Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Obama, at Last!


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

My late partner John Gabrish, whom I was with from late 1985 until his death from kidney failure and colon cancer in the first week of 1990, hardly ever made broad philosophical or analytical comments about politics. But once he did. Out of a clear blue sky one day, he told me he thought that America would elect a Black to the Presidency before it ever elected a woman. I’ve thought about his comment a lot this year, as the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination seemed to turn into a laboratory experiment to test his theory. The white woman and the Black man battled it out to the very end — at least until the last primaries on June 3 — and the Black guy won despite serious questions about his overall electability, his taste in ministers and nonprofit board-member colleagues, and in particular defeats in places like West Virginia and Kentucky, where he lost by margins almost never seen in Democratic primaries unless the second-place candidate is named Lyndon LaRouche.

So now it looks like the November 4 election will be between 45-year-old first-term U.S. Senator from Illinois Barack Hussein Obama, son of a white Hawai’ian mother and a father from Kenya who abandoned him and his mom early in his childhood; and John McCain, 72-year-old long-term Senator from Arizona who’s parlayed an experience in a North Viet Namese prisoner-of-war camp (in which he became the only candidate in either major party in this year’s race who’d actually experienced torture) to a reputation as a war hero, and his mild defiance of his Republican party leaders on two issues (campaign financing and immigration) into a full-fledged reputation as a “maverick” belied by his solidly Right-wing politics on virtually everything else.

Whichever of these men wins the presidency, he’ll be the first sitting U.S. Senator elevated to the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960 — and if Obama wins he’ll be the first non-Southern Democratic President since Kennedy as well. He’ll also come within one inch of Abraham Lincoln’s record as the tallest President in our history. (At 6’ 4”, John Kerry would have tied Lincoln as the tallest President had he won in 2004.) Obama is often compared to both Lincoln and Kennedy for his combination of charismatic appeal, power as a public speaker and shortness of actual political experience. It’s often forgotten that before he became President, Lincoln had even less time in elective office than Obama has now — just three terms in the Illinois legislature and one two-year term in the House of Representatives, where he sandbagged his political career and delayed it by a decade because of his principled opposition to the 1846-1848 U.S.-Mexican war.

Obama’s race and Clinton’s gender became the central issues in their campaigns, especially in a Democratic party which in the last quarter-century has been all too willing to define itself and recruit its constituency as a series of narrowly defined “interest groups” — thereby allowing the Republicans to present themselves as the party of “real America.” Many women of Hillary Clinton’s generation were so excited that a woman with a serious chance of winning was finally running for President that they forgot her own paucity of electoral experience (two years into her second term as U.S. Senator from New York) and didn’t seem at all discomfited that she hadn’t earned her way to a position of political prominence: she’d slept her way to it, in the manner of the first women ever elected to high office in this country, who’d stepped into the breach to replace husbands who had died or been driven from office by term limits or (in one case, Governor “Ma” Ferguson of Texas in the 1920’s and 1930’s) impeachment.

I’ve read quite a few angry letters to the editor from women who seemed to be casting Hillary Clinton as the Lily Tomlin character in the movie Nine to Five, the ultra-competent factotum who made the office run and got stuck in a low-wage job while younger, flashier, better looking males — often ones she had trained — got promoted over her. A number of them suggested that Barack Obama should have “waited his turn” — as if the presidency were a sort of water pipe to be passed around at a party — and even afterwards a few diehard feminists have been writing to the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere threatening to vote for John McCain in 2008 to pave the way for Hillary in 2012. (This got the response it deserved when another woman wrote in and asked if these people really wanted to give the solidly anti-choice McCain the opportunity to appoint the last two U.S. Supreme Court justices needed to overturn Roe v. Wade.)

Nonetheless, despite the belief of many of Clinton’s more fanatical supporters that being a woman hurt her more than being African-American hurt Obama, it became clear from the campaign that racism is a far more brutal political burden than sexism. Clinton’s big wins in West Virginia and Kentucky were powered by appeals to “white voters” that were as openly racist as she could possibly get away with in a party dependent on Black voters to win national elections, and the outcomes showed that given their druthers, the redneck white male voters in those states voted their racism over their sexism and went with the white woman over the Black man. This makes it seem quite likely that in November they’ll go with the white man over the Black man. Indeed, the biggest fear I started having as the Democratic nomination contest wound on and on and on was that the Democrats might have cost themselves the White House by making their two top candidates an African-American and a woman in a country still too racist and too sexist to elect either.

Of course, in addition to the handicaps of being (half-)Black, Obama has going against him the entire elaborate propaganda infrastructure the Republicans have built since at least the Reagan years, including the half of the corporate media that essentially serves as their megaphone: talk radio, Fox News and the empires of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Clear Channel, Sinclair broadcasting and the rest. (The other half of the corporate media — the broadcast TV networks and newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times —have also swung increasingly Right in a vain attempt to convince the Fox/Murdoch/Clear Channel/Sinclair audience that they are no longer the “liberal media” they never really were.)

Not only do the Republicans have an entire wing of the mass media basically to themselves, they have a well-oiled political operation that has turned negative campaigning into a permanent state of affairs in our politics. There have been negative campaigns in American elections since America started having elections — one independent group in the 1800 Presidential campaign put out leaflets saying the choice was between “John Adams and God” or “Thomas Jefferson and No God” — but what’s changed in the years since World War II, when Murray Chotiner (Richard Nixon’s first political consultant) wrote the rulebook H. R. Haldeman, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, etc. have played by since is the ruthless systematization of it and the ability they’ve cultivated to win elections with virtually no positive appeals at all.

