• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The tarnished dream

The south side of Chicago cemetery where my father and two of my uncles are buried used to exist in a quiet, leafy neighbourhood.

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama

It was one of those neighbourhoods left behind by the "white flight" of the mid-1950s and early 1960s. White working-class homeowners, in a bid to escape integration, sold their homes then to incoming black families in the wake of the civil rights movement.

Ours was one of those black families at the beginning of the 1960s, our factory-worker dad having attained the American Dream through sheer hard work. So we buried him in the same area. My two uncles are buried there, too.

Dad would have liked it there because at heart he was a country boy and missed his hunting dog and the deep woods, even though those woods were in Mississippi in the 1930s, the most dangerous place in America to live if you were a black man.

Lately, the peace of the cemetery and the tranquillity of the streets surrounding it have been disturbed by gangs. The cemetery has become the burial place of choice for local crews. Their obsequies have taken on the flavour of state funerals: banks and rows of flowers; a huge mass of followers and incredible ostentation – cars, clothes, loud music and, of course, guns.

If a warlord is being buried, then various lieutenants and "wives" turn out. And to accompany the chieftain's funeral is a rival and equally loud and vulgar display by the gang's opponents.

This being Chicago and the south side, the local residents are not taking it lying down. They've complained and picketed and petitioned and next they will march, march the way that some of them did back in the old days. Except this time, they will be marching against their own.

This is Chicago in 2012. This is the America over which Barack Obama presides.

In many ways you could say that Barack Obama did not expect to be governing a nation like this. No-one did.

Flashback four years ago to Millennium Park on the posh lakefront, a few miles away from the cemetery but light years away in terms of everything that makes up the "American Dream". There, on an early November night, the night of the election, President-Elect Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, appeared on a stage with his family and announced that "change has come to America".

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, the veteran civil-rights campaigner who had himself run for president back in the 1980s, stood watching the young man from Hawaii. Tears were running down his face.

Jackson had been on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel that dreadful April evening in Memphis 40 years earlier when Martin Luther King had been gunned down. One can only imagine what was going through his mind standing there, watching the president-elect.

As for my community on the south side of Chicago, the sons and daughters and grandchildren of people from the Mississippi Delta – a place where the poll test required black people specifically to write Mandarin Chinese back in the bad old days – for them, the election of Barack Obama was nothing short of a miracle.

Four hundred years had been fulfilled instantly in one person and he'd had the good sense to marry a south side princess, a daughter of a hard-working Democratic Party local official, a disabled man who gave everything to his two children. The south side way.

I didn't really feel emotional until a few weeks later, when Obama stepped off Air Force One, the presidential seal behind him. It was then that I desperately wished that my father had lived to see that moment, and I cried at the bitterness of fate – and its beauty, too.

I, and millions of people of African descent particularly, were living through arguably the greatest moment in the history of African peoples. I was congratulated by strangers on the street, smiled at by passers-by.

And then it began.

Mario Cuomo, the great former governor of New York and the father of the present governor, once said: "You campaign in poetry and govern in prose."

And the prose came quickly for Barack Obama.

The truth is that all presidencies are more or less exercises in failure.

The President of the United States is seen by the American people as the father of the nation. He must reach out to all Americans and be seen to have greatness about him.

He must transcend the partisan politics of Congress, even though he is the most high-profile member of his own political party. He is commander-in-chief of the entire military, the literal head of the most powerful war machine that has ever existed. And he quite simply IS the United States abroad. He has the power of life or death over thousands of people on Death Row. He can, through the veto, stop a bill becoming law dead in its tracks, even if both Houses of Congress have passed it.

To be brought to book he has to be impeached by the House, an almost impossible feat although the House has managed to do it twice in its history. Conviction is left to the Senate and this has never happened.

The President of the United States is, therefore, the best of the republic, its heart and its soul.

The reality: Abraham Lincoln and John Fitzgerald Kennedy became great and went into legend ... after their assassinations. Lyndon Baines Johnson was the most formidable senator in US history, a man Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked up to. LBJ rammed home the bills and acts that became collectively known as The Great Society, and which changed the face of America forever.

He could summon a senator to meet him while he sat on the toilet if he needed to discuss a piece of legislation – and that senator had better be there. He once picked up his pet beagle hound by the ears to demonstrate that even his dog shut up if he demanded it. The Man From Texas made it possible for the American Dream to extend to all. But he ended up on primetime TV announcing that he would not run for a second term, defeated by the black swan that was the Vietnam war.

