Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.


Obama’s message and genealogy alike embody what has changed in the decades since. When he speaks of red and blue America being seamlessly woven into the United States of America, it is always shorthand for the reconciliation of black and white and brown and yellow America as well. Demographically, that’s where America is heading in the new century, and that will be its destiny no matter who wins the election this year.

Still, the country isn’t there yet, and should Obama be elected, America will not be cleansed of its racial history or conflicts. It will still have a virtually all-white party as one of its two most powerful political organizations. There will still be white liberals who look at Obama and can’t quite figure out what to make of his complex mixture of idealism and hard-knuckled political cunning, of his twin identities of international sojourner and conventional middle-class overachiever.

After some 20 months, we’re all still getting used to Obama and still, for that matter, trying to read his sometimes ambiguous takes on both economic and foreign affairs. What we have learned definitively about him so far — and what may most account for his victory, should he achieve it — is that he had both the brains and the muscle to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast some of the smartest people in the country, starting with the Clintons. We know that he ran a brilliant campaign that remained sane and kept to its initial plan even when his Republican opponent and his own allies were panicking all around him. We know that that plan was based on the premise that Americans actually are sick of the divisive wedge issues that have defined the past couple of decades, of which race is the most divisive of all.

Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday. Should he win the White House on Tuesday, many will cheer and more than a few will cry as history moves inexorably forward.

But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.

Doonesbury: Where’s George?

Goodnight, Opus. (The last panel is here.)