Monday, June 7, 2010

The Jackie Robinson Syndrome

The more I see and hear President Obama, the more I’m reminded of Jackie Robinson. Like Obama, Robinson was the first of his kind and like him he had to walk a narrow line always conscious of his race, but ever careful not to draw too much attention to it. And then there’s the temperament thing. No matter how many times Robinson was called racial slurs – I won’t bother stating them here for obvious reasons – he never took the bait. He was cool, collected and a perfect gentleman. He had no choice; he was the only black man in a white man’s sport. If he screwed up, the future for black athletes looking to break into baseball would be set back years.

Obama on the Richter scale of emotions is one cool customer. In the midst of what can only be described as the worst economy in seventy years and now facing a disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that potentially threatens that body of water’s very existence, he has remained unflappable. Even during the contentious healthcare debate last year and early this year, Obama resisted the urge to go tit for tat with his political rivals and remained, for many, one of the more mature and level-headed players in the debate. Like Robinson he refuses to take the bait that his rivals throw at him. He is the first of his kind: a black man in the Oval Office.

Last year I wrote that I thought the great test for America was whether it could bring itself to elect a black man to the office of president. I now realize that was the easy part. Like Robinson, getting there proved to be a fairly non starter. We all wondered what took so long and we eagerly anticipated the road ahead. Looking back however the real test was to come after the inauguration. It was at that exact moment that Obama became more than just the black man who got elected; he became the black man who was now boss.

The moment Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field he had already taken a white man’s job away. He dared to swing a bat at a white man’s delivery, and when he beat out a single, or stole a base, or scored a run, or, God forbid, hit a homerun, he was doing so against white men. How dare he? Doesn’t he know his place? And Robinson had to do all this while being shouted at, threatened, and denied the basic rights his white teammates took for granted.

From day one Obama has had to endure much if not all the slurs and attacks that Robinson endured in 1947. True, he could not be denied entrance into a facility like so many other black men and women had been years ago – he is the president after all – but in every other sense he has been treated as though he were the help that overstayed his welcome.

Witness the fallout from just one picture of Obama with his feet up on the Oval Office desk. Despite the fact that every president going back to Kennedy has had photos taken of them with their feet up on that same desk, the fact that Obama had done it was newsworthy. Why doesn’t he show some respect for the decorum of the office? Translation: Get your damn black feet off our furniture!

The pictures at last summer’s Tea Party rallies were not your typical political caricatures. They were overtly racist and indicative of a mood in the country that was not at all happy with the fact that a black man was running the show. Jimmy Carter, in an interview with Brian Williams last year, said that much of the animosity directed at Obama was based on his race. "I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that shares the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African-Americans."

The vitriolic frenzy that these mobs get whipped up into is no mere ideological mood swing; it is demonstrably violent in its tone and portends a deep resentment over the fact that big brother seems to have a deep tan. It has nothing to do with a perceived encroachment of government regulations over civil liberties, as has been suggested by the far Right – as though this is the first time in history that the government has had to step in and exert its authority to prevent chaos – it is about racism, pure and simple. Nothing else explains it.

Look at the facts. Obama ran as a progressive; he has governed as a centrist. He ran on a single payer healthcare system; the current healthcare bill, now signed into law, lacks even a public option. He promised he would close Guantánamo and end Bush policies toward illegal detentions, torture and domestic wiretapping; with the exception of torture, Guantánamo remains open, illegal detentions continue and the domestic surveillance program has been beefed up. He promised he would end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; only now is he finally getting around to it. He was urged by financial experts from the Left to think big when it came to the stimulus bill. Paul Krugman pleaded with him to ask for $1.5 trillion. Conservatives wanted targeted tax cuts. Obama opted for something in the middle, eventually settling on just over $700 billion. Given the economic circumstances the nation was in, hardly a paltry amount, but equally insufficient to adequately jumpstart the economy. And now we are faced with the prospect of a repeat of the Japanese lost decade of the ‘90s.

If this is Karl Marx personified than I’m Satan. But then it was never about economics or even gutter politics. This was always about the black man with the big stick swinging at the white man on the mound. “Give us back our country!” My ass. It was never their country in the first place, but Barack Obama has the distinction of being its chief executive officer and in the lowest depths of our collective conscience, where only the most extreme depraved still live, that is about as repulsive a concept as any yet conceived.

As chief executives go, Obama, like his predecessor, has handled the job with uncommon poise and integrity. He has managed to stay above the fray his opponents have been dying to ensnare him in. If anything he has been too cool, too collected. He knows full well he is the prototype, the first of his kind. How well he pulls this off will go a long way towards determining whether the nation will ever again risk electing a minority or female to the Office.

But in his zeal to not come off like some gansta rapper or be perceived as an angry black man with a chip on his shoulder – as though African Americans had no right to be bitter – he has, in the eyes of many of his admirers, been way too accommodating in his demeanor. Bereft of any seeming empathy toward those who have been devastated by both the economy and the Gulf oil disaster, he has compounded that deficit by overcompensating with a curious sense of detachment at a time when a hands on approach is demanded. When the nation needed a counselor, he opted to stay in the board room like a good CEO. Yes, we voted for Cool-hand Luke, but we didn’t know we were getting Mr. Freeze.

Just once Obama has to break out of that mold he has constructed for himself; the one that keeps telling him to keep his composure regardless of the circumstances. He doesn’t have to come apart at the seams like John McCain did in the ’08 Presidential race when he wanted to suspend the campaign because of a crisis. Real leaders don’t cut and run just because the heat gets turned up. But real leaders also govern from their guts as well as their heads. The last president didn’t know what the latter was; Obama seems determined to ignore the former.

Obama must find a middle ground. So far he has acquiesced to the first rule of successful politics: when in doubt seek consensus and get it done. Even if it isn’t the perfect solution, something is better than nothing. That approach worked for him with healthcare. Perhaps he knew that politically the nation would never accept a single-payer system, so he got the best deal he could find. It has many flaws, but the bill is still a considerable accomplishment given how many presidents have tried and failed at getting one signed into law. Pragmatism can achieve results, even if tainted and less than ideal.

But pragmatism has its limits. Sooner or later ideals must come to the surface. We are what we believe in and while it is laudable that President Obama is mindful of his origins and what those origins can elicit in others, that cannot be used as an excuse for a failure to show up and speak out and, when the mood moves him, show the proper anger for the proper occasion.

Obama’s biggest sin during these last six weeks was not that he didn’t act swiftly enough to prevent the carnage that is currently befalling the Gulf coast. What was he supposed to do? Don a wet suit? No, his biggest faux paux was his failure to give voice to the multitudes who are in distress and who at the very least want someone in authority to show they care and can offer, if not relief, than at least an empathetic embrace. And they also want someone who can articulate their rage at those responsible for their sufferings. It isn’t enough for Obama to say he is going to hold BP accountable for what they’ve done. Politicians have made pledges about accountability since the days of Jefferson and Adams. Most have gone unanswered. A raised voice and a slamming of a fist can go a long way towards making an emotional connection to people who are hurting and desperate. FDR knew that all too well. He faced many of the same demons Obama is currently facing, with the obvious exception of his race, and defeated them all.

Lately Obama has talked about himself as though he was going to be a one-term president, trying to achieve as much as possible legislatively while he still has the capital with which to do it. That may make for smart politics, but it makes for lousy leadership. And in the end America remembers its leaders, those who showed their spunk as well as their wit. It would be a crying shame if at the end of his term all he had to look back on was a bunch a signatures on a host of bills. Success is more than how many victories you rack up; it has to do with how well you carry yourself. A successful man is neither boastful nor shy. When called upon he seizes the moment and makes it his own.

There is a line from The Wizard of Oz that goes like this, “A heart is not measured by how much you love, but by how you are loved by others.” President Barack Obama must define his presidency before history defines it for him. He must connect with the electorate at some visceral level that transcends the enormous intellect which has been both his best friend and his worst enemy, and he must do so with the baggage of four hundred years of racial hatred that is currently strapped to his back like an anchor weighing down a ship. This is what he signed up for when he ran for president two years ago. He has no excuse now that he has the job.

He is the Jackie Robison of our generation, but with one exception. Robinson may have been the perfect gentleman off the field, but he knew like hell how to win on it. He never would’ve settled for one year in a Dodger uniform. He had worked his whole life to reach the pinnacle of the big leagues. He wasn’t about to let that opportunity go to waste. He left nothing in the dugout and gave everything he had to help his team win. And in the end the fans came to love him.  Today he is revered as one of the great ballplayers of his era.  Obama must somehow discover those qualities if he is to earn the right to truly walk in his predecessor’s shoes.

1 comment:

steve said...

Well written as always. Hmm. It is difficult for me to compare the two (maybe because I respected Jackie so much and increasingly can't stand the other guy). Sports and politics are such different worlds. True, both are pioneers, blazing a trail for other African-Americans to follow. Both have had to put up with a lot of racism. But Robinson is still a hero, someone to look up to. I don't think Mr. O. holds a candle to JR in terms of character; he's disappointed so many. Such corruption, such compromise; it's so despicable. When the history is written generations from now, it will be shown that Obama's greatest disservice to this nation was in not overturning the constitutional predations of the Bush era, and not prosecuting them to the full extent of the law.