Saturday, January 5, 2008

Barack Obama: A Post-1960's President?

I will never forget the time in college when I was handing out flyers in support of a certain slate of candidates running for student body office. A non-traditional student in her 50s came up to me and asked, “Are you the ones that have the black student running?” I knew she must have seen a photo-banner for a rival campaign whose VP candidate was African -American (this was at a public University in a state where blacks number less than 2% of the population). But I recalled that we had a black student running for a senate slot, so I smiled and said “yes”. At that moment, the woman did something that I first thought incomprehensible, but that taught me a great lesson about America’s generational divide. She said “I am so proud of you doing that here!” and she promptly rushed to a public computer to vote for our entire slate. I was floored. Did she just come out of a time warp?, I thought. Where has she been? Here we were at the most liberal bastion in the state and the closest that some of us had come to racism was watching a movie about Selma in our High School AP History class. And yet this lady seemed to think that we were the equivalent of Freedom Riders! She was apparently unaware that for decades the student body had been electing officers without regard to race, color or gender. In fact, a few years after this incident, the student body elected a Muslim as President, and I am convinced that in the minds of most who voted for him, there was nothing extraordinary about it.

The 1960’s

Just as Chris Matthews could not contain himself Thursday night, I too must admit I gushed with joy at Obama’s Iowa victory. Just about everyone including myself believes it was a meaningful moment. I would like to address what it means and why it makes some liberal old-timers nervous. I have also been thinking a lot about the 1960’s lately—especially that epochal year 1968. Todd Gitlan has put that year in perspective and reminds us of some of its forgotten but important moments. Being reminded of how backward much of America was helps put the strident radicalism of 1968 into perspective. That said, I sometimes wonder if there are some baby-boomers who need to be reminded that they are living in 2008—not 1968.

Bill Clinton once said that which side a person is on politically today depends on whether they feel the events of the 1960s were mostly good or mostly bad. Clinton’s words are insightful. I would add that which side one is on politically may also have a lot to do with whether they feel the work of the 1960’s has been finished—whether the dream has been realized or not. Just as the modern conservative movement got its greatest shot in the arm with Roe v. Wade, modern strident liberalism (at least the kind found on university campuses) feeds itself on the notion that America is a structurally racist, imperialist and basically unfair country. As long as the problems exist, the hippies have a reason to keep on crusading and are easily goaded into writing checks out to whatever candidate or group has pushed the right buttons in the latest email or mailer.

I have always felt that the problem of the 1960s was that some liberals felt that all change is good—and still feel so today. Hence, the 1960’s revolutionaries were content—nay giddy—to throw the baby out with the bathwater (though filthy water it was indeed). But no amount of reasoning or philosophizing can convince me that all post-enlightenment change amounts to progress. I have heard enough liberals scoff at even the possibility of teen abstinence and equate all opinions other than theirs as “hate” to know that those of us left-of center have just as much reductive thinking in our ranks as do the folks on the right. And many of those thinkers ensconced in the modern epicenters of liberalism—our universities—question liberalism itself through postmodern attempts to deconstruct (i.e., throw out) everything from Plato and the Bible to free markets and America’s form of republican government (think first-past-the-post elections for example).

But even though many 60’s rebels failed in their hope for a Che Guevara style revolution, Gitlin rightly points out that 1968 can be viewed as a renewal of the spirit of the American Revolution. This is because our institutions were made better and we did not go off the “precipice” that some of the activists were driving toward. Post-modern “liberals” who view our institutions as inherently bad seem to miss this grand point about the 60’s: that the American story is about constantly moving toward the high ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama appears to be running to be the first post-1960’s president. As such, he represents a generation that doesn’t care about what one was doing during Vietnam—not because we don’t care about patriotism & duty or peace & advocacy, but because we were too young or—in many cases—not even born yet to care about it. To understand this, just check out the data from the Iowa Caucuses and remember that many of 2008’s 18 years olds had not been born when Iraq invaded Kuwait, let alone when the Tet offensive occurred. Heck, they were in fifth grade when the hanging chads were being counted and if they think about “the sixties” at all, their point of reference may have more to do with clothing and hair styles than with activistm.

