Shelby Steele on Obama, “A Bound Man”

Wish I hadn’t waited so long to read the always-valuable Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man: Why We’re Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win.  I hadn’t know until now that Steele, like Obama, was the product of a mixed-race marriage, a background that lends him additional insight into Obama.

As he has shown in his other work, Steele is our most incisive critic of race hustlers; unlike Obama, he “distanced himself” from the likes of Rev. Wright, Al Sharpton and the rest decades ago. This short book is full of clear-headed thinking about race and its place in current American society, and Steele  demonstrates vividly how so many people are deeply invested in portraying the country as if it’s Birmingham, Alabama in 1948.  Steele has built a career on pointing out what Obama slowly and painfully had to admit of the Rev. Wright in his life: That they are simply behind the times now, stuck in the past.

Steele is especially useful in pointing out the contradictory elements of Obama, whom he greatly admires. Obama joins a church led by a black nationalist pastor, yet his own books (Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope)  are filled with examples of the love and sacrifice shown him by his white mother, white grandparents, and various white mentors along the way.  Steele asks:

“What evidence suggests that this [black] nationalism can lift blacks from the blight of the South Side to the level of, say, Barack Obama himself–a superbly educated man with unlimited opportunities in the American mainstream? . . . And did he lift himself up by following the strictures of black nationalism, by embracing his race as an agent of change? Or was it precisely his upbringing within the mainstream–and far away from race ideologies–that stood him so well?”

Even with Steele’s spot-on criticisms of Obama,  the book reminds us why he is one of the most interesting politicians–most interesting people–to come along in the past twenty years.

 I’ve blogged about Steele’s work before. Check it out if you like.


Obama: Ambition Should Be Made of Sterner Stuff

Remember that Obama flap–no, not Rev. Wright, not Bill Ayres, not BitterClingGate, not LapelPinGate,  not Michelle Be Not Proud–no, way back even further, when the Clinton campaign unearthed evidence that Obama did  have early ambitions to be Pres, as they found in a grade-school essay he had written?

I don’t know when Obama first had the idea, which he may now regret,  to run for President. But as these shoes from his past have dropped one by one, I’ve come to this conclusion: Obama has long lacked the Ultra Caution Gene that’s part of almost every successful  politician’s makeup.

    I’ve known and befriended a  number of people who served at the city council, state rep/ state Senate and  House level, in addition to several unsuccessful candidates for office and a number of bold talkers who threatened to run for office but never got in the ring. And almost all these winners, losers, and wannabes had one thing in common: They were pathologically cautious. Everything they did  was passed through this filter: Will this Person /Event/Contribution/Statement  hurt me or help me in reaching my goal?

These were people straight out of the Clintonian mold, forever “preserving their options” against the day they would run for office. At fundraisers or staff parties, they would never be photographed holding a beer or glass of wine. If they knew a journalist was nearby, even someone who covered sports or real estate, they would constantly interrupt the most innocuous chatter to say, “Now, this is off the record, but…” And so on.

One anecdote will suffice. Several years ago  I was a semi-regular panelist on a local PBS public affairs TV show. Four of us would get together a few times a month and argue about local, state, and national politics. The shows would air Friday nights and Sunday mornings, so you can imagine the underwhelming size of the audience.  One woman panelist, whom I’ll call Marissa, was generally known to have political ambitions, and those dreams acted as a governor on everything she did and said. Her every comment was balanced and nuanced until the life was squeezed out of it; she  never entertained a single thought that didn’t come from the party’s marching orders of that month or year.

Pal around with firebrand preachers? Ex bomb-throwers? Are you kidding? This woman would have run screaming from a Unitarian, much less a militant.

Just before we’d go on the air each week, an assistant producer would bring out a payroll sheet for us to initial so that we could receive what the station called an “honorarium,” which is PBS-speak for “enough to buy a six-pack and some Doritos on the way home.” One day the AP was sick, so we didn’t see the payroll sheet that day. After the show, another staffer told me that she had just initialed them for us and had already taken the sheet to the business office.

Marissa, who was taking off some of her camera makeup, spun around in her chair. “What?” she asked, her eyes wide. “You did what?”

The staffer, nervous now, repeated what she had done. Marissa jumped from her chair, whipping off the makeup gown, and said something like, “We need to fix that. Now!” And she demanded that the frightened young minion accompany her to the business office, where, I later learned, she accosted the accounting head and demanded that he give her the payroll sheet so that she could erase the offending initials and insert her own.

