May 8, 2008

April 28, 2008: I Walk the Line, Bird on a Wire, The Ties That Bind

“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds”

----Johnny Cash, “I Walk the Line” (1)

There has been much said of late that Barack Obama is too “aloof”, too cerebral, too distant and, therefore, somehow out of touch with America. They cite his oratorical style, his lofty language, and foremost his unwillingness or inability to get down ‘in the trenches’ and deliver the body blows necessary to emerge a champion. To support these arguments pundits point out that to the degree his constituency extends beyond the racial barrier his support is primarily among the better educated professional classes and that somehow this son of Chicago’s south side cannot relate to the laboring masses. This analysis, put forward so eloquently by Chris Matthews on his MSNBC ‘Hardball’ program, and Pat Buchanan, the pugnacious Nixonite who learned nothing from the experience, materially misunderstands the natural limitations of Obama’s candidacy.

On occasion, when confronted with such questions, it helps to turn to the world of sports to find adequate and instructive parallels. In order to understand the paradigm, the limitations as well as the promise of the Obama candidacy, one needs to turn to other arenas for instruction. Professional sports went through much the same experience when it came time to confront such racial barriers and finally allow persons of color to participate at the highest level. Here one must remember Branch Rickey’s selection of Jackie Robinson, or Joe Lewis who became the first black boxing champion since the controversial Jack Johnson (so controversial that blacks could not get a title match for decades), or Arthur Ashe in tennis or Tiger Woods in golf—other lily-white endeavors-- until these great athletes rose to challenge Jim Crow. These athletes had several things in common: all were great athletes and all in relatively short order were welcomed onto the national and international stage. The reasons for this were not only were they in possession of great athleticism but also great temperament. From this perspective the choice of Jackie Robinson is instructive. There were several black athletes laboring in the old negro league who could, on the basis of athletic ability, have been easy selections as the athlete who would overturn decades of racism in professional baseball. Satchel Page, Josh Gibson leap immediately to mind. But what recommended Robinson to Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey was knowing he would have to endure endless taunting and racial slurs from the crowds and from other players—some his own teammates-- and that his choice would have to keep a cool head, would have to stand above it and teach by example what tolerance and acceptance looked like. His skill was a necessary condition, for it would not do to bring him to the major leagues only to watch him struggle and fail; but it was his temperament that was the sufficient condition for his selection. Without the proper temperament, Rickey’s choice would put undo pressure on himself and his team and possibly trigger a vicious spiral of violence or threats of violence always lurking just under every rock. To be successful, Rickey’s choice must have the ability to make himself welcome into the hearts of not only Brooklyn, but also the nation. And so he chose Jackie Robinson who, whatever his visceral reaction to the outrages that permeated America and it’s pastime, would remain cool, calm and collected and go about the business of demonstrating that he had every right to be on the field.

This, it seems to me is the high wire on which Barack Obama is walking. “Why doesn’t he react!” cries Chris Matthews and the chattering classes. “Why doesn’t he take off the gloves?” If he could only show a little more emotion….

This he cannot do, just as Lewis or Robinson or Ashe or Woods cannot. They live and lived in a world still circumscribed by racial stereotypes and the fear engendered by such collective misunderstandings. To react strongly is to risk being seen as “uppity” or condescending; to get angry is to be seen as not ‘in control of oneself’. We all know the stereotypes. From this perspective the limitations of Jesse Jackson’s and Al Sharpton’s campaigns were that they emerged from the civil rights struggles, and not only bore the stamp of righteous indignation over such obvious injustice, but because change—especially wholesale social change—threatens the established order,it is mostly unsettling, often frightening. The task at hand is to present change not only in its most promising and positive light, but to make change less threatening—to make change safe.

That was the task of Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Joe Lewis, and Tiger Woods; to be the first to take the stage and make it safe for others to follow. To make it safe not only for those of ‘color’ tot take a place at the table, but for the entire nation to welcome them.

The calculus is further complicated by his quest for the presidential nomination against a white woman. To be overbearing, to come on too strong, risks the likelihood of any such candidacy pitting a man against a woman that it would be perceived as somehow chauvinist. One cannot be seen to be figuratively beating a woman especially on a stage for the entire world to see. Indeed every time he has deigned to respond to the guttural attacks by playing ‘hardball’, to borrow Chris Matthews' motif, the Clinton camp has played the gender card to the effect that the boys are ‘ganging up’ on her. Obama, as any male opponent, must tread lightly lest he be perceived as abusing the woman, a problem that is compounded by the murky cross-currents of race. For several compelling reasons Obama must keep his eyes wide open all the time.

The national quadrennial spectacle that is the Presidential election in the United States has always involved the mortification of the flesh. In recent years the public has demanded that candidates wear their hearts on their sleeves. It has been yet another meaningless qualification instituted by the generation of swine that candidates must ‘bare all’. To that end long confessionals are in order, and the public demands visceral reactions to public events. To be analytical is seen to be detached and aloof, to commit the cardinal sin of being unfeeling. But are these qualities we want to see in the leader of the ‘free world’?

Much has been made of the similarities between Barack Obama and Robert Kennedy. Not since Bobby’s brief campaign 40 years ago has such enthusiasm been so manifest. I am reminded of that spring so long ago, but perhaps we are not drawing quite the correct analogy. In many ways Barack Obama reminds me more of Jack. It would be said of Jack, if he were running today, that he too is aloof and cerebral, distant and calculating. Nixon, on the other hand, was Nixon. Once when Kennedy was musing he paraphrased Lincoln by saying of Nixon “with malice toward all, and charity for none”. Imagine if the choice in 1960 were otherwise, if America chose its president based on the need to ‘emote’, on appearing ‘real’?. Can you imagine Halderman and Erlichman, or perhaps Colson and Liddy helping Nixon walk through the mine field that was the Cuban Missile Crisis?. No, for my money I want someone aloof, calculating, and rational in charge during such times of trouble.

And so Barack moves among us with eyes wide open holding out the ends for ties that bind.



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