Happy Re-inauguration Day. In a post last week, I wrote of the strangeness of our Obama, in his passion for bargaining with people who despise him, and his passion for envisioning deals that, even if struck, deliver nothing particularly good either in policy or political terms. The “bargain” becomes the end in itself, the holy grail. It certainly doesn’t establish trust with his bargaining partners. For instance, his unilateral pay freeze for federal workers announced after the 2010 “Tea Party” elections. That, of course, was meant to build his bona fides among Republicans as a fiscal conservative. How did that work out for you, BHO?
Not just policy bargains, but other kinds of bargains, too. Here’s another example. For the second time in a row, Obama has invited a homophobic right-wing pastor to give his inaugural invocation. Though you won’t hear the Reverence Louie Giglio from the West Front of the Capitol today. The pastor, under fire for his anti-gay views, withdrew his acceptance of the president’ invitation with a plaintive whine, accusing “those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration” of persecution. Let the healing begin.
Why is Barack Obama like this? Where does this anything-but-reality-based faith that lions can lay down with lambs come from? The curious thing is that you might have expected experiences of his formative years to have taught him the opposite lesson.
Start with his adulthood, and his first real job, community organizing. He wrote, in Dreams of My Father, of a hard-won lesson of his experience living in New York City just prior to his move to Chicago—of how,
whether because of New York’s intensity or because of its scale, it was only now that I began to grasp the almost mathematical precision with which America’s race and class joined; the depth, the ferocity of resulting tribal wars; the bile that flowed freely not just on the streets but in the stalls of Columbia’s bathrooms as well, where no matter how many times the administration tried to paint them over, the walls remained scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes. It was as if the middle ground had collapsed, utterly.
As an inveterate consumer of national media, he had to have also been aware of the tribal wars then shaping up a half a continent away, in Chicago. He was surely aware of what happened in March of 1983 when the presidential hopeful Walter Mondale and a certain mayor candidate traveled together to an event at a Catholic church in a white working-class neighborhood on Palm Sunday. It was even covered in People magazine, in an article called “Hatred Walks the Streets”:
As Congressman Harold Washington, the black Democrat who would be mayor, arrived, he was met with jeers and epithets: “Blacks go home. Get out of our neighborhood.” Many of the people clinging to lampposts and standing on cars claimed to be lifelong Democrats, but they taunted Washington with placards proclaiming their new allegiance to his Republican opponent, Bernard Epton, 61.
The Rev. Francis Ciezadlo, who had invited both Epton (he declined) and Washington, led former Vice-President Walter Mondale and the candidate past a door defaced overnight with the spray-painted message “Nigger die.” The mood of the pastor’s flock was far from welcoming. In the church vestibule Washington and Mondale sized up the situation and left abruptly. A lawyer on Washington’s staff, a veteran of the civil rights marches of the 1960s, was stunned by the demonstration’s virulence. “It’s like Alabama was,” he said. Later Washington related the incident to the congregation of his own all-black Progressive Community Church. “We went waving the good hand, the healing hand,” he proclaimed, “so you can understand the shock and chagrin when we were confronted by an angry mob.