A black president, but America remains troubled

Watching President Obama’s acceptance speech in the early hours of that November morning, one had the feeling that history, for one of those seldom moments in life, was tangible, material… almost touchable.

It could have been the lateness of the hour or the cheap wine, but I was sure this was a demarcation point in American history – just as significant as the Gettysburg address or the falling of the Berlin Wall.

Its true impact is the remit of historians yet to come, though even the most dismissive of their discipline will surely note the general and widespread welcome that accompanied Obama’s victory. When else has the world rallied so universally around the story of one man?

However, lost behind the placards and crowds, overlooked by a media carouselled by the public mood were those who felt not so much the comforting hand of history, but a sharp jab to the stomach.

Racists from the wrong end of the Republic were dismayed. Those of equally bigoted bent around the globe no doubt felt the same. Yet a more subtle form of racism has since emanated from a hard-right fringe of political commentators for whom Obama’s election sticks in the craw.

We all winced at those moments during John McCain’s campaign when Republican housewives offered the microphone would use the moment to question Obama’s heritage.

“He’s a Muslim and an Arab,” was an oft repeated charge from the flag-waving throng.

These allegations have wandered even further down an intellectual cul-de-sac in recent months with a small group of conservatives actively seeking to delegitimise the election through increasingly wild claims about Obama’s birthplace.

Know as Birthers, the attackers are directly questioning Obama’s eligibility to be president by suggesting the Hawaiian-born Democrat was, in fact, born in Kenya, despite firm evidence to the contrary, including Obama’s birth certificate, issued by the Republican-held state.

The White House press office has even taken the step of placing the certificate online, making it freely available to download. However, the Birthers maintain the certificate is a forgery, thus making his presidency illegal under Article II of the U.S. constitution.

These claims have been widely vilified in the American press, yet the whispering campaign continues, some going as far as to suggest Obama is a plant, a Muslim agent, the centrepiece of an international conspiracy to take over the USA. Would the far right go down this road if Obama were anything but black? If Arnie, a non US-born white Republican, was to suggest a change in the constitution allowing him to run for the top job, it would be interesting to see what, if any, outcry would follow.

Unfortunately the Birthers – a collection of activists and conspiracy kooks – have received encouragement from some quarters with popular commentators, including radio host Rush Limbaugh and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, adding credence to their claims.

Recent weeks have seen plenty of disenchantment with the current administration, with conservatives rallying around town hall meetings to protest at healthcare reform. Is it Obama who is the source of their angst or his reforms? For the majority, it is probably the latter. Having been preached to about the evils of socialism since the end of the Second World War, is it any surprise that your average American is voicing concern over Obama’s proposed healthcare plans?

The Birthers have clearly benefited from a credulous population, many of whom will turn automatically to a conspiracy theory, comforted by the feeling that at least they know “the truth”. You hardly need to trawl the internet to find thousands of sites dedicated to ill-considered theories surrounding 9/11, the holocaust, the moon landings and now Obama’s birth.

During the election, many analysts felt uncomfortable predicting the outcome because of the Bradley Effect – a theory suggesting that some white voters wouldn’t vote for Obama simply because he is black. That Obama was elected suggests that the effect was minimal, though we’ll never truly know.

As such, the current town hall challenges facing the administration are more likely to be a result of the president’s progressive policies (warped by Republicans shouting “communism” at every opportunity) than the colour of his skin.

But the fact a conspiracy theory as bizarre as the Birthers’ can take root in the U.S. shows that, for all the optimism surrounding Obama’s win, America remains a society deeply troubled by race.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

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The country that came in from the cold

Just before noon, the time set for the passing of power, Dick Cheney, seen by many critics as the malign puppet master responsible for the Bush regime’s most nefarious deeds, was pushed in a wheelchair to the inauguration podium. Having pulled his back moving office, he appeared slumped, in pain, broken. It was a potent metaphor for a country equally debilitated; mired in war and facing an uncertain economic future.

Yet the swathe of flags and banners, upwards of 2 million, which fluttered between the cold stones of Washington’s famous shrines, spoke of nothing but optimism as Barak Hussein Obama took the stage to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Millions more watched on TV and via the Internet as the first African American to hold such high office delivered a speech that would do little for the Vice President’s recuperation, yet offered hope and belief to a stricken nation.

Most of those tightly packed into the National Mall and shivering from the bitter cold, couldn’t see the ceremony and were forced to watch the inauguration unfold on huge TV screens. It didn’t matter. The throng that stretched from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial were there not to witness history but to participate in its creation. It was clear that the weeks since Obama’s victory at the polls had done little to quell the country’s appetite for a new dawn. At best this was a cleansing of the soul, at worst an exorcism, as America’s demons were drawn out and banished.

“We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America,” he began.

It was a sobering start, setting the tone for what was to be a solemn message. Conciliatory remarks had been made towards the Bush administration in recent days however it soon became evident that these good relations would not extend to the inaugural speech. Indeed, the denouement of outgoing regime, the most unpopular in living memory, was to witness an address that not only failed rehabilitate the 43rd president’s reputation or legacy but actively stamped on it.

“Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

He continued: “homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our healthcare is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

It was a sombre assessment of the nation’s state and a clear repudiation of the outgoing administration. Those attached to the Bush camp sat just yards from the microphone must have shifted uneasily at the tone of the message. Still, worse was to come.

