28 February 2008

Funky President

I feel a little uneasy about Barack Obama’s campaign for the US presidency, and I am trying to work out why. Ali G might ask, “Is it because I is black?” And I have to say, yes. Although if I had a vote at either the Democratic convention or the election itself, Obama would get it.

There are at least a couple of reasons for my apprehension. This is the ABBA election: anybody but Bush, already. Thankfully that isn’t an option, thanks to the 22nd amendment to the US constitution. Congress voted in 1947 to limit presidents to two terms, which had always happened anyway until Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his third – and then fourth – term during the Second World War. The war was probably more of a factor than FDR’s undoubted popularity, but the war in Iraq doesn’t mean anyone is asking Bush back for more.

So even John McCain is looking good in the current circumstances, although he would be older than Reagan was when he took office, and you never know which members of the Republican machinery would doggedly stay on as if nothing had changed. We thought they had left Cheney and Rumsfeld back in the 1970s along with Charley’s Angels and Whopper Choppers.

My hesitance about Obama isn’t due to the inexperience jibe hurled at him by Hillary Clinton, the backseat driver of the 1990s. As presidential historian William Lee Miller points out, another lawyer from Illinois had little track record when he took on the job. His name was Lincoln. (Someone cleverly responds to Miller: “I’m inexperienced too: does that mean I’m qualified?” And besides, George W was still wet behind the ears – and between them – despite time served as Texas governor.)

A sizable chunk of the US electorate may buy into the inexperience argument, combined with deep-seated stereotypes about the ability of African-American politicians to govern prudently. They ignore Bill Clinton’s behaviour in the Oval Office, but recall the black mayors who have erred. Going back to Apirana Ngata, there is a similar stereotype here in New Zealand, that “Maori can’t handle money”. We ignore the successes of Ngai Tahu, but remember Donna Awatere Huata or Alan Duff.

As we have also seen in New Zealand, a Hillary Clinton is eminently qualified for the job and would do it well, even if some couldn’t handle the autocratic style. Unfortunately, sexism still goes with the territory, and when combined with contemporary partisan politics (in both countries), it is seriously ugly and demeaning for all concerned. Pioneering feminist Robin Morgan has written a punchy attack on the double-standards that handicap Clinton in favour of Obama (thanks for the lead, Jolisa).

And, as usual, The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg has a succinct way of putting it: “Barack Obama is a phenomenon that comes along once in a lifetime. Unfortunately for Hillary, it’s her lifetime; fortunately for the rest of us, it’s ours.”

Whoever is finally the Democratic candidate, it is deeply unfortunate that the historic play-off between the first serious woman and black contenders may see a Republican slip back in, thanks to the combined deep-set prejudices of the electorate, be they sexist or racist. It’s the Ralph Nader syndrome writ large, like some PC nightmare.

A few commentators have said that watching Obama’s supporters on television is like witnessing any mass-movement rally, such as Nuremburg, and the New York Times’ Frank Rich makes reference to Jonestown and Kool-Aid. But that seems to be the way of modern campaigning, with viral marketing on the net taking the place of the door-knocking of keen, squeaky clean campaigners (think Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver). And when the converted get together (think Howard Dean) it’s a massive love-in, like that notorious clip of our Green Party doing the hokey-tokey. (Why isn't that on YouTube?)

The best analysis of Obama’s candidacy I’ve seen so far is by black writer Darryl Pinckney, earlier this month in the New York Review of Books. (Pinckney has also written for The New Yorker and an acclaimed novel about the black middle class, High Cotton.) As a peg he reviews conservative black essayist Shelby Steele’s book A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. He describes it as a “thin, unhappy meditation on what he considers Obama’s costly refusal to repudiate the Sixties and its false, politicised definition of blackness.”

Pinckney discusses Obama’s extraordinary background – his liberal white mother of course, but just as crucial is her father – as well as other key issues. Ideas of blackness, the black middle class, the benefits of affirmative action and understanding “identity”. Billy Paul wasn’t joking when he sang ‘Am I Black Enough For You?’: Obama faces criticism for being too assimilated.

People have been talking about the demonization of black youth since the introduction of harsh sentencing guidelines during the Reagan years, but it turns out that the nation had been absorbing another image of black people right alongside the lurid tales of gangs and guns. Because of affirmative action, the picture of America has changed. However unpopular it has been as public policy, affirmative action has succeeded in integrating the middle class. Obama is not exotic to white Americans. He is familiar, the really nice black guy who went to school with your son.

