Obama v. Clinton: A Retrospective
On the final night of the relentless presidential primary campaign, Jesse Jackson compared Barack Obama’s victory to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Erica Jong compared Hillary Clinton’s defeat to watching Joan of Arc burning at the stake. Obama was in St Paul, Minnesota, pointedly in the very arena where the Republicans will hold their convention in September, at times barely audible over the nearly continual cheering of 17,000 fans (with another 15,000 listening outside). Clinton was off on what has come to be known as the remote island of Hillaryland – in this case several storeys below ground at Baruch College in New York, inaccessible to cell phones or BlackBerries – still insisting that, according to Hillarymath, she had won the popular vote, still declaring that she was ready to be commander-in-chief on ‘Day One’, and still repeating the creepiest line of her stump speech, the one about the boy who had sold his bicycle to give money to her campaign. (She and Bill made $109 million in the last eight years and she’s taking toys from children? And gloating over it?) She threatened that the 17 million who had voted for her must be ‘respected’, as though she were a warlord and they her private army, while some in the crowd chanted ‘Den-ver! Den-ver!’ – meaning that she should take the fight all the way to the Democratic convention in August. And then there was John McCain, in what seemed to be a high school auditorium somewhere in Louisiana (even he wasn’t sure: he thought he was in New Orleans, but he wasn’t), addressing a few hundred sleepy geriatrics, struggling with the teleprompter and grinning weirdly at random moments. Standing in front of a hideous green backdrop, he looked, as one blogger wrote, like the cottage cheese on a lime Jello salad. Apparently no longer an officer and a gentleman, he took the occasion of this extraordinary moment in American history not to congratulate the first African-American nominee, but rather to deride, with soporific sarcasm, Obama the young whippersnapper and his belief in ‘change’. A bizarre line from McCain’s speech has already become a six-second YouTube classic: ‘We should be able to deliver bottled hot water to dehydrated babies.’
Watching Obama speak, I found it hard to believe that this was the USA. I flashed back to a scene fifty-odd years ago: I was four years old, on a family trip to Florida, and caused a minor scene in a bus station when I wandered over and took a drink from the water fountain marked ‘Colored’. (I could read the sign, but had no idea what it meant.) I’d grown up during the civil rights movement, had heard Martin Luther King speak. And here was an African-American who had risen higher than any non-white person in any Western country, and moreover had done so in a nation that has never, with the exception of the Irish John Kennedy, elected a president from even its white minorities – no Jews, no Poles, no Italians – and had nominated only one other, the hapless Michael Dukakis.
But this was the response of a baby boomer, when in fact one of the remarkable things about the Obama campaign was that it wasn’t about race at all. Obama, though he studiously copied his speaking style from King and other preachers, was not running as a black man. It has already been forgotten that until his victory in Iowa many blacks didn’t know what to make of him. The veterans from the civil rights movement didn’t much like him: he hadn’t come out of their struggle, was an ‘African’ African-American with no personal roots in slavery, and seemed to have a very different agenda: his sense of injustice was universal, and not specifically a response to the indignities suffered by African-Americans. The majority of black women and half of black men supported Clinton. They began to rally behind Obama when it became clear he was appealing to whites, that he was a new kind of African-American politician and might actually succeed. And they deserted Hillary en masse after the first of what would be a series of shocking remarks from the Clintons, who had always been superstars in the black communities: Bill dismissing Obama as another Jesse Jackson (that is, a protest candidate appealing only to blacks), and Hillary, drawing an unspoken parallel, declaring that King may have been a great orator, but it was Lyndon Johnson who got the civil rights legislation passed.
Certainly there are those who voted and will vote for or against Obama because of his race, but horizontal racism has largely disappeared in the US. These days, a white office worker generally has no problem with a black office worker – though poor blacks, of course, remain an alien Other, and an institutionalised racism has kept young black men out of college and in prison. There is a new generation that has grown up with King’s birthday as a national holiday, and the American Heroes I learned about in elementary school, Teddy Roosevelt and Daniel Boone, have been replaced by Rosa Parks and Sacajawea. Nor can one underestimate how pop culture has cleared the path for both Obama and Hillary. (As one comedian cracked, ‘If there’s a black or woman president in the Oval Office, it means an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.’) Among Obama’s precursors is certainly Oprah Winfrey, the only self-made woman billionaire in America, who has built her television and magazine empire by assuming the role of an upbeat friend, helping you to help yourself. Obama’s slogan ‘Yes we can!’ is Oprah’s essential message; and it’s worth noting that some 90 per cent of her audience is white.