True, many oldsters with gray pony tails see Obama is an extension of their revolution— even though he wisely shuns any comparison (and, as Bill Bennett noted on CNN, never plays the race card). But if the graying hippies were the only ones supporting him, he would not have decisively won the Iowa caucuses. Rather, the decisive key to the Obama rout was the youngsters who voted for him because they believe he represents positive change, and who voted for him neither because of, nor in spite of his race.

Obama’s speech that night caused me to stop analyzing and rejoice in the moment. His evoking of America’s long past while fundamentally looking to the future caused Chris Matthews to all but endorse him on the air, while the rest of the punditocracy was stuck in their routines of transitory analysis. But as David Brooks recently noted, Obama’s moment was far more important than the bump it has given him in New Hampshire.

To the oldsters, the importance of the Obama victory lies in a “wow a black man has won!” mentality. But the youngsters who actually propelled him to victory don’t care about race and probably haven’t given it a second thought. Granted, the ascendancy of a winnable African-American is something worth noting either way—and something for both generations to rejoice in, even if the younger one doesn’t understand the fuss. But if and when Obama wins, it won’t be because the Democrats raised more money or had a better GOTV. It won’t be because the folks over at Daily Kos finally pushed through a constitutional amendment to count each high decibel scream as a vote. Nor will it even be because Obama has enunciated a dream like that of Doctor King. Rather, it will be because in a large and crucial way, the dream will have been fulfilled.

And that is why it is hard for the oldsters to let go of the 1960s. They remember when their ideas were revolutionary and took risk and sacrifice. But Obama represents an America actually transformed. An America where programs like Affirmative Action lose relevance. The more I think about it, Obama may be the best thing to ever happen to liberal and conservative America. He may be the one to get us past the dirty laundry of four decades ago.

Let me be clear. The youth of today need very much to learn about Jim Crow and what it has taken to overcome it. They also need to know that in some quarters and many ways, racism is alive and well. This post is not primarily about racism or race relations, but about politics and perceptions. And it is the perceptions of the old generation that are off the mark.

I can understand that many blacks both yearn for Obama to win, but fear such a victory as well. This is because racism is not going to be extinguished with an Obama presidency. That is cause for true concern. But I am less concerned that the so-called structural racism decried by those in America’s ivory towers will have been dealt a grievous public relations blow with an Obama presidency. And with the best ideals of the 1960s actually in reach, some liberals may secretly fear the status of their own relevance in a post-1960s America. Some conservatives already feel that liberals long ago ran out of causes to fight for and started making them up. I don’t agree with that assessment, but I feel ultimately that those who are most liberal in this country are the ones who are living in the past and underestimate the tolerance of America as a whole.

Again, for people like the non-traditional student who thought black college students running for student body office was a major break through, it should be pointed out that the past is not so distant. Her generation actually saw the heads being cracked, dogs unleashed and tear gas clouds four and a half decades ago. As I get older, I realize that I have a lot to learn about what happened not so long ago. But I am also convinced that the older generation in America doesn’t seem to grasp the dramatic changes that have occurred. This is why some black political leaders are frustrated that the Voting Rights Act now keeps them from expanding Democratic victories in southern states and yet other liberal activists clamored for President Bush and the Republicans to renew the act a couple of years ago (as if they wouldn’t do so without a phalanx of heroic activists crashing the gates). The only cynicism I can muster about that event is that the Republican’s, who now love the VRA because of the way it gerrymanders, must have quietly laughed as they helped ensure Republican supremacy in the south for another generation. But more important, I believe that if every Democratic politician in America had suddenly died of a stroke, the Republicans would still have renewed the VRA for altruistic reasons. If you think me na├»ve, just consider that the main result of the VRA was to put the kibosh on the Democratic Party in the south, which at the time held one-party status and ruled with a racist, iron fist.


