Good men with honor


Just how far have we come? When you’re a child, twenty years is a theoretic span; as an adult, that period is a paradox. What seems so far away passed by so quickly. What seemed so familiar recedes into strangeness, transforms into myth.

I don’t remember what I said. I mean, it had something to do with the Reagan administration, and characterized someone, or some people, within that cadre as criminals. I despised Reagan; my political conscience came online about the same time he was elected. I cannot recall ever thinking nice, or merely positive things about the man.

I was seven when he was elected. The only thing I remember clearly from that election was that Reagan struck me as condescending and dishonest, exactly the kind of person my parents would repeatedly through my childhood tell me I didn’t need. And that stuck with me. By the time we got to Iran-Contra, the pretense (that later proved at least partway true) of Reagan’s senility was insufficient to excuse him in my eyes.

What? It was how I was raised; those conclusions reflected the principles impressed upon me especially by parents, but also teachers, my pastor, and any number of talking heads inside the idiot box.

But this isn’t about indicting Reagan. He’s dead. He’s gone. Whatever.

This is about a moment that stands out despite the dissolution of its details. My father, disgusted, glaring at me. “You can’t say that about people,” he stormed. “These are good men. They’re trying their best. You can’t say that about people.” It was not an explanation. It was not a retort. It was an order.

Whatever condemnation I had poured over the Reagan administration had upset him. And, yes, there is also a story to the difference between the man I remember and the one I know today. Maybe someday I’ll try to tell it.

Perhaps it had to do with an adolescent daring to condemn the president. Maybe he was so fiercely Republican during those years that he could not face the possibility that his president was a sack of shit. Maybe it had to do with respecting elders, and respecting authority. Maybe, maybe, maybe ….
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How strange can it get?


It’s just one of those things that makes me wonder how desperate the situation has gotten. Only two events done in a long list of fifty, and already the confusion and nervous hand-wringing has escalated the discussion to a nearly incoherent fever pitch. No, I’m not talking about any particular presidential campaign but, rather, the press corps that covers the campaign.

The mystery beginsThe current situation starts, for me, as a note on the front page of the Doonesbury Town Hall, where the Daily Briefing headlines include a note that “King Slight Could Linger”. Clicking on the link, perusing the collection of headlines assembled by NewsTrust, I am unable to find the relevant story. I use my browser’s find function, and cannot come up with a “king” that matches. (There is “breaking“, “talking“, “looking“, “asking“, &c., but nothing on “King”.) So I head on over to Google, which kindly and quickly suggests Seth Gitell’s January 10 article for the New York Sun, “Slight of King Could Linger for Voters“.

A-ha!

Senator Clinton’s comment stressing the importance of President Johnson at the expense of the role of Martin Luther King Jr. may come back to haunt her in the battle to attract African American voters, who make up half of the Democratic electorate in the upcoming South Carolina primary.

The situation underscores the perils for Mrs. Clinton as she confronts a challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination from Senator Obama. Her attempts to criticize Mr. Obama risk backfiring and alienating black voters, an important Democratic constituency.

Gitell notes a New York Times editorial that “cautioned that Mrs. Clinton ‘came perilously close to injecting racial tension'” into an “uplifting” historical occasion, e.g., a showdown between the first major female and first major African-American contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Reading through Gitell’s article, it is hard to find a description of the actual offense Senator Clinton has allegedly committed. But there is this paragraph:

The Obama camp and civil rights leaders independent of the political campaigns yesterday seized on Mrs. Clinton’s statement, “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964…It took a president to get it done.”

Okay. Gitell tells of Crown Heights Assemblyman Karim Camara, who talked about receiving calls from surprised constituents, colleagues, and pastors. Mr. Camara talked about sensitivity to language, and how that might benefit Senator Obama’s campaign. Gitell also notes Michael Meyers, of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, who said Clinton was out of line, and how her comments seemed “to be desperate and a misreading of history”. Indeed, Mr. Meyers called Clinton’s statements “ignorant of the participation of everyday people, including Dr. King”.

So it couldn’t possibly be the short quip Gitell had cited that has everybody up in arms, could it?

I head over to the New York Times for more. In the middle of a January 9 editorial comes this stinging indictment:

In Mrs. Clinton’s zeal to make the case that experience (hers) is more important than inspirational leadership (Mr. Obama’s), she made some peculiar comments about the relative importance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson to the civil rights cause. She complimented Dr. King’s soaring rhetoric, but said: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. … It took a president to get it done.”

Why Mrs. Clinton would compare herself to Mr. Johnson, who escalated the war in Vietnam into a generational disaster, was baffling enough. It was hard to escape the distasteful implication that a black man needed the help of a white man to effect change. She pulled herself back from the brink by later talking about the mistreatment and danger Dr. King faced. Former President Bill Clinton, who seems to forget he is not the one running, hurled himself over the edge on Monday with a bizarre and rambling attack on Mr. Obama.

