« Stuff White People Like | Main | Warm Regards & Power Chords »

Cross the Border, Close the Gap (Part 1)

By Benj DeMott

Hillary Clinton's shot and a beer in Scranton reminded me of that old X song "The Have-Nots" -- "How does it feel to have your own bottle of booze behind the bar, how does it feel?" Hillary, the $109 million dollar woman, doesn't want to know yet she's once again fabulating a felt connection with blue collar communities. The back pages from her Hunter’s Sketchbook and her rants about Obama’s “elitism” echo the adroit faux-populist speech she made after she won the Ohio primary. The New York Post loved that one. Wowed by how Hillary “subtly embedded” a “note of class warfare” against Obama’s constituency of “latte liberals” and African-Americans,
columnist Maggie Gallagher came out swinging with Hillary’s speechwriter: “For everyone who’s been counted out, but refused to be knocked out; for everyone who has stumbled and stood right back up; for everyone who works hard and never gives up – this one is for you!” Hillary had mutated (as per Gallagher) “improbably but persuasively, into a symbol of working class toughness.”

Improbably? For sure. Persuasively? The self-regarding shout-out that turned Hillary into a Poster Woman for voters with broken teeth went over my head since I’d just read an analysis of her head-of-the-class consciousness in Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary Clinton (which has takes on her by thirty women writers). The author, Susan Lehman, explained how Hillary spent the formative years of her working life as a corporate lawyer with the powerful Rose Law Firm in Arkansas. Hillary’s time there seems to have shaped her way of being in (and above) this world. Lehman tells a story about one of Hillary’s (few) trial appearances that takes on new resonance as she tries to hold on in Pennsylvania with prole-ier-than-thou poses (even as Bruce Springsteen endorses Obama).

ACORN, a community organizing group working on behalf of the poor had helped pass a local ballot initiative that gave low-income residents a break in heating bills and increased rates for businesses. Looking to put a quick stop to this handout, the business community called upon its lawyers at the Rose Law Firm and asked them to defeat the ordinance in court.

Hillary soon found herself battling ACORN’s attorney – and her close friend – Wade Rathke, in court. Deftly marshalling constitutional theory, she convinced the judge that the ordinance constituted unlawful taking of property. Wade Rathke never spoke to Hillary again. For Hillary, the matter seemed entirely impersonal. She maintains strong contacts with ACORN and works with them today on minimum wage and electoral reform…She defeated a friend in Court. That’s business. That’s what lawyers do.

Bottom lines trump bottom dogs in Hillary’s world. And who can really blame her? The Age of Reagan isn’t dead. It’s not even past so what’s solidarity? In its absence, Hillary’s sense of professionalism has its own thin appeal. Especially to women voters who’ve known from boss-men who coast while their female subordinates do it all.

Clinton has displayed a sort of labor-intensive skill as she grinds along on the campaign trail or in the debates. (And she gets extra Brownie points for diligence right now.) But Hillary has ceded the “vision thing” to the other guy. Politics for her comes down to technics, an authentic commitment to feminist identity politics and her own personal trials. Obama, on the other hand, can’t stop seeing the world through the eyes of others.

Take that moment near the end of his speech on the night of the Ohio and Texas primaries when he asked Americans to see their country – and this campaign – from the point of view of someone (a relative of one of his campaign staffers) living in Uganda:

He is 81 years old and has never experienced true democracy in his lifetime. During the reign of Idi Amin, he was literally hunted and the only reason he escaped was thanks to the kindness of others and a few good-sized trunks. And on the night of the Iowa caucuses, that 81-year-old man stayed up until five in the morning, huddled by his television, waiting for the results.

The world is watching what we do here…

Can we lead the community of nations in taking on the common threats of the 21st century – terrorism and climate change; genocide and disease?

Can we send a message to all those weary travelers beyond our shores who long to be free from fear and want that the United States of America is, and always will be, ‘the last best, hope of Earth?’

I thought Obama’s angle of vision was too far Out that night, but maybe I’m misunderestimating Americans. They might just recognize this globalizing, post-Evil Empire world needs an American leader who means to refine and amp up Bush’s democracy promotion agenda, not deep-six it. Obama has a lot in common with John McCain on this score. And there are other commonalities too as I found out when I checked McCain’s most recent book on “the art of great decisions,” Hard Call. It repeatedly returns to key moments in American struggles against slavery and segregation. Proud to belong to the Party of Lincoln, McCain’s instincts seem to distance him from the GOP’s Southern Strategists. (Though he got into bed with them when he signed off on his wife’s gotcha response to Michelle Obama’s expressions of ambivalence toward America.)

