"We've come a long way but we have a long way to go," I'm supposed to tell interviewers each year in the wake of Martin Luther King's birthday.
Well, nothing demonstrates that the way we have to go is getting ever shorter than having spent most of my time last week talking to reporters about a black man running for president whose race is, of all things, a plus.
The instructive contrast is with Jesse Jackson's runs in the 1980s, when the main issue was less about his radicalism than whether America was ready for a black president. Well, welcome to the 21st century. Now what is discussed is (1) whether Barack Obama can beat the Hillary juggernaut and (2) whether the depiction of him as "a new voice" has any substance.
In regard to the first question, I find it hard to imagine Senator Clinton seriously entertaining that she could beat the oh-so-"fresh" Obama for the Democratic nomination.
We can assume, for one, that Mr. Obamanot only black but also smart, accomplished, and charming to bootpretty much has the black vote locked up except for the usual one in 10 or so who will vote Republican.
As for everyone else, for Democrats who see support for the war as a wedge issue and also want to vote for someone electable, Mr. Obama has the advantage of both opposing the war and not having voted for it, since he wasn't yet in the Senate when the issue came up. Plus, lots of independents turned off by the Bush administration but antsy about Ms. Clinton's unlikability factor will flock to Mr. Obama.
Sure, Ms. Clinton is ahead in the polls right now, but a lot of that is because people say that they haven't gotten to know Mr. Obama yet. Over the next year, though, they will. In which time it will kick in that for a vast number of whites, Mr. Obama's fundamental appeal is that voting for a black person will make them feel goodeven more so than voting for a woman. And folks immune to that will also get to know Mr. Obama's sheer charisma. Charisma has always counted for quite a bit and it's something Ms. Clinton just doesn't have. Sure, there will be people who will vote for Ms. Clinton, but enough to win the nomination?
As to the second question raised in the beginning of this piece, we must ask, what's up with this notion that Mr. Obama is uniquely poised to show a "new way" in politics that rises above the battles waged by baby boomers?
I see little in this but ad copy. What a ginormous potential we are saddling the man with, after all. It is hard to imagine Mr. Obama bridging the gap between Michael Moore and Ann Coulteror even, less dramatically, Eric Alterman and Grover Norquist. The philosophical differences are too profound, the feelings are too heated. Am I the only one who sniffs an air of Rodney King wishing we could all "get along," with all of the faintly uncomprehending and ineffectual quality this had?
In a white candidate with the same experiences, attributes, and even charm, a proposition that he offered the promise of "rising above" such trenchant polarization as we know today would look hopeless at best and cynical at worst. I do not see the latter in Mr. Obama, but surely much of the punditocracy at least pretends to.
But apparently black people are wiser, healers, Oprahs. It reminds me of how in so many musicals, a large-ish black person singing a song that starts quiet and ends loud drives white audiences to ecstasy.
White audiences seem to find something ineffably cathartic in that kind of black person, and especially in maternal black women. I must admit a certain discomfort with Barack Obama, despite his sharpness and individuality, being treated as America's newest Mammy.
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