As many of you know, I generally do not trust authority figures. Why would I, given the amount of abuse — physical and verbal — I suffered at the hands of the authority figures that were in my life growing up? My stepfather, my father, my mother, my teachers, my high school guidance counselor. I went to college with the knowledge that only a couple of folks in authority were truly trustworthy. I don’t like the police — I’ve been stopped for “walking while Black”– I think most judges hide behind their robes, and I believe that most professors are nerds making up time for all of the harassment they endured in junior high and high school.
But despite all of that, I’m generally hopeful during election years. Hopeful that someone who isn’t a wimp would stand up to all of the corrupted, self-interested fat cats of national prominence and tell them all to take a flying leap while actually being elected into office. Hopeful that an underdog will pull off the presidential upset. Hopeful that someone will say that they care about the American ideals of freedom, justice, equality and “a tide that raises all boats” and actually mean it. For maybe only the second time in my lifetime, we may actually have that person in Barack Obama.
The first time in my lifetime actually happened just before I was born, although he died when I was three years old. Lyndon Johnson’s the only president we’ve had in the last four decades who represented all of my aforementioned ideals, and yet he was a flawed individual in practicing them. Between the crippled-before-it-started War on Poverty and Vietnam, his secret tapings of meetings throughout his White House term and his simplistic understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and its late ’60s evolution, to say that LBJ was a complicated and occasionally contradictory man would be an understatement. But I do think that he believed more in America’s ideals than most of our presidents put together. He managed to get more done — good and bad — in five years than most of the presidents that followed him put together.
It was “Run Jesse Run” time when I had my first chance to vote in a presidential election, Election ’88. Yeah, he had success in South Carolina, but the highlight of his campaign came that April, when he won Michigan. Yeah, I voted for Jesse Jackson when the primaries hit New York, knowing full well that he’s lose. Most Americans, regardless of their level of education, weren’t ready for a Black president then, and definitely weren’t going to vote for Jesse Jackson. His “Hymie Town” comments from ’84 hurt him in New York. But his lack of political experience — something many voters receive with glee these days — combined with an agenda that went beyond race and class cost him. Of course, Jackson was and is as deeply a flawed person as an icon can be.
So too was and is Bill Clinton, the only “underdog” that I ever voted for who actually won an election. I distinctly remember that in the fall of ’91, after he declared himself a candidate, how all of the pundits thought this podunk governor from Arkansas a fool for running against a president with an approval rating that at one point was over ninety percent. Of course, Clinton proved them wrong. Yet despite all of his rhetoric about “a town called Hope,” I didn’t buy into Clinton practicing the ideals he preached so much about. Between “don’t ask don’t tell,” “mend it don’t end it,” Lani Guinier “not meeting his center” — whatever the heck that meant — pawning universal health care off on his wife, Monica Lewinsky, NAFTA, WTO and inconsistent policies on China, Cuba and Rwanda, Clinton represented LBJ far less and Reagan far more than most politicos are willing to admit. He just didn’t seem particularly mean while doing it. So every time I hear that dumb Maya Angelou quote about Clinton being the first Black president, I’m reminded about how successful Clinton was at fooling many of us about his dreams and ideals versus his willingness to see them through.
Here we are, ten years removed from Monicagate and one month from the fortieth anniversary of LBJ declining to run again for president — the “I will not seek, nor will I accept” speech at the end of March of ’68. I still believe in American ideals and that the role of the American president is to ensure that this nation lives up to them to the best of their abilities. Through the authority of the executive branch, through collaboration with other nations and brokering deals on both sides of the congressional aisles, even at the risk of not winning a re-election. Taking half-measures like Carter or no chances at all like Ford or Clinton in his second time aren’t what this weakened democracy needs right now.
So, even though I’m not particularly moved by anyone’s rhetoric these days, I’ve decided to hope for the best, which in this case is Obama. Reading Dreams from My Father a year ago was helpful. I’d originally seen this book in ’95 when it was first published as a remaindered item (on sale for a fraction of market price because the book was selling so poorly) and thought, “not another book about the biracial Black child struggling with his or her identity.” But I finally did read it and realized that this is the first book I’d ever read by someone who was running for president and written long before they actually ran. Meaning that if I wanted to see some sense of honesty, that I’d see it in this book. And even though the writing in the first two sections varied from non-compelling to occasionally interesting, the last third of the book was as dramatic and emotionally honest as I’ve seen in any nonfiction book. I figured if someone could be this intimate with their feelings about their upbringing and ancestry, then they at least deserved a chance to run for president.
I must admit, though, that I’m concerned for his safety, not to mention the fact that many Americans are only colorblind because they are blinded by color. Obama’s made a point of distancing himself from racialized politics, both a shrewd and uplifting move on his and his campaign’s part. At the same time, I also wonder if this is a nationalized version of what occurred with Black mayors in the ’70s and ’80s, when many were elected to clean up decades’ worth of messes left by their White predecessors. With all that, assuming that Obama makes it through, my greatest hope is that he and his administration will put themselves on the line to make American ideals more real for all of us. That ultimately is what being presidential is all about.