While I believe McCain realizes white folks don’t really have the standing to tell African-Americans what to feel on the 4th of the July, his understanding of the American Dilemma pales when compared to Obama’s. Whenever MCain takes on the issue in Hard Call, the moral leaders he cites are white men. Hard Call features a parade of worthies including Lincoln and Robert Shaw – the Civil War officer who became a martyr leading a charge by his African-American regiment on a Confederate fort – and Harry Truman and Felix Frankfurter and Branch Rickey. (Jackie Robinson gets some play in the Rickey chapter, but the General Manager is presented as the idea man with the plan to integrate the Major Leagues.) McCain and his collaborators never try to derive lessons in leadership from the example of a black person engaged in the struggle for racial equality. Their blankness here probably says something about how difficult it is for top-downers like McCain (or Hillary) to get their minds around the Civil Rights Movement, which was based not so much on executive decisions but on numberless “hard calls” by everyday people.

Obama’s mind, though, is Movement-made. That’s why he keeps underscoring that his campaign is not all about him. And, in this media-driven age, you can catch glimpses on CNN of how his campaign empowers African-Americans (and forces them to prove it all night). Over the past months, that network has looked to black commentators for sound-bites. Two of these “analysts” – Jamal Simmons and Roland Martin – have distinguished themselves as canny (though not tendentious) defenders of Obama. Martin is a speed-talker who discombobulates Lou Dobbs and sundry shills recruited by that demi-demagogue. Simmons has faced even harder tests. Aware he’s on the spot in a hot medium, he plays it cool, calm and collected. Yet, on the night of the Texas primary, the Clintons’ lawyer Lanny Davis accused Simmons of being “angry.” Stunned, Simmons burned for a half-second, before getting back in the game. When Davis tried the same trick a couple days later – this time, accusing Obama of sounding “angry,” Simmons breezed past him without hinting at his own frustration at the Clinton man’s repeated efforts to conger up the specter of “Black Rage.”

Sean Wilentz recently wrote a long piece in the New Republic and a shorter one in the Philadelphia Inquirer absolving the Clinton campaign of playing race cards and attacking the Obama campaign for whipping up controversies on this front immediately before and after the South Carolina primary. Wilentz might have scored important points if he’d been content to complain that Obama’s campaign had fallen into p.c. mode on occasion, but his pieces amounted to propaganda because he left out any fact that complicated his case for the Clintons’ magnanimity. In the New Republic piece, for example, which purported to offer a comprehensive account of race-based tensions between the Obama and Clinton campaigns, Wilentz passed right over the ugly turns during the run-up to the Carolina primary after one of Hillary’s prominent black supporters – Robert Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment (BET) – insinuated Obama had been cracking up in the 80’s. Johnson dove into the gutter as he was introducing Hillary at an event and defending her remark that the Civil Rights Movement required “a president to get it done.” (i.e. LBJ.) With friends like Robert Johnson, it’s impossible to argue the Clinton campaign has never played dirty. Especially since the Clinton campaign put out a statement denying Johnson meant to defame Obama and submitting that he had only meant to drive home the contrast between Obama's work as a local community organizer with the Clintons’ grander achievements. The campaign stuck with that story until it became apparent that no-one would buy it. (Johnson himself eventually apologized.) When Bill Clinton trashed Obama as a fantast a few days on, his attack was freighted with extra baggage because Hillary had just got over spinning Johnson’s line on Obama’s high times in the ‘hood into that other (less scurrilous but still trivializing) version of her opponent’s experience as an organizer.

Down with Hillary’s “realist” approach to American politics, Wilentz asserted that no-one could have a second thought about Hillary’s claim that LBJ was the indispensable man for the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a no-brainer to him. He’s certainly right when he underscores LBJ’s crucial role in getting legislation passed, but anyone aware of what happened to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the 1964 Convention knows LBJ’s Democratic Party was not the Dream Team to African Americans from the Movement’s creative margins. Bob Moses – the legendary SNCC organizer – once suggested politics in the 60’s went sour after LBJ’s arrogant (and back-stabbing) Party power-mongers displayed their contempt for the grassrootsy MFDP at the ‘64 Convention. Wilentz (unintentionally) brought back the history of bad blood between Party regulars and the Movement’s “local people” when he cited Bill Moyers as the final authority on LBJ’s Civil Rights legacy in his New Republic piece. A couple years ago, when reading in Nick Kotz’s book, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America, I was startled to find out LBJ had given Moyers and older Texas pol Walter Jenkins the task of spying on every move made during the 64 Convention by MFDP delegates. When the regular Mississippi delegation walked out because they wouldn’t accept the compromise that required them to give up 2 of their 30 plus seats, Moyers was outraged that MFPD delegates (led by Bob Moses) slipped on to the Convention floor to take chairs vacated by the regulars. Moyers proposed to have Security Guards throw MFDP delegates out of the hall. (Walter Jenkins, though, had the sense to suggest that it might not look good to have black folks assaulted for trying to take part in a democratic process white folks had disdained.)

