Twelve years ago, the most popular man in American political life was an African-American -- Colin Powell. A four-star general who had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as national security adviser, the Brooklyn-born Powell had presidential timber written all over him. A number of leading Republicans -- Bill Bennett and Jack Kemp leap to mind -- talked him up at the time. New Hampshire polls of Republicans in 1995 showed Powell leading the pack. Powell declined to run and Robert Dole got the Republican nod that year, ultimately losing to Bill Clinton. Exit polls suggested that Powell would have defeated Clinton by 50 to 38. (I did not climb on board the Powell bandwagon because he was insufficiently conservative for my taste -- a judgment that has been amply vindicated.)
It's important to remember this history lest the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency be interpreted as evidence that "only now," 45 years after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, is the nation ready for a black president. Yes, it's wonderful that we're ready now. But it's equally or more wonderful that we've been ready for a long time. We've had two black secretaries of state (not that the Republicans who appointed them get any credit for that), black CEOs of major corporations, black TV stars like Oprah Winfrey advising millions on how to live with integrity (as she sees it), black radio hosts (on all sides), black movie stars, black doctors and lawyers and teachers and astronauts. Yes, segregation and racism were facts of life within living memory, but this country set its face against that history hard and fast and almost completely. It has been for so for my entire life.
I'm proud of my country for living down its racist past. And pace Michelle Obama, there has been a lot to be proud of -- even in that category -- for a very long time. What is less admirable is the sycophancy one sees among some. Shelby Steele has identified the tendency among some whites to seek "racial innocence" at the hands of blacks, and we certainly saw it in play throughout the drama of Obama's campaign. "Bargainers," Steele explains, "make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America's history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer's race against him. And whites love this bargain -- and feel affection for the bargainer -- because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist. So the bargainer presents himself as an opportunity for whites to experience racial innocence." Some whites are so pathetically grateful for this bargain that they quite lose their heads. Instead of being truly beyond race, and treating African-American candidates exactly like everyone else, they demonstrate their continuing racial consciousness by shameless toadying.
Something like that afflicted the press during this election year. Nothing would be permitted to impede Obama's victorious procession toward the White House. He was a green first-term senator? We won't mention that (even when we decry Sarah Palin's lack of experience). He skirted 130 decisions, voting present, during his time in the Illinois Senate? No problem.
He broke his promise to accept public financing of his campaign? Just evidence of his fundraising "prowess" (AP) or ability to "set records" (New York Times).
Early in his career, he was listed as a member of the socialist New Party? New Zealand papers picked up on it. Didn't make it into our major media. He supported the most extreme abortion agenda of any candidate in modern American history and then lied about it? Not relevant. He enjoyed close ties with ACORN, a group that is facing criminal charges of vote fraud in a dozen states? Yawn.
As for his thoroughly repellent associations with Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, and others, it was considered very bad form to mention them. Even John McCain refrained from raising the Wright issue for fear of having his "racial innocence" compromised.
As a result of this racial psychodrama played out in our national politics (among other reasons), we are now about to have the most left-wing president in history. We can only hope, for his sake and for the country's, that his left-wing positions were adopted out of expedience, not conviction, and that President Obama will decide that success requires him to tack to the center.
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