A few weeks later I ran into a mutual friend who told me how horrified Marissa had been over the incident. What if she ran for office a year or five years later, and some opposition research weasel found out somebody had forged her initials on a financial document? Yikes!

Not five but ten years later, Marissa did run for Congress. Her opponent, the incumbent, trounced her without breaking a sweat, portraying her as a conventional, programmatic politician who was simply out of step with the district’s needs. But at least he never plumbed the dark secrets of  InitialGate.





Rev. Wright’s Wrongs: Four Nagging Questions

Just asking a few questions about the continuing blowback from the Rev. Wright affair:

 1. Can any news organization laden with vast resources (Hello Fox, NY Times, WaPo) please give us some idea as to how representative were Wright’s Damned-in-the USA  comments?

 Is it possible that a Chicago paper or TV station might have a file on this? Obama defenders, of whom I’m sometimes one, say that the nation-cussin’ was an anomaly, a fluke, utterly out of context in decades of pastoral care devoted to explaining God’s message.  It would be nice if some news org would show us something of that context. Maybe somebody could go and ask long-time church members–you know,  “interview” them, as newshounds say–and just see how prevalent was such feisty  chat.

Why, it’s even possible that during Obama’s years in the church,  certain Chicagoans, some perhaps prominent,  decided to leave Wright’s church for one reason or another, and they might be persuaded to tell the world whether the Sunday morning mix was 80% Love vs. 20% Hate, a 50-50 split, or whatever. If our reporters feel kinda shy and awkward asking these questions directly, consider this: Many big churches these days actually keep copies of sermons….why, some even sell cassettes or CDs of the preacher’s ruminations. You never know what you might find. (I don’t know how I think up these clever strategies…they just come to me.)  Let’s stop arguing about “context” and establish just what the context was. My guess is that the most extreme “GDUSA” comments were pretty rare, but let’s get some facts, please.

2. Another anti-Obama tack right now is a spinoff from the above, and goes something like this: “Why, it’s one thing if Barry O and Mrs. O, being after all adults, want to marinate in such pulpit poison, but WHAT ABOUT THEIR KIDS??? How could they subject THE KIDS to such spewings?

And the question: Were the Obama kids actually frequent sippers from this foul chalice?  Don’t the kids at that church go to Sunday School? Don’t they go sit in little desks or in circles on the floor and eat goldfish and  draw pictures of the lilies of the field and make little crosses out of popsicle sticks and skittles? Are you telling me that 4- and 5- year old kids actually stay in Big Church for two hours? Awake? Newshounds, check it out.

3. Much of the Wright or Wrong brouhaha has focused on Obama’s Precise Location during The Spewings.  O himself says he was not physically present during at least some of The Spewings in question. And the question is. . .

So what? If the question is to what extent Obama bought into Wright’s rants, and by extension how much influence if any Wright has/had on Obama, why would we settle the matter with a Sunday Morning Scorecard showing that O missed this one, attended that one, missed this one, and so on? If I belong to an Elks Lodge at which the Exalted Stag or whatever the leader’s called  stands up on Thursday nights and talks about the good ol’ days of white supremacy, am I excused because I happened to miss the more inflammatory talks? Is it plausible that I would be utterly ignorant of the Stag’s rants? No fellow Elk ever mentioned them to me?

Assume for discussion that Obama missed half the sermons, or two-thirds if you like. Does  anyone believe that Obama never got a report, a fragment, a “shoulda heard the Rev on Sunday” from any of his pewmates? That’s silly. Especially as he became a public figure in the state Senate and U. S. Senate, he’d want to be aware of such things even if he wasn’t there in person.

 4. To set up this last question, let’s issue a King’s X to Rev. Wright on the Uncle Sam-bashing. Let’s assume for a moment that because of slavery and discrimination,  the U. S.  deserves Jehovah’s wrath just as the Rev. says we do. Guilty as charged.

 That still leaves his far-out statements that the government A) sold drugs in minority neighborhoods and B) concocted the AIDS virus in order to decimate the black population. This stuff is skimmed from the cess-pool of paranoia. How frequent were such charges by Wright? What was the general reaction of the congregation to such lunacy? Does anyone recall Obama’s reaction to this idiocy?

As I noted a few days ago, I think Obama performed a great service with his gutsy speech on race. I think he did what he could to contain the damage right now. But if he should get the nomination, all these questions and more are  coming back like Jason in Friday the 13th XVIII.  I wonder if Obama is ready.