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Vol. 30 No. 14 · 17 July 2008
When Michelle Obama remarked that her husband’s campaign had made her proud of her country for the first time in her adult life, Eliot Weinberger writes, he ‘knew exactly what she meant’ (LRB, 3 July). His piece almost beams with exuberance about Obama and about the liberal renewal an Obama presidency promises for America. Meanwhile, as the Wall Street Journal recently observed, Obama is ‘embracing a sizeable chunk of President Bush’s policy’. It’s not just the pandering to the Israel lobby or the call for expanding faith-based social programmes. Obama, once a critic of government surveillance, has come out in favour of retroactive immunity for telecommunications firms that co-operated in eavesdropping after 9/11. Having electrified American liberals with his opposition to the Iraq war, Obama now speaks warmly of General Petraeus and his surge. He has also declared his support for free trade, sided with the Supreme Court conservatives who dissented against the majority ruling that would ban the death penalty for the rape of children, and touted his support for welfare reform that ‘slashed the rolls by 80 per cent’. It’s hard to share Weinberger’s confidence that Obama and his team of advisers ‘are the people we’ve been waiting for’.
In his recapitulation of this spring’s Clinton-Obama tussle, Eliot Weinberger writes that the United States has never, with the exception of the Irish Catholic John Kennedy, ‘elected a president from even its white minorities … and had nominated only one other, the hapless Michael Dukakis’. He leaves out the Catholic Al Smith, four-time governor of New York, leader of the Irish-American community, and the Democratic nominee for president in 1928. With the help of Tammany Hall, Smith rose from the Lower East Side to the national stage as a champion of the working class. And although his doomed campaign was defeated by both a boom economy and serious religious prejudice, the Smith campaign did usher in a major demographic realignment that culminated in the New Deal coalition of FDR, Smith’s gubernatorial successor and great rival. Smith also had one of the great campaign songs in American political history: ‘The Sidewalks of New York’.
And there is another nominee who could be classified with Smith, Kennedy, Dukakis and Obama: John Kerry, a Catholic whose paternal grandparents were born Jewish and whose wife, the Mozambican-born Teresa Heinz, allegedly said she would be ‘America’s first African-American first lady’. Fingers crossed, it’s Michelle Obama who’ll achieve that milestone.
Vol. 30 No. 15 · 31 July 2008
Barack Obama is clearly the most progressive presidential nominee in decades, so naturally lefties like Allen Singer are complaining that he’s not Noam Chomsky (Letters, 17 July). Singer even quotes approvingly the Wall Street Journal’s ridiculous claim that Obama is ‘embracing a sizeable chunk of President Bush’s policy’. This is a line cleverly being promoted by Karl Rove, the WSJ, the National Review and their ilk to weaken support among Democrats and especially independents. There’s an argument against every item on Singer’s shopping list, but I’ll take only the most important one: Obama’s position on Iraq has not changed at all. Of course he has to praise the military – the guy is running for president. And having his ‘patriotism’ questioned every day in the media.
Jason Farago is quite right that I forgot the great Al Smith as the other ‘white minority’ nominee (besides Dukakis). But the song ‘The Sidewalks of New York’ was not written for Smith’s campaign; it was more than thirty years old at the time, and merely appropriated, the way Bill Clinton endlessly didn’t stop thinking about tomorrow. As for John Kerry, he may be a Catholic with some Jewish ancestors, but he is hardly associated with any minority group, other than members of the Yale Club.
Vol. 30 No. 16 · 14 August 2008
I was disappointed that Eliot Weinberger resorted to a tactic much employed by Obama supporters in the last weeks of the US Democratic primaries (LRB, 3 July). Weinberger writes:
Hardcore Clinton supporters saw the race in terms of gender, and blamed her loss on the sexism of the media and of the general public. But again, the lines of division were generational … women under 40 voted for Obama. Younger women in urban America are now better educated and earn more than younger men. They’re filling the executive positions and clearly do not believe that Clinton is their only hope of seeing a woman president.
While the statistics Weinberger quotes apply only to younger urban women in a particular section of the workforce, his argument does not: the reasoning of his paragraph implies that women under 40 voted for Obama because they have achieved parity with (if not superiority to) men in the workplace, and therefore do not see the election of a woman president as a significant achievement. Thus, the ‘hardcore’, elderly Clinton supporters who continue to see things in terms of gender and sexism, are represented as fundamentally out of date, using a feminist lens that is no longer relevant.
This is disappointing not least because it is so disingenuous. Even if we consider only the matter of wage parity, is Weinberger really unaware that last year women still earned only 80 per cent of what men earned in the United States, or that, since the Equal Pay Act of 1964, the gap has narrowed on average only half a penny a year, from a starting point of 59 per cent in 1963?
University of York
Vol. 30 No. 17 · 11 September 2008
Your ‘disappointed’ correspondent Jane Elliott is pelting apples and oranges (Letters, 14 August). Of course, as she points out, American women have not achieved wage parity with men. But I was talking about the kind of people who vote in primaries, a fraction of the population. Among them, younger women in urban areas are better educated – thus more likely to vote – and now earn more than younger men. Older women tended to see the primary race along gender lines; younger women were deciding between two candidates and they preferred Obama. This does not mean, as Elliott strangely claims I assert, that they ‘do not see the election of a woman president as a significant achievement,’ or that, for them, feminist goals have become ‘out of date’. Rather, given their own accomplishments and potential, they did not consider Clinton as the last best hope. Perhaps they’d like to see as president someone – like nearly all the current women governors and members of Congress – whose career is not inextricable from that of her husband.