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Our Obama Bargain (Part 2 of 3) | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Our Obama Bargain (Part 2 of 3)

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.

In Dreams of My Father he refers to his awareness of Washington’s election obliquely, ironically (it’s an oblique and ironic book). But not much of what happened when Harold Washington took office in Chicago was oblique or ironic. Things were pretty straightforward. “What do you know about Chicago anyway?” he depicts himself being asked in his job interview.

“I thought for a moment. ‘Hog butcher to the world,’ I said finally. Marty shook his head. ‘The butcheries closed a while ago.’ ‘The Cubs never win.’ ‘True.’ ‘America’s most segregated city,’ I said. ‘A black man, Harold Washington, was just elected mayor, and white people don’t like it.’ ”

Obama got the job, of course, and moved to Hyde Park in 1985. He describes how, from the setting of his barber shop, “black people talked about Chicago’s mayor, with a familiarity and affection. His picture was everywhere: on the walls of shoe repair shops and beauty parlors, still glued to lampposts from the last campaign, even in the windows of the Korean dry cleaners and Arab grocery stores… ‘Had to be here before Harold to understand what he means to this city,’ Smitty said. ‘Before Harold, seemed like we’d always be second-class citizens.’…. Clumps of hair fell into my lap as I listened to the men recall Harold’s rise.”

What is fascinating, and telling, is how the rest of the story simply disappears from the book. Obama gets busy organizing in the decrepit far South Side community of Rolseland, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous poverty, until his frustrations send him to law school to learn “things that would help me ring about real change.” The black mayor has a tiny, awkward walk-on role in a ceremony celebrating a small victory in a fight concerning asbestos; the broader context of the politics in the city Washington was trying to govern while Obama was there are nowhere to be found.

And what was that context? Municipal civil war. Washington came out of the box waving the good hand, the healing hand: “No one in this city will be safe from my fairness,” he said, with easy, witty aplomb. His people wore buttons bearing the word “FAIRNESS.” The twenty-nine organization alderman led by machine hacks Ed Vrydolyak and Ed Burke, turned a deaf ear. Domination was their game. Just like Republicans today.

Voting as a block but not with enough votes to override Washington’s vetoes, the Vrdolyak 29 destroyed the mayor’s ability to govern. The Wall Street Journal proposed Chicago’s informal motto, “The City That Works,” be replaced by “Beirut by the Lake.” City government practically ceased to function—though government also did manage to function, in some places, in the most perverse of ways. Here in Chicago, people tell stories about council wars. About how, if you lived in one of the “Vrdolyak 29” neighborhoods, somehow your garbage managed to get picked up. The councilmen and their ward bosses simply commandeered city garbage trucks—which they also deployed in creative ways, for instance dumping a heap of garbage in a parking lot, staged for a press conference in which Vrdolyak pointed to his fetid prop to demonstrate how Washington was failing as mayor.

Alderman would retreat into back rooms to negotiate peace. Writes Gary Rivlin in his definitive history, Fire on the Prairie, “A battery of reporters would camp outside their meeting room, waiting for word of any compromise. There never was any news to report…. If anything, they had only dug in deeper.” “You asshole,” one alderman would say to another. Or “you little pipsqueak.” Vrdolyak insinuated that Washignton was gay. (“To someone of your gender I should say ‘pretty please.’ ”) Whites and blacks attacked one another. Concluded the publication Chicago Reporter, “Firebombings throughout the Chicagoland area and a six-hour stoning attack on the home of a black family in ‘The Island,’ an all-white enclave…highlighted a year of racial violence.”

Barack Obama saw had front row seats for this. Though he’s never really said anything about it.

In retrospect, if the gods of political biography meant to devise a workshop to teach a budding politician about the blunt limits of a conciliatory attitude in making political change, they would have plunked that politician down in Chicago in the mid-1980s.

And this was where Barack Obama was plunked, in 1985.

Just as significantly, he saw how the council wars ended.

For if the gods of political biography meant to devise a workshop to teach a budding politician about how the way to end irreconcilable conflict between political tribes was not jawboning conciliation but blunt, mean shortcuts, administrative work-arounds to change the rules of the game, even if they might not look pretty in paper—think trillion-dollar platinum coins and filibuster reform—they would have made sure he lived in Chicago in 1986. Which was when Washington’s allies sued the city to invalidate the ward maps drawn up in the 1980 census (in a city 40 percent white, 40 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic there were thirty-three white alderman out of fifty and only one Hispanic). They won, got a 25-25 pro- and anti-Washington split, and, with the mayor casting the tie-breaking votes, suddenly majority ruled.

Obama said in the speech announcing his presidential run that in those years Chicago, he “received the best education I ever had.”

But what was that education?

It’s a question with two equally interesting possible answers. The first is that all this made not much of an impression at all—that perhaps he was so wrapped up in his ground-level antipoverty work that the big picture of City Hall politics didn’t much feel relevant to him, a distraction up at 30,000 feet; or maybe that he was in denial about the whole thing, cosseting himself in a political version of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change…” Or maybe that he was just choosing his battles.

The second possibility is that it made an enormous impression on him—in fact redoubling his budding inclination to retreat into fantasies of conciliation: that maybe Washington was doing it wrong; that maybe if he had just been more rhetorically persuasive, more fair, he could have made lions lay down with lambs. Or something. That certainly seemed to be the the attitude he took to Harvard Law School—where he believed it to have been vindicated. Remember all those famous stories of how he healed the acrimony at the Law Review by convincing conservative members that he trusted and respected them. He “was a non-combatant. He was mature and held himself above the fray. He was courteous, decent, and respectful,” one of the conservatives on the Review later recalled. That worked out just fine, supposedly. So why shouldn’t it work in Washington?

But staying above the fray is a curious political strategy when civil wars are going down. Some of us find it the Achilles heel of the Obama presidency. But now that his second term is underway, it’s probably not going going away. It’s so deep in him. Maybe it has something to do with a particularly interesting interval in his childhood. I’ll be turning to that story next.

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