Mr. Clinton has generally been a statesman as ex-president, and keeping up this sort of behavior will undermine his credibility and ability to do more good.

What, seriously? Did I really just read that?

It really does seem a bit of bluster over a few words, especially when nobody is explaining what, exactly, the offense is. As near as I can tell, President Johnson’s role in the civil rights drama should, according to the New York Times be ignored because of his role in Vietnam.

And maybe it has something to do with the words themselves. “Realize”. Most people treat the word differently than its components: “real” and “-ize”. The former is obvious, and the suffix? Is there some problem I’m unaware of? While many people might treat the word “realize” as synonymous to “understand”—e.g. did Clinton not realize that she was putting herself in a vulnerable position, given a contentious primary cycle and a hostile, embarrassed press corps reeling from its own punch-drunk speculations that crashed spectacularly on a Tuesday night in New Hampshire?—but there is another fairly common usage, as well, which is “to make real”. Other words people use—perhaps because some are confused by such a use of the word “realize”—are “actualize” and one of my favorite made-up words, “concretize”.

It seems to me that no matter how much dreaming Dr. King might have done, at some point some politician somewhere needed to implement that dream. And, the Vietnam debacle and the Times‘ distaste notwithstanding, that politician was President Lyndon Johnson.

If you’re confused by now, so am I. The best thing to do at this point would be to get it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. Given the nature of the twenty-first century presidential horserace, is there any reason the statement in question wouldn’t be at YouTube?

Of course not. It’s 2008. If this one has escaped YouTube, it might be a sign of the Apocalypse.

Hmph. Really? That’s it? As specific an answer as you’re going to get from a politician to a specific question? Seriously, that’s really what’s at the heart of the hullaballoo?

At first viewing—and, truth told, all subsequent viewings—I’m hard-pressed to understand where the offense is. Someone needs to explain it to me directly and specifically.

Looking around for some sort of explanation, I land on Michael Fauntroy’s article, posted earlier today. The first clue is the title: “Johnson Did Help Give Life to King’s Dream“.

Okay.

Hillary Clinton has been taking a beating for a comment she recently made regarding Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the role President Lyndon Johnson played in bringing about the legislative change sought by the civil rights movement. She noted that King’s dream began to come into focus when President Lyndon Johnson supported and signed into law important civil rights legislation. Some African Americans, sadly disconnected from the historical record, took the comment as a slight to King’s legacy. Conservatives did what they usually do, stoking the fire by suggesting that Clinton simply dissed the Black icon and should be punished by African American voters. (Disclosure: Neither Clinton nor Senator Barack Obama is my preferred presidential candidate). Clinton is factually right and, after seeing the video of the comment, I am convinced that she met no disrespect to King’s legacy.

My interest in King is more than academic. I’m blessed to [be] a nephew of Rev. Walter Fauntroy, one of Dr. King’s chief lieutenants. He has long told me of his work during this period and how the man (King) and the movement coalesced and unified the country, which became outraged by what they saw on the evening news night after night. He also told me something that I tell my students: ideas and movements mean nothing if they don’t change public policy. Mass movements and demonstrations are designed to prick the conscience of the country on a given issue. At that point the legislative process takes over. That process must go through the president. A supportive president can accelerate change. An obstinate president (see Bush, G.W. – Iraq) can thwart a movement, even though it might have a majority of support in Congress.

My uncle has told me a thousand times about how important Lyndon Johnson was to making the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 a reality. He sacrificed his own favor with southern conservatives to do the right thing. I see a particular irony that some southern Black elected officials, some of whom owe their seats in Congress to the changes effectuated by the Voting Rights Act, now criticizing Clinton for remembering her civil rights history. Noting Johnson’s role is not disrespectful to King’s legacy. It’s simply a historical fact. And Clinton’s memory seems to be on target.

I suppose it’s not fair to take comfort from the fact that an assistant professor of public policy from George Mason University is willing to state so dramatically something so reflective of my suspicion. Perhaps he’s blinded by sentiment, being the nephew of a prestigious historical personage; perhaps his heritage gives him a stake in this debate that makes him unreliable. After all, it could not be that this whole controversy is driven largely by a the press, which, on the one hand has a long dislike for the Clintons and, toPresident Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, July 2, 1964 (photo by Stoughton) the other, was thoroughly embarrassed by Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire, right?

We cannot forget civil rights groups who are, understandably, tired of any implication that civil rights and human decency are somehow a privilege awarded by whites. The aforementioned Mr. Meyers finds company in Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), himself a prestigious figure in civil rights history, who has has reminded that “We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about” civil rights. According to Carl Hulse:

Mr. Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a power in state Democratic politics, put himself on the sidelines more than a year ago to help secure an early primary for South Carolina, saying he wanted to encourage all candidates to take part. But he said recent remarks by the Clintons that he saw as distorting civil rights history could change his mind.

