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Scorched earth / January 21, 2010
Monday night took me to South Hill for the annual Mecklenburg County NAACP Freedom Fund banquet honoring the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The keynote speaker was King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP. I’ve probably covered the Freedom Fund banquet a dozen times over the years, and it’s always a well-attended event with good speakers (Halifax County’s own Rev. Roger Ford was the keynoter last year). But Khalfani was a revelation: he gave a scorching talk that was funny, raw and truthful almost to a fault. Few escaped his wrath, from Barack Obama to Tim Kaine to the Virginia General Assembly (“that bunch of thugs”) to a host of politicians and celebrities on down the line. Mostly, Khalfani took the wood to his audience, telling them if it’s change they want, they had better work for it. In light of other events this week, his message couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.

With health care reform possibly dead — the Democrats lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate with the election Tuesday of a Republican to the Massachusetts seat held by the late Ted Kennedy — there are a lot of Dems running around with their heads tucked between their legs. One of the virtues of Khalfani’s speech was its unstinting message to the boo-hoo brigade. A sample: “You ain’t struggled, someone struggled for you. And now, when our children are going to get jacked out there, who’s going to struggle for them?”

My favorite moment came when Khalfani employed his formidable rhetorical skills to explode the false adoration that has enveloped Dr. King, the man front and center of the Freedom Fund program. Khalfani’s audience was 99 percent black, so it’s not for me to say how his argument — that the great man’s legacy is disrespected by passivity and resignation — went over in the room. As a white man, however, I am constantly struck by the easy praise for Martin Luther King that flows from segments of society that surely would have fought him — did fight him — tooth and nail half a century ago. Would Trent Lott, to cite just one example, have spoken so highly of Dr. King back in the day?

Recently we heard the name “Trent Lott” after a long absence in the news because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, made the observation that Barack Obama wouldn’t have been elected president if not for his light skin and lack of a “Negro dialect.” Reid’s comments were immediately spun by Republicans as somehow worse than then-Majority Leader Lott’s comment that the United States would have been better off had Strom Thurmond, the late South Carolina senator, been elected president in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket. From the States’ Rights Party platform:

We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race; the constitutional right to choose one’s associates; to accept private employment without governmental interference, and to earn one’s living in any lawful way. We oppose the elimination of segregation employment by federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program.

Reading this, I guess one can honestly say, “We’ve come a long way, baby.” But how far, really? On the one hand, Harry Reid made an inartful but sadly accurate commentary on Barack Obama. On the other, Trent Lott opined that America would be a better nation if a rabid racist had been elected president three score and two years ago. It speaks volumes about our twisted political culture that Republicans can make such stupid comparisons and not get laughed off the stage. And yet, here we are, still fighting (and sometimes losing) the battle.

As Khalfani lit into the room for the collective failure of black people to counter such foolishness — his words apply equally to progressives of all stripes — I got to thinking: This speech, passionate as it is, presents yet more evidence that the center cannot hold. You see it all the time in the rantings of Tea Party types. But lately a sense of malaise and anger has settled over both ends of the ideological spectrum.

Khalfini’s remarks on Obama were interesting, to put it mildly. On the one hand, he chided the audience for thinking Obama has “a magic wand” that he can wave to make problems go away. (“We registered and voted in record numbers” for Obama on the Tuesday of Nov. 4, 2008. “Then on Wednesday you sat down and haven’t gotten up since.”) But later in the speech Khalfani pointedly noted that voters no doubt expected better from the new president, using Obama’s pledge to send more troops to Afghanistan as an example. In one sense, the jab is unfair: Throughout the 2008 campaign Obama said he would reorient America’s military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Yet it’s also true that one can support Obama and still feel the need to hold his feet to the fire on issues where bold action has given way to cautious centrism. Aside from Afghanistan, there are any number of ways in which Obama, striving to “change the tone of Washington,” has disappointed followers. Which raises the obvious question: At what point does the distinction between hands-on and hands-tied cease to matter?

Like all people, President Obama is a product of his experience. Not the sort of experience that bubbles up from the imaginations of right-wing liars — you really do have to be a bit dim-witted to buy into the Birther and closet-Muslim garbage that Glenn Beck and his ilk peddle over the airwaves. The truth is that Obama’s rise gives him every reason to take a benevolent view of America’s future — with its world-renowned universities and colleges, its social and economic mobility, even its hopeful if halting progress on race. What might happen, though, if the president has it all wrong? What if the best impulses of America are no longer a match for its self-destructive streak, with its tolerance of runaway greed, special interest politics, and creeping paralysis?

Health care reform has been a difficult pull for Democrats (no thanks to a Republican Party that decided to turn the issue into Obama’s “Waterloo”). Yet it’s the economy that truly drives public anger and cynicism. The team that Obama (Columbia ‘83, Harvard Law ‘91) has put together to lead the economy out of the darkness includes the best and the brightest: a Princeton professor (Ben Bernanke), a former Harvard president (Lawrence Summers) and one of most brilliant students to ever come out of Dartmouth (Timothy Geithner). Collectively they have acted in ways that suggest a fundamental faith in the efficacy and integrity of financial markets. But what if the trust is misplaced? It seems that the right and left in this country agree on only one point: no more bailouts for banking and corporate failures. By ignoring the rabble, did the Obamanites (and the Bushies before them) save capitalism, or have they merely protected the robber barons from their own worst impulses? I have my own suspicions on this score, but what really bothers me is that it sometimes seems the White House has been uncomfortable even broaching the question.

Hearkening back to the day when the battles were nobler because the stakes were higher — to an era when young black children looked up to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. not the comedian Martin Lawrence — Khalfani said, starkly: “Martin Luther King received more death threats than Barack Obama, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson combined. And they got him.” The murders of Dr. King and the Kennedys brought America to conspiratorial lows from which it has fully never recovered. Part of Obama’s appeal lies in the hope he embodies, that the American dream still means something and that, truly, anyone can grow up to be president. The national mood being what it is, though, the warm and gauzy appeal of Obama’s first year needs to give way to a tougher, sharper tone — one that hearkens back before the time of John H. Kennedy, the prince of Camelot whose leadership style Obama sometimes seems to emulate.

The NAACP’s Khalfani gets invited places to fire people up. The Tea Partiers have tapped public anger, but offer zero solutions. Obviously the angry black man approach won’t work for the nation’s first African-American president, and we hardly need more right-wing know-nothings calling the shots on Capitol Hill. But Obama does need to change the tone in Washington, in ways he rarely suggested during the campaign. If a template would be helpful for the rest of his term, Obama could do a lot worse than to meld the not-entirely optimistic life experiences of the two Democratic presidents before Kennedy: one a failed haberdasher with an irascible streak and no tolerance for fools, the other a son of privilege who saw first-hand the defects of America’s upper-crust “betters” and welcomed their enmity. Harry S. Truman and FDR learned not to trim their sails with every blast of hot air from political enemies. If Obama wants to succeed, it’s high time he — and we — do the same.

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