Though Obama has been praised by some for not making race an issue in his campaign, and for not coming off as the black candidate, his race most certainly is crucial to his broad appeal. Black people can appreciate as much as white people the inclusiveness of his mixed-race heritage and that his story is in part that of an immigrant. But this is not a color-blind election. People aren't voting for Obama in spite of the fact that he is black, or because he is only half-black, they are voting for him because he is black, and this is a whole new feeling in the country and in presidential politics. Forty years ago, Robert Kennedy was sharply criticized for saying that a black man probably could be elected president of the United States in fifty years' time.

Here is the other element to my unease. If the partisan and sexist response to Hillary Clinton has been so ugly, what will the nutters inflict on a charismatic, vulnerable black president? My own political coming of age was in the 1960s. I can just remember being sent over to the neighbours on November 23, 1963 (NZ time), to say that JFK wasn’t just wounded, he had died. In 1968 I was in Standard Two, and will never forget the assassination of Robert Kennedy being discussed earnestly in the playground of Waterloo School. This was just six weeks after Martin Luther King’s murder, and in between we had had images on the TV news each night of not just Vietnam, but the student riots in Paris. There was something happening there, and eight year olds may not have known what it was, but they were conscious of it. The lasting result was that the snuffing out of hope became a given, and some in the States are now expressing their concern in public.

Two books about the civil rights era are among the most compelling I have read in recent years. One is Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene, about racism and corruption in small-town Georgia: its an almost poetic study on the abuse and effects of power. The other is No Place Like Home, by Gary Younge, a black Briton who writes for the Guardian from the States. In the late 1990s he travelled the South following the route of the Freedom Riders in the civil rights era, and visited some of the key participants. (Ironically, until they realised he was black, many retired black activists didn’t want to talk with him.)

But also relevant is a book I’m currently reading: the first biography of Fats Domino, Blue Monday. Despite its determined chronological approach, it is a lucid, shocking story of brazen racism. Domino is usually unfairly caricatured – like Louis Armstrong – with a smiling, Happy Days image. But, like Armstrong, he was as subversive as Stokely Carmichael and a lot more effective at bringing about the world in which Obama now thrives. The early rock’n’roll riots weren’t about the frenzied response to the big beat, but about black teenagers dancing in the same rooms as whites.

After all the indignities, the book finishes with George W Bush’s other outrageous crime: the response to Hurricane Katrina. Reports of Domino’s death were exaggerated, but the sight of him being plucked from the grand home he built in his devastated childhood neighbourhood is just one more reminder of the abuse he has endured.

The song running through my head at the moment isn’t James Brown’s ‘Funky President’, because the sub-title is “People It’s Bad”. It’s by Johnnie Taylor, who was like the smooth Otis on Stax, or a black Robert Palmer. ‘Cheaper to Keep Her’ and ‘Who’s Making Love’ were two infidelitous big hits, and I suppose by the 1970s’ ‘Disco Lady’ he was back on the prowl.

But in 1972 he sang, ‘I Could Never Be President’, an ironic mix of politics and romance. He promises hope and good news and free apples for the children, but like those aforementioned stereotypes he would be a spendthrift and blow it all for the love of a good woman:

If I became President, I know I won’t last a day
I would lower all the taxes just to suit your taste
I’d bring home all the fellers from over in Viet Nam
Station them around your door so the world can’t do you no harm
I’d name every street in the city, Honey, after you (yeah yeah yeah)
In the fight against poverty, there`s no limit to what I’d do
I could never be President
Just as long as I’m lovin’ you
Recently I saw the film Talk To Me, a true story about the 1970s black radio shock-jock Petey Greene, and his more conservative “Mr Tibbs”-style producer, Dewey Hughes. It starts as a blaxploitation cartoon, but with the death of Martin Luther King – and Greene’s on-air response, calming down emotions – it suddenly turns into something more substantial (with a great soundtrack). It reminded me of 1968, and that shocking prediction by Robert Kennedy that in 50 years a black man might be elected president. Kennedy may just be 10 years out; after that, it is fingers crossed.

Apart from everything else, who would want the job of sorting out this mess? I can feel Karl Rove’s cohorts thinking, “Let Obama have a go, just so we can see a black man fail.”

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