It seems Barack Obama got into some trouble over some unseemly remarks about the fears and attitudes of some of the middle class. Although his comments did not sound nasty or belittling to my ears, more like a concerned man trying to make sense of other people's frustrations, no one claims he wouldn't take the words back if he could, or that his supporters would deter him. Still you'd think by the all the hoopla this story has received, he'd raised his glass to Hitler.
Hillary Clinton, staunch defender of the middle class she's recently lost steady ground to in Pennsylvania, will take any opportunity to kick Obama hard whenever he "slips" (which is rarely). Still -- for a woman worth $100+ million dollars, who resides in a large, gated home in tony Chappaqua, New York, and has openly courted the American elite over the years, renting out the Lincoln Bedroom like The Four Seasons Hotel, assuming the mantle of the middle class is both transparent and an act of desperation. She calls Obama "elitist" and "out of touch", and his comments "demeaning".
This is ludicrous bunk, and pure political opportunism on Hillary's part. No doubt about it -- she knows how to fight dirty when she's down. But I'm hoping and praying that enough Americans will see right through her.
Now here's a sobering question: is there not some truth in what Obama said?
There were three main issues that surfaced in his words, all of them real and present in our society: the role of faith in politics, the controversial topic of gun control, and the impact of race and diversity in America.
First, here are lots of people in this country who choose not to abide by a fundamental tenet of our democracy: namely, the separation of Church and State. Just watch Jesus Camp, the eerie documentary about the evangelicals, a surprisingly large group in this country, and behold how their thoroughly indoctrinated kiddies pray for "W." every day. The leader of their sect claims he delivered millions of voters to Bush (born again by Billy Graham after one too many D.W.I.'s), and that they talk by phone each week. Can America now live with a president brave enough to say that his task as President has nothing to do with his faith? John Kennedy said so nearly fifty years ago, and even then it resonated. So, it would appear that whatever the fiery Reverend Wright has to say in his pulpit would likely not influence Obama's presidential policies.
Then there's gun control. With all due respect to the late Mr. Heston, there are many who want to keep this nation a land of ease and plenty when it comes to procuring automatic weapons. I just saw the story of several young teenage females systematically and severely beating one other girl, for which the attackers will all likely serve considerable prison time. Now in this instance, no guns were involved, but it's all part of the same disturbing, ongoing trend, fueled by the insane pressure, uncertainty and competition our kids face today, and further aggravated by the graphic violence constantly churned out by the media and entertainment industries. That said, I still believe you cannot reduce violence significantly if you and your family live in the most pro-gun society on the planet. (Anyone revisited Bowling For Columbine lately?)
And make no mistake: these folks want to keep their shotguns (and Uzis). When I wrote on the Huffington Post about the need for more gun control in the wake of those campus shootings (which create huge publicity but little change), I heard from over 100 gun-toting good ol' boy whackos, telling me to leave the country -- pronto. Yikes.
Dare I say it: there are also a few people out there who'd simply prefer a white man (or woman) in The White House. For an eye opener, watch the 1991 doc Blood In The Face, about the white supremacy movement and the advent of David Duke. Now while this fanatical group is a true minority, now on the wane, some of what they espouse, including much stricter limits on immigration and a more negative view of our country's increasing ethnic diversity, live on quietly (sometimes not so quietly) in some of our citizens, particularly those who've lost jobs to cheaper foreign labor. Perceived racism in law enforcement also lingers (remember Rodney King?). There are still numerous race hate organizations out there; you can find them on the internet. And a recent research study indicated that racism has only become a "more subtle" phenomenon in our nation. So though unquestionably we've made progress on the race issue, anyone who suggests we've eradicated this age-old scourge, born out of fear and ignorance, is simply deluded.
Taking one step back, one has to wonder, why would Obama say what he said? It's probably because those issues really came up with the people he spoke to, those citizens he supposedly "demeaned". They're good Americans, but they're scared, and have every reason to be. They may have helped re-elect W., whose legacy has gone from bad to worse in his second term. His supporters feel justifiably let down. Their very homes and livelihoods are now at risk, if not gone already, their kids may be in Iraq dodging bullets, and they're not entirely certain where to put the blame, or how it's all going to get fixed. So why wouldn't they be bitter, and why wouldn't they search for answers and some small rays of hope and reassurance, even perhaps in some of the wrong places?
We know there exists a sizable number of voters -- many of them not traditionally Democratic -- who this go-round are looking closely at the other side, both due to these shaky times we're in, and the looming embarrassment that will become the Bush legacy. In John McCain, some see a rigid, infirm-looking continuation of the old Republican plank, waving a tattered flag. And yet, these same people may be put slightly off-balance when they first encounter Obama. Could this clearly gifted but unfamiliar young man really be America's savior, they silently ask? I want to tell them, simply: "Yes".
I'd guess Obama's frustration when he made his statement came from the fact that these more divisive issues take focus and attention off the nation's most pressing crises: restoring those jobs, improving the economy, and extracting ourselves from this costly war, justified by faulty intelligence, which we should never have started in the first place.
Characteristically and wisely, Obama swiftly apologized for his choice of words. That is pure Obama -- yes, an intrinsically savvy politician -- but also one who honestly believes in the need to build fences, not knock them down, and continue converting more loyal Americans to his message of hope about the future -- about jobs, peace, economic recovery, and the restoration of pride in America, both inside and outside our borders.
In the end, whoever gets their vote, the middle-class shouldn't kid themselves about Hillary. No matter what spin her people put out there, she is no more their "grass roots" champion than Obama; she is in fact a ruthless Senator and former First Lady who knows all the back room maneuvers, and is quite adept at targeting the big money and sources of influence. And though you can argue her roots are fairly humble, so are Obama's.
Hillary is simply playing this card now because it's her last chance to stay in the race- a contest I'm hoping she'll concede soon so we can unite our party and move on to McCain, the man either Democratic candidate must defeat in November. But for those who say open debate on the two Democratic contenders only hurts the party in the long run, I respond with a terse, emphatic "Phooey". This is America, and we all get to speak up if we choose, all along the way. You might as well ask me not to root for the Mets.
And, with my regrets to the still choleric Bill Clinton, when the usually eloquent Bill Richardson, in his surprise Obama endorsement, gushed, "there's just something special about this guy", he actually hit the mark. Because- all things considered, it is Obama, not Hillary, who has practiced that rare phenomenon called positive politics over the course of this highly competitive race. In a careless and fatigued moment, he simply showed himself to be human, momentarily straying from the upbeat, empowering tenor of his campaign, which has renewed the energy and commitment of so many, young and old. And in a fresh activism of this type, so seldom seen in my time, there lies the best hope of concrete, positive change and progress for our badly bruised and sorely tested nation.
Now, to all you ratings-obsessed, sensation-peddling TV stations, periodicals, and websites, let's avoid dissecting in agonizing detail every verbal misstep made by the candidates, and also stop paying undue attention to Hillary's frantic mud-slinging in what may be the final stretch of her run. Instead, you should help the candidates and the voters grapple with the substantive issues, so Americans, regardless of "class", make smart choices in the voting booth, whether in the contest for Pennsylvania, or on Election Day itself. Let's all strive to bring out the best in our democracy for a change.