Andrew Sullivan marvels at President Obama’s ability to handle a very tense situation with coolness and reflection.
No other president could have said what Obama said on Friday afternoon with similar authority. What was striking to me was the tone of acute sadness – a tone others could have used after what was, under any interpretation, a tragedy. And then there was the fact that this first black president, even after such a polarizing incident, spoke to all Americans, white and black. I cannot fathom how some on the knee-jerk right could have seen this as a divisive set of comments – just as I cannot quite fathom how this president is capable of controlling and channeling his own emotions.
What he tried to do was explain to white America how it must feel like to be perpetually deemed guilty before being proven innocent just because of your age, gender and the color of your skin. He didn’t deny the facts of the Martin case; he didn’t dispute the jury’s decision; he didn’t dismiss legitimate issues like the toll of gun violence within the young black male population – but he did insist that we all understand the context, the history, and the reason, behind the anguish and anger of many African-American men and parents and boys. What he was asking for was some mutual empathy.
To answer his point about the knee-jerk right seeing this as divisive, it was a given; Sean Hannity and the rest of the people at Fox News and other such places would have had the same reaction if the president had come out and given his mother’s recipe for beef stew. Their response to anything he says is programmed far in advance. He speaks like Martin Luther King, they hear Malcolm X.
And this reaction proves the president’s point: it’s going to be very hard to have this discussion when you have a mindset in the nation that refuses to acknowledge that not only is there a race problem in this country, this kind of reaction is adding to it, and accusing the accuser of racism by pointing it out keeps the discussion at arms’ length.
The right wing used the same tactic after Newtown and the topic of gun control came up: it’s too soon to talk about it, and by talking about gun control, you’re just making the situation worse. It’s an infantile evasion, but it works: the discussion is deflected from what needs to be done about the situation at hand to talking about whether or not we should even be talking about it.
What I find singularly impressive is that the president was able to step forward and speak to the situation in both strikingly personal terms but also as an adult addressing a problem that requires adult responses. I’m sure he knew what kind of response he’d get from the right wing; in fact, I’ll bet that he was counting on it. That way he can lead by example — as Andrew notes, by lowering the temperature — and letting the real race-baiters prove his point for him. That takes a remarkable amount of maturity and understanding — something we rarely see in our leaders any more.