When Lawrence O'Donnell first reported last week that Colin Powell was in fact going to take the plunge and endorse Barack Obama, I'll be the first to admit that my stomach got a few butterflies -- but not for the reasons you may think. I had interviewed Powell last year for my book Party Crashing and we spoke about Obama's chances to make history by becoming the first black man to ascend to the White House. Powell candidly shared that when some were touting him as a possible presidential candidate more than a decade ago, his African-American friends cautioned him, warning him in essence of the Bradley Effect. Some said, "yeah they'll say they love you Colin until they have to go pull the lever." But Powell, ever the optimist added, "I think that's less true now than it was 12 years ago. I think the country has matured to the point where a woman or a Black could be elected." He of course declined to offer who he might support at that time.
So when I first began hearing murmurs that Powell may endorse Obama, the butterflies emerged, prompted in part by fear. For so long Powell's stature in this country has transcended race. His standing among many white Republicans has been second to none, yet I discovered while conducting a survey for my book last year, that younger black Americans admire him nearly as much as they admire Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. While everyone knows that Powell is nothing if not his own man I worried that some, in an effort to diminish the impact of a Powell endorsement would seek to diminish the man himself by saying his endorsement was motivated by race. When the news first broke on Sunday I was pleasantly surprised to see that my concerns appeared to be unfounded, at least at first. John McCain's reaction to the rejection of his candidacy by a longtime friend, demonstrated a grace that has largely been lacking recently in this race.
But it didn't take long before the rhetoric of others lived up to my worst fears. Conservatives Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan both sought to tie Powell's endorsement to his race. (I guess I missed all those times when Powell endorsed Jesse Jackson, Alan Keyes and Al Sharpton in their presidential runs). Only something funny happened. Instead of diminishing Powell's reputation at all, Limbaugh and Buchanan's words have so far, only further diminished theirs. Watching clips of their comments I actually felt a great deal of compassion for both men. Clearly their frustration and fear at realizing that our country is no longer what it was in 1968 -- and never will be again -- or even what it was in 1998 when it was paralyzed by partisanship, has rendered both men lost; as though a time machine accidentally stranded them, in some strange, multi-cultural, forward-thinking universe, and they as relics from the past feel increasingly, irrelevant, outnumbered and out of place.
But I believe that I am not the only one who feels sorry for them. There are plenty of Americans, even those who may not agree with Obama's politics, or Powell's endorsement, who heard the sad rhetoric of these men and thought to themselves, "That does not represent me or the America that I believe in."
And for sparking that revelation, I want to say to Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan, THANK YOU.