“We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The words echoed down the Mall, a clear nod to recent foreign and domestic policy, seen by many as a betrayal of values enshrined in the American constitution. Invoking history, the assault continued: “our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

How Bush will be viewed by history is unknown. Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, rendition, Afghanistan, Katrina – words synonymous with the administration post 9/11. Should the project in Iraq succeed, history may glance more kindly on W, but for now he remains the symbol of America’s woes. Equally, how Obama deals with the terrorist threat over the forthcoming term will go a long way to defining his presidency, and there was a word of warning for the fanatics who will no doubt be looking to test the new man’s resolve.

“We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

The address also contained a mollifying message to the world: “to the grandest capitals and to the smallest villages, we are friends to those who seek a future of peace and dignity.”

Though short of a truly memorable one-liner, the address marked not only a transition in power but a shift in ideology as America once again became “ready to lead.”

For the millions on the Mall, including huge numbers of African Americans, the substance of the address paled in comparison to the significance of the day. Whatever policy changes unfold during Obama’s term, his election – that of an African American – has altered the character of America forever. Should his ideology hold firm, the ship, which, according to the country’s detractors, has been steered so ably off course since the collapse of the World Trade Centre, may once again find itself heading roughly in the direction of true north.

For the time being at least America strides confidently towards the future. Dick Cheney, flaccid in his chair, was wheeled away from the podium, down the red carpet and into history.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

McCain’s last chance to change the course of history

Tomorrow the two presidential campaigns will intersect for the third and final debate at Hofstra University, New York with Barak Obama likely to be ahead anywhere from two to ten points in the polls. Yet US elections, especially in recent history, have been tight affairs and with no one quite sure what impact race or the economic crisis will have at the ballot box, the outcome for November 4th remains far from clear.

Should John McCain defy current thinking and become the 44th president of the United States it will be on a pledge of low taxation, strong military leadership and an end to excessive Government spending. A McCain election promise that hasn’t been as trumpeted is a pledge to introduce an equivalent of Prime Ministers Questions to US politics.

Judging by the first two presidential debates and the vice-presidential contest between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, it would be a welcome and worthwhile measure. Due to the vagaries of the election process, teams of negotiators from both sides set about boiling down the Live TV Debate format to what is essentially a shared 90 minute advert, each candidate given the minimal amount of time to speak on any particular subject.
This lessens the opportunity for candidates to stray off-message or, more ruinously, make an election-defining faux pas. The reasons for this are understandable; a face-to-face debate is an uncontrollable set-up, anathema to the political kingmakers behind the scenes.

Great debaters don’t necessarily make good leaders (William Hague is testament to that). However, a more open format might offer greater insight into the candidate’s character as well as their suitability to rule. It would also make the events far more compelling for the vast numbers that tune in. Unfortunately, direct confrontation is not part of the entertainment.

The first debate in Mississippi between Obama and McCain was staid, even sedate.  Both candidates remained stridently on-message; self-regulation avoided even the briefest sojourn from the script. When a clash did look imminent (courtesy of a question on foreign relations) the spark was quickly doused by a format that required candidates to move swiftly onto the next issue. This was debate in name only.

The subsequent vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden held in St Louis was an equally tepid offering, despite the unpredictable nature of both candidates. Both were seen as potential liabilities by their parent campaigns as the garrulous, gaff-prone Democrat took on the inexperienced and increasingly bewildered Republican.

More than 70 million tuned in expecting a car crash; the only question was who would spin off first. Yet both Palin and Biden exited 90-minutes later unscathed. Again, a format designed to limit opportunity for direct verbal sparring resulted in banality, neither candidate offering more than media-friendly sound bites and mangled syntax. Palin did offer up one bizarre moment of note suggesting that environmental problems were cyclical rather than anthropogenic; yet this may not have proved such a strange assertion to the less environmentally-conscious viewers in heartland USA.

Biden emphasised the need for fundamental change in economic and foreign policy. Palin was less specific, suggesting that troubled nation need only adopt small-town values to once again become Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill”. Nothing was exposed by either candidate. Most importantly for the respective campaigns both left the podium without mishap, leaving the circus to pack up and roll on to Nashville for the second debate between Obama and McCain.

The first presidential debate to be broadcast live on TV was in September 1960, when John F Kennedy stood opposite Richard Nixon in a New York studio. The event offered a portentous insight into the role TV was to play in future elections. The first debate focused on domestic issues, with Nixon offering far more substance than his young rival from Massachusetts. Indeed, the radio audience almost universally agreed that Nixon had won. Yet the 70million who watched the debate on TV (a record at the time) saw it very differently.

Nixon had refused to wear makeup for the cameras, leaving him looking haggard, sweating, ill and old. In contrast, Kennedy came across as young, vibrant and healthy. It provided an early political victory for style over substance. Kennedy went on to win the election (by as little as 100,000), with most commentators agreeing that the debate had played a decisive role.

During the early months of the McCain campaign, the Arizona senator had revelled in the small, “town hall-style” meetings, which allow for greater interaction with the audience. This was the format agreed to for the second debate, offering McCain an opportunity to claw back Obama’s advantage. However, