Benjamin Wallace-Wells on Barack Obama

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Shortly after Barack Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which catapulted him to political superstardom, Washington Monthly editor Benjamin Wallace-Wells parsed the cultural ethos behind Obama’s appeal and the extraordinary aspirations the public had hung on a new generation of African American politicians.

Cory Booker was feeling good. The one time Newark, New Jersey, mayoral candidate had just given a widely lauded speech at a youth vote event at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. The party’s kingmakers and talent scouts, who had taken an interest in the career of this young, handsome African American Rhodes scholar during his campaign two years ago, were thrilled to see him, and eager to game out with him how Booker might win his next run. “Operatives, glad-handers, and hacks,” Booker recalled happily. When he talked to men and particularly women, they had a glimmer of awe in their eyes, as if a conversation with Booker might be a remembered event, something they’d someday recount for their kids. He could feel his head swelling, but it was okay to let your head swell sometimes, for a moment or two. And now here were two more excited white women, mouths open, and ready to gush. Booker leaned back and smiled his big, easy smile, and one of the women stuck out her hand. “I just wanted to congratulate you on your speech,” she said. “It was so stirring—Mr. Obama.”

“My head,” Booker told me recently, compressing his hands to mimic a vice, “returned to its present size.” Beyond sharing light skin, Barack Obama and Cory Booker look nothing alike. Obama, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Illinois, is rail thin, with short, Brillo-like hair; his precise features and scrawny neck make him look like a bobblehead doll. Booker, who was a Pac-10 tight end, is thick and broad shouldered, with a clean-shaven head. Obama is reserved, rhetorically smooth, and on message; Booker comes across as more eager, less experienced, and a little rougher around the edges. But the women’s confusion wasn’t just another embarrassing example of whites being unable to tell one black guy from another, or the more forgivable mistake arising from the fact that on that night, everyone at the convention was dying to meet Obama, the keynote speaker. For despite their physical differences, Booker and Obama share something fundamental: they are black people whom white Americans can actually picture being president.

***

Of course, it is often said that America isn’t ready for a black president. And it is true that most of today’s most prominent African American politicians would have a hard time winning large numbers of white votes, both because of lingering racial resentments and a sense among whites that black politicians don’t necessarily share their values and interests. Yet there are a few black politicians for whom their race isn’t a ball and chain, but a jet engine—the feature that launches them into stardom. For all of Colin Powell’s gifts as a soldier and diplomat, he probably would not consistently rank as the most admired public official in America if he were white. For all of Obama’s brilliance and eloquence, it is hard to imagine that he would be a national figure at this early stage of his career, if not for his African father.

For this small group of black politicians, race has been an advantage because whites see in them confirmation that America, finally, is working. Blacks, after all, aren’t just any minority, the moral equivalent of Asian-Pacific Islanders but six times the size. They are the victims of much of our country’s most vicious oppression, the cause of our deepest historical divisions, the stubborn counterexample that suggests our system isn’t as fair or just as we would like it to be. The act of redressing these injustices has absorbed much of the political and emotional energy in America for 150 years. And while all Americans can take some pride in what racial progress African Americans have made in recent years, what whites—and indeed blacks—really want is for the whole awful nightmare to be behind them. The ultimate proof that we have finally done so would be for a black person to be elected president of the United States. In Barack Obama or Colin Powell, whites, giddily, begin to see not only figures who can command both white and black votes but also the promise of a real racial unity. Their candidacies are thrilling because they carry with them the notion that the symbolic gap between the races may be beginning to close.

The handful of black politicians who tap this vein of political yearning share certain qualities. They have all been highly successful within the postwar institutions that have done the most to integrate American society: the U.S. military and elite universities. Consequently, all give off the sense that they have transcended traditional racial categories, by signaling in their speech and demeanor, their personal narratives and career achievements, that they fully share in the culture and values of mainstream America; they are able to transcend race through the simple fact of their class. Just as importantly, they also transcend ideology by declaring with their rhetoric and policy positions a self-conscious independence from the conventional politics of their parties.

***

In early October, I watched Obama give a speech and take questions at a forum in downtown Chicago, in a black church with stained-glass windows of Jesus saving whites. The audience was a Chicago out of an early Saul Bellow novel: old Polish men with huge hearing aids, union-looking guys with thick, bristling mustaches, conservative bankers who asked pointed questions about Israel, black aunts bused in church vans from the West Side.

Before his audience, Obama told a fortyish man worrying about taxes that government will have to do more to help the middle class, not less, and that limiting taxes shouldn’t be his narrow political priority. He told a white-haired woman peace activist who criticizes Israel that the Palestinians are in the wrong, and then when this appears to encourage a pro-Israel man, tells that guy that the Israelis are far from perfect, too. Obama was measured throughout; he tends to come off as an expert and wonk, an earnest, hopeful policy nerd. A group of older black women asked, humbly, for vague assurances that he would redirect federal housing policy to emphasize low-rise, rather than high-rise, projects—most housing advocates think low-rise buildings would be easier to police and maintain, and encourage more neighborly interactions. The grandmas were throwing him a softball, hoping only for a signal that he was open to their concerns, that he would side with the experts. Obama was having none of it. “Low rise isn’t going to solve all your problems,” Obama said sternly. “I’ve worked in the projects, and, let me tell you, low rise has problems of its own.” The particular lady who had asked the question looked rebuked, and there was a surprised wince in the church: did he really just say that to a bunch of trapped-in-the-projects grandmas?

“Obama tells you the hard truths, and other politicians, particularly from Chicago, they tend to tell you what they think you want to hear,” Lowell Jacobs told me. Jacobs is a retired plumber in Rock Falls, Illinois, a grimy old steel mill town at the western edge of Dennis Hastert’s district; he is also the chair of the Democratic county commission, and was one of only two chairmen outside of the Chicago region to endorse Obama in the Democratic primary this year. “Barack’s got something different,” Jacobs told me. “He makes you feel like he’s not a politician, but a leader.”

***

Certainly, there’s a not-quite-ready quality that has dogged the most promising black politicians who have come before Obama on the national stage: Doug Wilder hadn’t yet figured out his politics. Colin Powell got cold feet. Cory Booker, in his first run, showed he didn’t yet have the political skills. Harold Ford reached too high, too fast, with too little support. The quality that these leaders share is uncomfortably close to the fear we all have about affirmative action, the worry that in our desire to integrate blacks into our leadership, we elevate some too quickly before they’re fully prepared.

But, like it or not, that’s just how American politics works, and always has. In the late nineteenth century, the Republican Party was operating a shameless affirmative action program for retired Union generals from Ohio. The result was a string of mediocre presidents. In the late twentieth century, Democratic Party politics created a powerful market for moderate southern governors. The result was one middling president, Jimmy Carter, and one pretty good one, Clinton. Politics has its archetypes and its demands, and they will be heard. There’s now an emerging market for a certain kind of black president, the fulfillment of which will be both harder and, potentially, more powerful than any archetype we’ve seen before. It might be Obama, or it might be Cory Booker, or it might be someone else entirely. But chances are, somewhere in America, that person is watching Obama’s career carefully, and dreaming.

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From “The Great Black Hope,” November 2004. Benjamin Wallace-Wells is now a national affairs correspondent forRolling Stone.

 
 
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