Loss of Innocence
David and Goliath
He Who Pays the Piper
Future of Colin Powell
Requiem for Broken Dream
Gifts from Paradise
War On Iraq
Bush One, Saddam One
Remember J. Merridith
State of In-Betweenity
Words Do Matter
The Lynching of Iraq
Before the Riots Begin
A Dog's Life
Passing of PM Charles
Fin. & Econ. Survival
In Walks 'Madam Hawke'
Impressions - 05 Elections
Deep Throat Revealed
Beyond The Pale
Gospel of Judas
Rise of Barack Obama
© J.B. Sampson
THE RISE OF BARACK OBAMA
Miami, January 19, 2009 - In case some have not noticed, global events lately seem to come suddenly and swiftly and often leave even the most savvy and politically sophisticated among us gasping for breath and wondering just what has occurred, often after the fact. The more massive and the more consequential the event, the less likely we are to see it coming, like a meteor making its fiery way across the sky, long past before we take notice.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in the early nineteen nineties followed by the end of Apartheid in South Africa soon after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, fit into this model of unfolding events described above. Few saw them coming. America's CIA whose responsibility it is to analyze events for clues to the future, has openly admitted that failure to predict the end of Soviet communism was a seminal event in its sixty year history.
Here is another seminal event that few saw coming: The election of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States. As Yogi Berra, the US baseball player and cultural icon noted: "It is difficult to predict, especially about the future."
Behind all of the excitement and the nationwide festivities accompanying the inauguration of President Obama is the realization that he beat the odds and pushed back the historical barriers that stood in his way. Even veteran civil rights activists of the Martin Luther King era, most notably Andrew Young, and to a leaser extent, Jesse Jackson, did not jump with excitement on the Obama bandwagon, and some, like Young, and initially, Congressman John Lewis, another Civil Rights icon, endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton, a choice they thought was based on prudence and a realistic assessment of the political climate. They now confess that they were wrong in their long held belief that a black American would not be elected president in their lifetime. And knowing the history of civil rights in America, who could blame them?
I must also confess, with a considerable degree of humility, that I too, did not see Obama coming. My first exposure to him was, along with most Americans, when he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic Party Convention in 2004 when he made a very good first impression with his speech about "ONE America", a theme which remained a core appeal in his presidential campaign in 2008. Later in 2006 when I interfaced with some Chicago lawyers who spoke passionately about the new senator Obama, I began to take an interest in his career and followed press reports about his every move. Like the seasoned Civil Rights luminaries I alluded to above, I initially threw my financial support behind Senator Clinton, thinking the country was just not ready to elect a black man. I am delighted that I was proven wrong.
Why America decided in 2008 to place its trust and confidence in a black man with little or no record of accomplishment to his credit will probably be the subject of political analysis for years to come. It will, however, remain a mystery to some, a modern day miracle to others, and perhaps a source of parody to cynics, including a Tennessee Republican official who composed a tune titled "Barack The Magic Negro" which he mailed as a Christmas gift to his supporters. His action was summarily condemned as racially insensitive and in bad taste.
The fact that Barak Obama was a force of nature that few saw coming is equally true for another giant figure on the American political landscape, former president Bill Clinton. Several commentators have opined about the awkward nature of the relationship between the two men during the primary election seasons, partly the result of Obama contesting against the wife of the former president, but also partly because the former president endorsed Obama's opponent, Congressman Bobby Rush when Obama decided to challenge the incumbent for his Chicago congressional seat. Obama was handed a humiliating defeat but bounced back two years later when he ran for a vacant Illinois senate seat which he won in 2006. Clinton's remarks during the primary elections that Obama's quest for the presidency in face of his thin resume was a "fairy tale" did not particularly solidify his hold on the black community that he courted on his wife's behalf.
But I think in the end it may well be universally accepted that the reason for Obama's victory was Obama himself. He is a man for the times. A recent New York Times article on the new president sought to decode the man by looking at his early life in Hawaii and examining the cultural backdrop of his formative years, with emphasis on his temperament and his natural tendency to seek compromise as opposed to confrontation. And given the chronic Washington preoccupation with political fighting along party lines, the electorate may have weighed heavily Obama's reputation for inclusiveness and decided that "experience", at least in 2008, was not the major criterion for the job of president of the United States. A country divided by ideology and race opted for a leader who was no ideologue and could appeal to the two dominant races, white and black.
The son of an African intellectual from Kenya and a white mother from the heartland of America (Kansas), Obama chronicles his journey of discovery of his racial identity in his first book DREAMS OF MY FATHER. He wrote of wanting to learn about the experience of African Americans on the mainland and immersed himself in THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X, a book that I read and reread in the late nineteen sixties and which provided a window into the world of race in the United States.
