Black candidate will face bigotry, passionate support
THE EXTENT to which environment and circumstance have shaped my attitude and my zeal for civil rights and social justice is easy to understand. By the time I was 21, I'd spent a summer caddying for Jackie Robinson, was taught stern lessons over a cup of coffee with Fannie Lou Hamer, drove through Newark with Stokely Carmichael a few months after the riots of 1967 and spent a short time, along with other East Coast college newspaper editors, interviewing Martin Luther King a year before he died.
In one spontaneous and memorable moment, it was all summed up for me by the black actor Ossie Davis. I was covering a book opening for my college newspaper and had gotten him a martini from the bar, which had run out of the proper glasses. Offering him a cocktail in a milk glass, I apologized and he said with a smile, "It's not the form. It's the content." These remain simple words of wisdom, all these years later.
So as we arrive at a moment in 2008 when the right person for president might also be a black person, I return to politics with a newfound passion. Time will tell if Barack Obama is the leader so many people, including me, believe him to be. That is what campaigns are for.
Recently, political scientist and MidWeek columnist Dan Boylan and Sen. Dan Inouye, in an interview with the Star-Bulletin's Richard Borreca, have questioned Obama's candidacy. Boylan focused on the problems of prejudice that Obama will face and Inouye wondered whether Obama is ready to manage the vicious vetting process that will occur during the campaign.
With respect to the former question, clearly there are forces in this country that vehemently oppose Obama. More than that, they hate the concept of him. He is the wrong possibility. No conversation, no facts, no details will change their minds. They will begin a venomous campaign to derail him at any cost.
It is sometimes difficult for us in Hawaii to envision the bigotry and hate that lurks in our country. But very real and ready are the tentacles of the extreme right to manufacture specious and vicious attacks on others to protect their own narrow belief systems. Most alarmingly, these forces attempt to legitimize themselves through stealth attachments to religious or social organizations and, yes, political parties.
The movement for Obama is driven by people who believe he is the right person to communicate and lead across generations, cultural groups and even nations. Somewhat simplistically, we remember that after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, America was a country that had the world on it side, while today we are fighting a seemingly futile war in Iraq all by ourselves. New and authentic leadership is a must for America. Even then the road ahead will be very rough.
HAWAII IS far in front as a political model. Our prior three governors were of Japanese, Hawaiian and Filipino ancestry, and Gov. Linda Lingle is a Jewish woman. They were the right people to lead. And this electoral progression attests to our sophistication as voters and is a stunningly positive reflection of our island value systems. What counted was what the candidates had to offer.
Is America nearly so ready for a black president? Harlan Cleveland, former president of the University of Hawaii, has said that although no one is ever absolutely ready to be president of the United States, Obama "already has much of what he would need in that unique job. He is bright and studious. His public utterances exude common sense. He seems to have more natural charisma -- the capacity to electrify people who are with him -- than anyone else now in the field."
THAT WE are getting to the stage where the right person for president is also black is a point of pride and makes real the all-too-battered premise that justice in America ultimately prevails. Nonetheless, there are people, twisted and relentless, who will fight to ruthless extremes this inherent American right. Truths that you and I and Abraham Lincoln find to be "self-evident" are anathema to them.
In the political vetting process that Inouye suggests lies ahead, I believe Obama, like the great man I caddied for one summer, is tough, smart and resilient enough to push past the hate of others. I hope the American public has seen enough political bile in recent years to disdain trash politics, wherever it comes from. And for the many who are getting on the Obama bandwagon, be ready to redouble your support with intellect and passion that transcends your prior political experience.
E pluribus unum (from many, one), an institution on the back of American coins, is about to get a rigorous and historic test.
Chuck Freedman is a member of the Hawaii Draft Obama Steering Committee.