“We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics,” said Mr. Clyburn, who was shaped by his searing experiences as a youth in the segregated South and his own activism in those days. “It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal.”

And while it is difficult to take issue with such a luminary of the civil rights struggle, Mr. Fauntroy’s observation is valid. Hulse’s article for the New York Times does not include Rep. Clyburn’s explanation of just how Clinton has denigrated Dr. King or the civil rights era in general. It is almost as if some are seeking a reason to be offended.

Mr. Clyburn, reached for a telephone interview Wednesday during an overseas inspection of port facilities, also voiced frustration with former President Clinton, who described Mr. Obama’s campaign narrative as a fairy tale. While Mr. Clinton was not discussing civil rights at the time and seemed to be referring mainly to Mr. Obama’s stance at the Iraq war, Mr. Clyburn saw the remark as a slap at the image of a black candidate running on a theme of unity and optimism.

“To call that dream a fairy tale, which Bill Clinton seemed to be doing, could very well be insulting to some of us,” said Mr. Clyburn, who said he and others took significant risks more than 40 years ago to produce such opportunities for future black Americans.

Unity and optimism, indeed. But such a sunny outlook can certainly be overextended. This point was at the heart of Paul Krugman’s criticism last month of the Obama campaign. In that case, Krugman assailed Obama’s idealism vis á vis wealthy and influential American corporations.

Do Obama supporters who celebrate his hoped-for ability to bring us together realize that “us” includes the insurance and drug lobbies?

O.K., more seriously, it’s actually Mr. Obama who’s being unrealistic here, believing that the insurance and drug industries — which are, in large part, the cause of our health care problems — will be willing to play a constructive role in health reform. The fact is that there’s no way to reduce the gross wastefulness of our health system without also reducing the profits of the industries that generate the waste.

As a result, drug and insurance companies — backed by the conservative movement as a whole — will be implacably opposed to any significant reforms. And what would Mr. Obama do then? “I’ll get on television and say Harry and Louise are lying,” he says. I’m sure the lobbyists are terrified.

As health care goes, so goes the rest of the progressive agenda. Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.

The article sparked a controversy between Obama supporters and the New York Times columnist that lasted a couple weeks. It is important to note, though, that Bill Clinton was not the first to criticize Obama’s campaign vision as dysfunctionally idealistic. John Edwards called Obama’s outlook a “complete fantasy”; Krugman suggested the pitch was fit for a “fantasy world”. Neither of them have faced such stern condemnation from civil rights groups. It seems to me that Fauntroy might have a point that a disconnection has occurred. The unfortunate result is that venerable civil rights leaders such as Rep. Clyburn, and modern activists like NYCRC’s Meyers, do themselves and their work a disservice by making this about race. In the first place, the argument against Clinton’s remarks seems to suggest that acknowledging President Johnson’s role somehow denigrates black people and the civil rights movement. Secondly, there is an appearance that some are willing to use skin color in order to bait the controversy. And, of course, a smarting, bloodthirsty press will only complicate matters by actualizing the exploitation.

It seems a testament to the perversity of the American political arena that Hillary Clinton should be the villain in this particular dispute. On the one hand, Obama seems free to invoke Dr. King at will. To the other, Hillary Clinton, oft-criticized for her failure to give a straightforward answer, seems obliged—as the controversy suggests—to dodge a direct question or, perhaps in deference to Rep. Clyburn’s warning that we must “be very, very careful” about how we speak about civil rights, give a canned answer divorced from history when asked a specific question about Obama’s pointed reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. And, to yet another, I still don’t understand how, according to Rep. Clyburn, Mr. Meyers, the New York Times, or any number of critics, Dr. King’s famous, inspiring dream could begin growing into reality without President Johnson, or someone his equal, to shepherd and sign the Civil Rights Act.

More important than Hillary Clinton, per se, is the bizarre aspect that resembles race-baiting. The rise of a black frontrunner in the Democratic contest for the presidential ticket ought to signify a waning color divide in our society. Yet this controversy suggests the opposite, that, while we are prepared to at least pay lip service to such noble aspirations, we are somehow not ready to get over our racist American heritage, that we are not going to let go of the past and look to the future without at least one last desperate twist of the knife. Perhaps there is a grassroots corruption taking place. Assemblyman Camara describes getting calls from constituents, elected officials, and fellow pastors expressing surprise. Perhaps, in grasping for a sense of authority in a tumultuous period of redefinition, a significant number of people who should be reassuring those who inquire are, instead, exploiting the occasion, fanning the fires, in order to assuage their own insecurities with an illusion of control. It is hard to tell from afar. Then again, this whole controversy is puzzling, and seems, frankly, much ado about nothing. Which, of course, lends the issue a sordid, tragic air. And in that we come to the heart of the matter: the sordid and tragic, whose relationship is characterized by extraneity, hurts us all.