But Obama also held on firmly to his white heritage, never shy to show portraits of his white mother holding on to him, or showing his grandmother embracing him with a level of affection between a black child and white grandparents not known in the black community. As campaign symbols, these family photos may have had a remarkable impact on whites who were largely living intact within the confines of their white world, perhaps never attended a mixed race school or never had a close black friend or acquaintance. They must have reckoned that he can't be all that bad if he came from a white mother and his father was not a slave descendant.
Think about the latter point for a minute. Obama's father was not a descendant of slaves who picked cotton in Alabama or Mississippi or who was sold down the river to a white planter who counted him among his other possessions, like cattle. His ancestors were not flogged when they tried to escape, or were considered three fifths of a human being and treated brutally and spat upon. And when they were finally set free by President Lincoln, the same president in whose footsteps that Obama vows to walk, those former slaves would soon encounter racial oppression and racial injustice for centuries until one day a black pastor emerged on the scene to talk about a "dream", just two years after Obama was born, in 1963. The dream that one day black people would be "judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" as Martin Luther King predicted, came to fruition with the rise and inauguration of Barack Obama.
Senator John McCain chided Obama, perhaps without malice, during their recent political campaign, observing that Obama viewed himself as the "savior". Perhaps others did and continue to do so. His unlikely biography and birth to two people of disparate racial and cultural background who met each other as if that meeting in Hawaii had been prearranged by some divine master plan, is powerful enough for ordinary mortals to ascribe to him a level of wisdom and high expectation not normally reserved for a new leader. Is he really all that special, some might ask? Or is he a creation of the collective imagination of an American public that is hungry and thirsty for wise leadership after the disaster of the failed presidency of George W Bush?
There is one thing that President Obama has in his corner that has the potential to make him a great president. He is coming into the most powerful job in the world in the midst of an international crisis. Just like President Lincoln faced the momentous decision to free the American slaves, a wrenching decision that plunged his country into a painful civil war, and one in which he prevailed, Obama is facing a global financial and economic crisis that carries the label MADE IN AMERICA.
There are some, including this writer, who believe that great leaders are made, not born. Great leaders become great when they are successfully tested by a crisis of a magnitude sufficient to bring out the best in them. Lincoln talked about bringing out "the better angels" from his people when he delivered his first inaugural address but it was his own better angels that guided him to seek freedom for those who were denied theirs.
Similarly Obama will have to dig deep inside to find the strength to heal a nation that is divided by ideology, race and class distinctions, among many. This would be considered a full time job in the best of times but when you consider the fact that America and the world are in the throes of the worst financial crisis in over seventy years with no end in sight, you begin to appreciate the enormity of the challenge he faces. Then throw in another ingredient: America's moral standing in the world. It is not a pretty picture. It is the portrait of a country that was the model that all freedom loving countries sought to emulate, one that once revered the rule of law and the humane treatment of prisoners. Instead, thanks to the sad legacy of George W Bust we now have an image of a country that looks increasingly like a rogue Third World regime that happens to possess nuclear weapons and also tortures prisoners, abducts foreign nationals illegally and holds them in secret prisons around the world and in Guantannamo and is known for prisoner abuse at Abu Gharib in Iraq. It is a country that called for elections in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West bank, and when Hamas, a militant Palestinian faction, contested and won the election, Washington would not deal with them and have been collaborating with Israel to exterminate a whole generation of Palestinian Arabs. Notice the current Gaza War. Who can honestly say that America is not culpable in this holocaust?
With Lincoln as his model, Obama has picked a cabinet of rivals, including the conspicuous Secretary of State job that he offered to his principal rival, Hillary Clinton.
This is a powerful signal to send if the intention is to portray a message of reconciliation. The far more daunting task of governing and putting things right in the economy may also require bold and decisive actions which symbolism alone will not fix.
Obama will either be a great president or one who will be remembered as just a footnote in history. Being the first elected African American president will guarantee him a place in the footnotes of history. Doing something bold and successfully dealing with the financial crisis he inherited has the potential to make him a great president, alongside Franklyn Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln whom he openly admires.
I note in passing that today January 19, is the official celebration of Martin Luther King Day. The decision to set aside a special day to observe the contribution of Martin Luther King to the American nation was not without controversy. It is only recently been observed as a national holiday. The New York Stock Exchange remained open during the first few years of the MLK observance but it too joined to make this observance memorable, hence my day off today. It takes on additional significance this year knowing that the following day Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States.