I doubt Wilentz knows of this bit-part in Moyers’ past. And, even if he did, he's not about to cotton on to my sense there's a striking convergence between Moyers’ (and LBJ's) scorn for the MFPD’s boldness in 1964 and the Clinton campaign’s contempt for the “audacity of hope” in our time. While that connection might be the sort of stretch that a “real” historian like Wilentz should handle skeptically, his own interpretation of this campaign indicates he ain’t trying to hear tonal matters objectively. He might have been able to offer a more convincing defense of the Clintons if he’d placed the friction that arose between them and African-Americans in a larger historical context, rather than asserting the Obama campaign manufactured all the tension.

In email exchanges with me Wilentz insisted the sequence of events after Robert Johnson’s dis signified zip. (He’d missed other incidents I cited though he graciously encouraged me to send him any available YouTube clips of Lanny Davis’s CNN provocations.) Wilentz claimed to be “willing to have his mind changed.” But his treatment of Obama’s great speech-act on behalf of a “More Perfect Union” in his Philadelphia Inquirer op ed makes me wonder if anything or anyone could get through to him. Ignoring all the evidence of Obama’s capacity for forbearance (as well as his deep understanding of America’s original sin), Wilentz invoked the speech only to cite signs of Obama’s (supposed) readiness to play the “race-baiters card.” Wilentz heard nothing but a speaker “pressing the attack by three times likening Ferraro to Rev. Wright.”

Wilentz is a Clinton partisan and I suppose that accounts for his ear. Still, he’s a distinguished American historian; it’s shocking to see him come up so small in the wake of Obama’s momentous attempt to cultivate a national audience’s historical imagination.

There have been other nasty surprises on this front. Obama’s speech moved the screenwriter/blogger Roger L. Simon to “poesy” for the first time since he was in high school. His polemical “Barack I Didn’t Do It For This: An homage to Andrew Goodman” opened as follows:

Barack, I was a civil rights worker… South Carolina, 1966… 22 yrs old … helping old folks register to vote, teaching kids to read and write, directing Raisin in the Sun

Barack, I didn’t do it for this.

Barack, I dream of my kindergarten best friend Andy from Walden School, Manhattan, born one day after me, shot dead in Mississippi 1964.

Barack, I idolized Stokley Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Barack, I lost the full use of my left hand for life in South Carolina.

Barack, I didn’t do it for this.

Barack, I gave hundreds to the Black Panthers for their children’s breakfast program when I was 25 and a young screenwriter in Echo Park, Los Angeles, even though I knew Huey was crazy and was worried my money might have been going for guns, even though I had my own children in the house when the Panthers came over, their jackets bulging.

Barack, I made excuses for the Black Power Movement even though I knew it was turning racist.

Barack, I didn’t do it for this.

Barack, your speech was bullshit.

Simon’s wounds must be real. I’ll grant he has much more moral authority than me to b.s. about Obama’s speech. Yet his readiness to call attention to his own sacrifices (and put a lien on the martyrdom of his childhood friend) reminds me of how rarely vets of the Civil Rights Movement remember their own suffering and heroism “with advantages” (an indulgence Shakespeare allowed to war heroes). In my experience, non-violent soldiers in the Southern Freedom Movement tend to recall not what they did for black folks, but what they got back. Simon, though, was certainly right to connect Obama’s speech with the Movement. I believe it fit into that tradition as this passage from Wesley Hogan’s recent history of SNNC suggests:

One of the great strengths of the civil rights movement had been the utter unpredictability that grew out of its experimental approach to inherited tradition. Within SNCC, this presence necessarily depended upon a genuine tolerance of error. Indeed, it was SNCC's faith in the lessons derived from experience (from failure), its seemingly effortless capacity for improvisation, that most dramatically stamped its style and also its appeal. If SNCC had anything to say about it, the new desegregated America would be generous.

Recall that Obama improvised his way around his initial, less than inspired, take(s) on the Wright controversy until he got it all right. And recall how he reached out generously in his speech not just to Wright, but to Geraldine Ferraro, feminists (like Hillary Clinton) trying to “break the glass ceiling” and Angry White Men (and Women) who…

don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Talking straight to Reagan democrats, Obama comprehended their, ah, bitterness without bowing down to it. In the wake of his speech, though, there were commentators who meant to keep those fires of resentment burning. An Obama backer blogged at Daily Kos about an exchange he heard on a right-wing radio talk show:

Host: “He blamed Whitey!”
Caller: “He stated a fact.”
Host: “That's blaming Whitey!”

