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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King Jr’

By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-21-09

Inauguration Day, 2009 in Washington, DC was grueling but inspiring. The minus 8 degree cold was bone-chilling. The crowd of two million plus was frequently suffocating. The 20,000-officer security cordon was smothering. Yet people endured the discomfort good-naturedly. Neither cold nor crowds nor mile-long detours from blocks of blocked off streets would deter Obama’s faithful from celebrating his historic ascent.

Fueled particularly by Washington, DC’s African-Americans, who came out in droves, Obamania gripped America’s grand but all too frequently cynical capital city. The outer lane of “K” Street, infamous for its slick lobbyists, became a bazaar with hawkers selling cheap knickknacks emblazoned with messianic sentiments: “Yes We Did” on a bumper sticker; “Never Give Up on Your Dreams,” on a commemorative booklet”; “The Healing Process Has Begun” on a banner; “A Legacy of Hope” featuring beatific images of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King on a poster; and “Thank You Jesus, We Never Would Have Made It Without You” on a T-shirt. One Moroccan immigrant kept saying, “Only in America, only in America,” as he watched the self-described skinny kid with a funny name become president amid such a worshipful crowd.

At the inauguration, Obama seemed sobered by America’s unrealistic expectations despite such crushing challenges. While Obama’s inauguration was moving, his address was muted. Now, Obama is such a master speechmaker that, as with Babe Ruth swinging a bat, anything less than a game-winning homer disappoints. Still, Obama seemed determined to manage Americans’ expectations, warning that America’s problems could not be solved simply by sloganeering.

Obama understands that the growing cult of personality surrounding him is a great asset, giving him a mandate to succeed. But he also knows that hope is like a balloon, if properly inflated it soars into the sky, dazzling, delighting, and elevating; but if overblown, it pops. The frenzied hopes his election triggered could sour.

Shrewdly, pragmatically, constructively, Obama wants to channel this energy into a badly needed sense of communal renewal. His campaign slogan was “Yes We Can,” not “Yes I Can.” He is continuing the initiative he began with his lyrical, extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, trying to articulate a vision of liberal American nationalism that works for the 21st century. Obama’s repudiation in 2004 of the “red America” versus “blue America” division, his inaugural celebration of “our patchwork heritage” as a “strength not a weakness,” seeks to forge a new nationalist center that heals America’s wounds, and revives a sense of community.

Barack Obama is a great nationalist. He understands that while nationalism can be ugly and destructive, it can also be a force for good. Nationalism is community writ large; it can pull individuals out of their selfish orbits, launching them into a universe of good works and great achievements. In his inaugural address, trying to solve the decades-long debate about the size of government, Obama reframed the question, saying, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” He then articulated an activist nationalist vision that empowered the people, saying “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”

Similarly, regarding foreign policy, Obama tried to resolve the fight between realists emphasizing America’s needs and idealists hoping to spread democracy and other American ideals worldwide. Thanks to the backlash against George W. Bush’s overselling of democratic hopes in Iraq and elsewhere, the realist school is ascendant – frequently displaying a strong isolationist streak. Obama’s initial campaign focus on just getting out of Iraq played to Americans’ historic isolationism. But minutes into the job, Obama already acknowledged that the world looks very different when viewed from the Oval Office’s big, bullet-proof, picture window. Moreover, the surge’s success in Iraq stabilized the situation, precluding a quick withdrawal. And while Obama relies on some realist advisers, he is imprisoned by his own soaring rhetoric and aspirations. Obama does not just want his administration focusing on what is right for his country; he wants what is right for his country to be right for the world. Just as true isolationism is impossible for the world’s only superpower; neither can any American, let alone Obama the hope-generator, avoid the idealistic impulses in the country Obama’s hero Abraham Lincoln deemed “the last best hope of earth.” For all those reasons, Obama declared when inaugurated: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

In launching his administration, Obama has demonstrated that he just might govern as he speechifies, creating a “Yes We Can” muscular moderation that advances a substantive agenda in ways millions of Americans in the big, broad, pragmatic center can applaud. And during this hopeful moment, when the Obama presidency has only happy tomorrows ahead and no embarrassing yesterdays – yet – we should all join in hoping that this extraordinary politician can live up to the best of his rhetoric and the heady aspirations people are projecting on him, in the streets of Washington, and throughout the world.

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HNN, January 13, 2008

[Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. ]

Not surprisingly, as the Democratic race heats up, it is getting ugly, and silly. Senator Hillary Clinton is on the defensive, accused of disrespecting Martin Luther King, Jr., on the eve of King’s birthday celebrations, and just before the heavily African-American South Carolina primary. One of Senator Barack Obama’s supporters, the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, with no explanation or accompanying quotation, accused Mrs. Clinton of “taking cheap shots at, of all people, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” Senator John Edwards chimed in too, equally histrionically. No matter who we support, historians should be appalled – and should object strongly – to this distorted and demagogic charge.

On Fox News the other day, Senator Clinton said: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done.” Obama’s people pounced, accusing Hillary of discounting King’s centrality to Civil Rights. Obama himself has denied his campaign fed the attacks against what he made sure to call “unfortunate” and “ill-advised” remarks. Edwards also joined the pile-on, telling more than 200 people at a predominantly black Baptist church: ”I must say I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change that came not through the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King but through a Washington politician…. Those who believe that real change starts with Washington politicians have been in Washington too long and are living a fairy tale.”

Predictably, as her surrogates attack Edwards and Obama for demagoguery, Senator Clinton is back-pedaling furiously. Alas, by the time Clinton finishes her damage control effort, she will probably join Obama and Edwards in distorting the truth.

In fact, Hillary Clinton gave a pithy, accurate summary of an incredibly complicated period of time. She started with Dr. King as the visionary. She acknowledged Dwight Eisenhower’s disinterest and John Kennedy’s limited impact in implementing that vision. And she credited Lyndon Johnson with his great skill in translating Civil Rights leaders’ grand aspirations into lasting – and significant – Civil Rights legislation.

Moreover, it was perfectly appropriate for a presidential candidate to draw the lesson “it took a president to get it done.” One of the president’s central tasks, especially when spurred by passionate reformers like King, is to convert the high wattage energy of the moral crusader into a more standard and less combustible current for widespread domestic consumption. Edwards’ assumption that this process puts the dreaded “Washington politician” at the start of the process rather than the end of the process, is a willful distortion. Obama’s claim that this description somehow “diminished King’s role” is an ignorant misrepresentation.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the twentieth century’s most influential Americans. Putting his accomplishments in context, suggesting he could not have done it alone, does not diminish him in any way. In fact, by placing him in the proper context, by treating his achievements accurately and proportionately, we give him the respect he – and the millions who fought for justice with him – deserve.

P.S. Whatever high mark she earned with her MLK-LBJ summary, Hillary earns a “C” in history for her remark on Sunday when speaking to black parishioners at a Presbyterian church in Columbia, S.C. She said: “Many of you in this sanctuary were born before African-Americans could vote.” Unless she was speaking to the oldest congregation in history, of people born in 1849 or earlier, she needed more subtlety in that formulation. The fifteenth amendment, ratified in 1870, gave African-Americans the vote — although it took the Voting Rights Act (thanks to LBJ again) and the Civil Rights movement (thanks to MLK and others) for this right to be enjoyed fully with minimal harassment.

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