Bill Clinton, in many ways the heir of JFK, ended up being impeached.

George W Bush was meant to issue in an era of "compassionate conservatism" a notion that quickly collapsed along with the Twin Towers.

And Barack Obama was to bring in "hope and change".

The question remains: did he?

The Tea Party – the conservative right-wing ascendancy which has pulled the Republican Party and conservative opinion even further rightward – has decided that the change that Obama has brought is unacceptable, and the hope he has given is to America's enemies.

For some of them he is a kind of "Manchurian candidate", a figure straight out of Homeland, a plant from the "evil" Muslim world.

This point of view is an example of the existential terror that President Obama has had to fight from day one. This terror is rooted in racism – the "birth defect", Condeleezza Rice calls it – that haunts America even to this day.

There are some who have never been able to reconcile themselves to a black family in the White House. They call their fear everything else. Maybe even to themselves. But for that vocal minority, racism is their fear's real name.

And there are other factors:

In some ways, Obama was not prepared to be president.

He came to Washington with no friends in town. DC is a clubby place. Its salons and restaurants, dinner parties and even churches are centres of power. But it is also very much the southern town that it is: manners must be observed; dinner parties must be held; hostesses appeased. Deals are done over supper in true southern fashion. But the Obamas, at the beginning anyway, were not really there.

It is said that Michelle made the decision that she and Barack would make no new friends after 2007. Probably a smart move, but this has kept their circle small and tight and exclusive.

Add to this the fact that Obama is a loner, a man who stays up late at night, who keeps himself to himself. He is largely cerebral. Except when he is campaigning.

The president does not often attend church in public because that could be used against him.

Another thing: even with the smart choice of Joe Biden, a dynamo and fixer as his vice-president, Obama still could not unlock the House of Representatives, the body that passes the laws.

There have been mistakes in tone: the enormously expensive first holiday on posh Martha's Vineyard; that Nobel Peace Prize.

And mistakes in fact: some say he should have pushed through a jobs bill instead of a complex health bill .

In addition, a President of the United States today needs to have a skills base of enormous breadth and depth that very few people under the age of 40 have right now. This is a world divided by internet natives and internet colonisers. And internet natives are increasingly dominating how we think and work and play.

His largest base, African Americans, were too often lectured to by a president worried about showing favour. He urged black people to use him as an example of what was possible, but to not expect anything special from him. He told black people to step out on their own.

It is said that black ministers in some evangelical churches, because of the president's support for gay marriage equality, are urging their congregations to "go fishin'" on polling day, an act which they know might damage Obama's chances.

His support for gay marriage equality, as far as they're concerned, shows that the president does not care about them.

And parts of the left, too, are not happy.

Obama, the man who said that the Iraq war was "stupid" and said it early, sends out drones instead of soldiers. Same difference, many on the left say.

He hasn't confronted the Republican House which has stopped every major piece of legislation he has tried to get through, even up to not approving raising the national debt ceiling which could cause the dreaded "fiscal cliff", with unimaginable consequences for the nation and the world.

To many, he let Wall Street off the hook when he could have urged that some jail time be dished out to a few bankers and officials.

And some say that too many people from the Clinton administration became part of his administration, making his first term look more like a Clinton third term. Nevertheless, he has delivered change. President Obama has changed the face of America abroad. To those of us outside America, the nation simply looks and sounds differently than it did in the Bush era.

There is much more diplomacy going on, too, quietly and effectively

He has changed the military forever, just as Truman did when he passed an Executive Order desegregating the military in 1948. Gays, lesbians and bisexuals no longer have to cower behind "don't ask, don't tell". They can be full and proud members of the US armed forces in their own right.

With the "Dream Act", young, mainly Hispanic, Americans brought to the US as children by undocumented adults, can now remain in America without fear of deportation.

But above all, the face of the Oval Office has changed forever.

Women, ethnics – any of us who do not fit the usual template – can see ourselves as President of the United States.

It is no longer a dream.

His low-key nature, his very "No Drama Obama" essence, asks us to listen to the quiet, methodical construction of his argument for a second term, an argument which he will lay out over the next two debates.

The Obama presidency is not about the past, but for now, and for the ages.

It is one, too, for those gang members disturbing the peace of my father's final resting place.

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

118926