But this blogger was (rightly) more amazed when he listened to a Hillary supporter who was the guest host on a local show where the blogger “pushed buttons” as a sound engineer. While he’d expected Hillary’s fan would “parse Obama’s speech and look for in’s to attack,” he was stunned when the host – a newspaper columnist and self-described “progressive” – made common cause with angry conservative callers, asserting “after that speech I might have to vote for McCain if Obama gets the nomination.”

During the first break, I said to him, "You know that if, God forbid, somehow Hillary gets the nomination, your allies-of-convenience, the Republicans, aren't going to be your allies anymore. They'll turn on you like the milk you left out overnight. You know that, don't you?"

He just laughed.

Hillary’s cynical supporter left our blogger shaking with anger but he had something fresh in his mind to ease his way forward. Earlier in the day, he’d received an email from an old friend – a hardcore conservative and lifelong Republican – with whom he’d been arguing politics for years though “the intersection of our social and political views basically begins and ends with gun rights…”

Or at least that was what I thought until yesterday, after Barack Obama's speech.

At 11:32, I received an email from Walker. There was no text in the body other than his signature. But the subject line said it all:

"Your man kicked ass today!"

That was it. And that was enough. I grinned so hard I thought my smile was going to meet together in the back of my head and drop the top of it off. This was my reply, short but sweet: “Yes, he did.”

The Kos blogger went on to quote his friend’s “unbelievable” follow-up email in which this once-conservative Republican distanced himself from right-wing tv and radio commentators:

“I heard the same thing from Rush on the way home, he was babbling on about being a individual and how he didn't like to be bunched with a lot of other people. The more I listen to that man, the more I think he is just pandering to the poor slobs that believe he is on their side, when actually he is on the side of the very rich and couldn't care less if people get ahead. Once again it's like it was a hundred years ago when the rich stood on the backs of the working man… I was watching Cavuto and he had Ben Stein on and he was saying it would be a good idea to raise the taxes on the rich, they have it and all they do is play golf all day and probably wouldn't even miss the money. Cavuto nearly had a bird, he was just flabbergasted, then a couple weeks later there is Ben Stein on Beck after writing a piece in a major paper saying the oil companies deserve a pat on the back for doing such a great job fueling our country.

someone got to him big time - he was probably threatened that he would never work again, and never be asked back on Cavuto, it was a radical turnaround.. When is the common man gonna realize that the media isn't telling and won't tell the truth or kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Something is definitely rotten and starting to smell in the media.”

Wow. Just...wow

I don’t doubt this blogger’s tales. But there’s a danger in pumping up the Obama effect. He may be a Black Swan but he isn’t a Messiah whose words and/or presence are fated to trigger revelations. In my own recent experience trying to talk up his candidacy to right-wingers who post at a website called The Belmont Club, movements of mind in Obama’s direction tend to go slower than one might expect based on the Daily Kos guy’s Good News. And what’s more, the “progress” I’ve witnessed tends to depend on allowances that “our” side – like all sides – is imperfect. I’ve become particularly mindful of that since I began calling and responding at The Belmont Club. The second part of this piece will focus on what I’ve learned from blogging there and I’ll close out this opening section with a passage I posted at the Club a day or two after the Rev. Wright story broke. While there’s nothing all that insightful about the words I wrote the weekend before Obama’s speech pointed Americans toward a More Perfect Union, perhaps they’re worth recalling just because they were dashed off in (the middle of) the moment. I’ll leave it to you to decide if they lived up to the Club’s own subtitle, “History and History in the Making:”

My African-American 4-year old will grow up loving America (if I have anything to do with it). At some point, though, I'll have to ease him into the shameful sides of our common past. Can't pretend I'm looking forward to getting all up in the founder's, ah, follies with slavery. Or the various prevarications of my people through the American centuries. I know the truth will set us all free...But if anyone has a good idea about how to approach American history w/o disillusioning a young African American – tell me – I'll need all the help I can get.

As you may be able to imagine, I was kinda hoping O. would give me an assist here in upcoming years!! But I can't pretend he was good enough tonight. Not upfront in his interview with Anderson Cooper. Too many excuses. He should talk straighter re Wright's Afro-centrism. Say it's not his pov but he understands where Wright is coming from and why that defensiveness is necessary for some folks in his community.

Afro-centric Christers have invented a way to handle race-based rage/frustration that won't kill anyone. (You know how many brothers die of high blood pressure!!) O needed to provide more explanations – less talk re his minister "retiring"...

Obama also made the past sound – slavery, Jim Crow, segregation – TOO far gone. He did better in that speech at MLK's Church – I think this whole thing should give him an opportunity to dig into the subject of race –Time for him to do some more close imagining. He needs to PUSH the Wrights of the world to think harder about where we're at. Just as he needs to push white folks to face up to the weight of the past in the present. I think he's up to it but we'll see...

Yes we can.

This is the first of a two part article. The second section will be published next month.

From April, 2008