We’ve seen this apparatus in action so far this year with a precision that compels admiration for its well-oiled efficiency even from someone like me who detests its message and its effect on our country. We saw it at work in the entire controversy over Obama’s (former) pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose sermons (sold openly on DVD’s in the lobby of his church) were carefully culled for their most incendiary remarks. We’ve seen it as Obama has been attacked for sitting on a nonprofit board of directors with Bill Ayers, a former (very former) member of the Weather Underground organization of Left-wing domestic terrorist wanna-bes whose crimes, if any, were committed while Obama’s age was still in single digits. We’ll no doubt see a lot more of this meanness and hatred in the months to come, much of it carried by nominally “independent” campaign organizations under a loophole in America’s election law that allows a candidate like McCain to protect his above-it-all image as a man of ethics while still benefiting from the slanders people supposedly not associated with him spread about his opponent.

Of course, the attacks on Obama from the Right say far more about them than about him. Nothing about the anti-Obama campaign has disturbed me more than the constant drumbeat of criticism of him for remaining in Rev. Wright’s church for 20 years through all the “God damn America!” speeches. There’s an interesting relation between that and the Republicans’ criticism of Obama for being willing to meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other less-than-friendly world leaders without preconditions. Both bespeak a curious quirk on the Right that equates a willingness to listen to another person’s point of view with agreement. The assumption appears to be that Obama — who actually seems to have taken what he believed in and could agree with from Rev. Wright’s sermons and disregarded the rest — wouldn’t have stayed in that church so long if he really didn’t agree with Rev. Wright’s hyperbolic denunciations of the U.S., nor would he be willing to meet with Ahmadinejad if he didn’t share the Iranian president’s nasty ideas about Israel, the Holocaust, etc.

Modern-day American Rightists have carefully cultivated the ability to shut out all opinions they don’t agree with. (So have Leftists, but given the ubiquity of Right-wing points of view and the virtual absence of truly progressive voices in the major media, it’s a lot harder for us.) I’ve seen Right-wingers use their TV remotes with the precision of Pavlov’s dogs, instinctively turning the channel just as a Democrat is about to give the reply to a Republican’s allegation. On his last trip to Africa, President Bush epitomized this attitude when he announced before he left that he would only meet with the leaders of countries that were already doing what the U.S. wanted them to — making “face time” with the U.S. president seem like a reward for services rendered instead of the genuine opportunities for negotiation pursued by every president from Franklin Roosevelt to — dare I say it? — Ronald Reagan.

Contrary to the forced optimism of a lot of people on the progressive side that 2008 could be a “realigning election” that spells the end of the Reagan coalition and a decisive move Leftward, America remains a profoundly conservative country and will be so no matter how this year’s elections turn out. Neither Obama nor any other Democrat would have had a hope of being elected President this year if Bush hadn’t screwed up the country so badly — and, in particular, if he hadn’t got us bogged down in the war in Iraq, which, like the quagmire in Viet Nam another megalomaniac President from Texas got us into, has pissed off the country not because they’ve seen that the war was immoral from the get-go, but simply because we haven’t won. It doesn’t help the Republicans that the price of gas has soared past $4 per gallon — largely because the oil men and women in the Bush administration got what they wanted from the war, a dramatic spike upwards in the price of crude petroleum — but I’ve seen too often before Republican politicians pull off a pose as friends of “the people” against the “elitist” Democrats to believe that either the war or the economy will necessarily put it in the bag for Obama.

And make no mistake about it: that will be their appeal. Throughout the next four months we’ll be hearing that Obama is too “elitist,” too “alien,” not a “real American.” It’s the same line of argument the Republicans used semi-successfully against Al Gore (who, almost no one remembers, got more popular votes than George W. Bush in the 2000 election despite running such a namby-pamby campaign the two of them seemed ideologically indistinguishable, especially after Gore picked Jewish-fascist warmonger Joseph Lieberman — who’s already endorsed McCain this year — as his running mate), but it will be especially effective against Obama because it will carry the subtext, “He’s too Black to be President.”

Meanwhile, many of my brothers and sisters on the Left are wondering whether Obama is progressive enough to earn our support — or, indeed, whether electoral politics in a capitalist country are worth bothering with at all. Aside from the enormous advantages the Right has had in funding and media access, one of the reasons for their great and ongoing success in dominating American politics in the last quarter-century have been that they’ve been savvy enough to see these disputes as strategic and tactical, whereas the Left has tended to see them as moral. Whether to work within the electoral structure and the two major parties, to support an independent party or Presidential candidacy (as James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other radical-Right religious leaders recently threatened to do to McCain) or to do street activism are not great moral dilemmas; all those strategies are necessary to bring about social change. The American Right understands this; the American Left by and large does not.

All of this is my way of answering Obama’s Left-wing critics by saying that if they’re right about him — if he gets elected and governs, Bill Clinton-style, as a moderate pro-corporate Democrat with little difference between his economic policies and Bush’s — it’ll be as much our fault as it will be his. We not only need to create a mass movement to pressure the next President and Congress, whichever major party they’re from, to act progressively, we need to keep it going through thick and thin, advances and reversals. We can’t afford the mistake we made with Clinton, which was to sit and expect him to create progressive change for us. Nor can we afford the mistake we made with Bush, which was to create an international movement against the war in Iraq before it began and then let it melt away and virtually disappear once the war actually started.

There’s a famous anecdote about Franklin Roosevelt receiving a delegation of progressive activists in the White House, listening to their agenda and saying, “I agree with you. Now you have to go out and make me do it.” That is how we should treat Obama if he wins: to go out in the streets and into Congressmembers’ offices and make Obama and the Democrats govern according to their best principles and instincts. Obama’s own Web site says, “I’m asking you to believe, not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours.” We should hold him to that.