The president... well, he wasn't the president then, but the senator from Illinois, yelled at me four years ago. It was during the South Carolina primary, after which he became the undisputed front runner. I began a phoner (a telephone interview for radio broadcast) by asking about Fox News' wall-to-wall coverage asserting that he had gone to a madrassa, or Islamic school, while he was a child in Indonesia. In essence, the senator told me it was a stupid question; that it had already been debunked; and told me with unbridled anger to rephrase the question. It was a stupid question, to be honest, but I asked my editor if I should ask it since it was leading the news in much of the country, particularly the middle states. Sometimes as a journalist you have to ask the obvious, even the stupid, just to get it out of the way.
His handlers murmured quietly in the background while the senator and I faced off for about three minutes over whether I'd restate the question. Rather than waste my window of opportunity with the candidate, I reframed the topic, and we got a decent interview that ran along with interviews with John Edwards and Senator Hillary Clinton.
I bring this up only to point out that Senator Obama is not merely the professorial, podium-gazing, faintly bored and annoyed man we saw in the last debate; or, as Sarah Palin might put it, the hopey-changey leader we saw in 2008. He is a man of discipline and passion. And I can't help but wonder if he feels shackled both by good home-schooling (don't interrupt the moderator, a rule Mitt Romney broke to shards) but also by the desire not to seem like an angry black man.
President Barack Obama is not an angry man -- black, mixed, or purple -- unless he feels his intelligence and leadership is being taken for granted. Even then, for the most part, he bites his tongue. What would happen if he loosed it? Would the world explode if he showed some fire tonight?
Well, perhaps it would explode just a little bit. The fact that Romney supporters released a tape of an "angry" Obama from 2007 that was more a blah than a gotcha moment shows how desperate some people are to trot out this tired meme. Of course, the same people looking for anger on the president's part would do well to check out the company that seeks solidarity with them.
On Friday, a man was photographed by Getty Images at a rally for the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket in Lancaster, Ohio, wearing a T-shirt that read "Put The White Back In the White House." Conservatives now say the man may have been a liberal plant designed to make Romney look bad, and the GOP nominee has disavowed the racist T-shirt. On Saturday, a Romney spokesperson told Buzzfeed the shirt is "reprehensible and has no place in this election."
But whoever the man was, the presence of the T-shirt inside the event seems an indication of how political rallies have become harder to control. It's unlikely a T-shirt like this one, for example, would have shown up at any George W. Bush campaign events.
I too, questioned on Facebook whether the person was a plant. But the fact that he could stand placidly in a crowd of Romney supporters without being heckled or booed for his shirt is damning in and of itself. The tacit approval of the crowd is much more troubling to me than one shirt.
So as the president enters the debate tonight, he has an opportunity to love the people who hate him, using all of the best dogma from Christianity, other religions, and ethical humanism. By loving his haters, he can proceed with uncomplicated vigor to demolish their arguments, ones which come not from a dislike of his policies but of what he represents about the changing demographics of power. If you love the paranoid, the racist, and those who wish you harm, your love can manifest as a tough love that need not be overly polite and deferential.
A black president, playing by the rules of race in America today, avoids certain third-rail issues. Criminal justice inefficiencies and inequalities sap billions of dollars a year in direct taxpayer costs and wasted human potential. Immigration law has not yet been mentioned in either the first Presidential or the Vice Presidential debate. Nor have guns, despite a spring and summer that saw the killing of Trayvon Martin and the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. A black president playing by the typical rules of race would avoid these third rails. A president -- black or other -- who realizes he is already standing on the third rail may be more inclined to speak boldly rather than politely.
We'll see what tonight brings.
Follow Farai Chideya on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@farai