Yes, racism still exists in America. And while many blacks have good reason for concern, my gut tells me that black America will be profoundly blessed by an Obama presidency. Obama has also shown empathy—though not agreement—for those with sincere conservative beliefs in areas such as gay marriage and abortion. I believe that the true losers in an Obama presidency will be ivory tower liberals and champions of victimhood like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. In fact, I have a feeling that an Obama presidency might begin to put folks like Jesse Jackson out of business once and for all.

Mitt Romney

It should be no secret by now that I have a soft spot for Mitt Romney. My reasons for liking Romney are the same for my admiring Obama. Romney’s earliest speeches and ads ooze with an audacious hope—a hope that appeals to Reagan Conservatives but not Howard Dean Democrats. (I have always felt that Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” title was a way of both needling the angry left and inviting them to move forward).

Early on, I felt that Mitt Romney represented the Sixties we partially lost in November of 1963. With the same hairdo his father sported, Romney has always reminded me of the “best and brightest” of that generation who got home from WWII and tackled problems with brains instead of ideology. Here is a man who took both the Olympics and Massachusetts out of catastrophic deficits and turned things around. He also came up with a health plan that ignored ideology and found technocratic solutions to a serious problem.

I feel that the emotional side of post-war optimism was blunted by the assassination of JFK and was totally extinguished with the two assassinations that followed in 1968. Nonetheless, America remained a wealthy nation and we retained the sense that we ought to buy our way out of problems, instead of facing the invitation of sacrifice that JFK had given us. I have always hoped that America can somehow recapture the feeling we can do anything, but couple that feeling with the wisdom that we shouldn’t try to do everything and that some objectives require sacrifice from even the world’s richest country. Whether its giddy spendthrift liberals who attached notions of morality to spending, or neo-Cons who think that we are responsible to spread the American Revolution everywhere (and do it on the cheap), we have lost sight of not just sacrifice, but of sound management principles. Nathan Oman’s recent op-ed about Romney being a technocrat who finds hot-button issues as distractions hits the mark as far as I am concerned. And yet, because of his Mormonism and Republican Party’s rigid demand that its candidates meet its pre-approved checklist, Romney was forced to run a losing gauntlet.

A year ago, no pundit gave Romney a snowball’s chance. But when he showed that he could campaign like the best of them, the punditocracy woke up one day and started calling Romney the front-runner and a phony, the guy that is “supposed to be the nominee” but who can’t seal the deal because he is not a bona fide Republican. I am especially irked that David Brooks, who is spot on in his assessment of Obama’s moment, seems to view Romney as “Republicanism 1.0.” Can Brooks find me another major Republican who quotes Thomas Friedman, Lawrence Wright and others off the top of his head? Does even a “smart” (but hard right) Republican like Newt Gingrich remind Brooks of Romney? I think not.

And if that wasn’t enough, every pundit on CNN and MSNBC yesterday has been cynically ascribing Romney’s change mantra as yet a new Romney invention (see also here). I invite them to go to his website and watch the ads that have been out for months. Romney has been running as the “Turnaround” candidate from day one and that is what first drew me toward him.

Well, I haven’t counted out Romney yet. But if he fails, at least we have another positive candidate who’s family is straight out of central casting—Barack Obama—a candidate who better than any other can get us beyond the sixties divide. When I saw his wife and two daughters on the stage, I thought, this is America, what a great country.

If it’s Rudy v. Hillary we will have another close, angry election. If it’s Hillary and McCain, ditto that. If its Hillary and Mitt, Mitt will win. But if it’s Obama and anyone else, I don’t see how Obama loses.
UPDATE: I just found this article by Andrew Sullivan in the Atlantic Monthly and I can see why he makes the big bucks and I don't. It is the best article I have read in months.

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