Obama v. Clinton: A Retrospective

Eliot Weinberger

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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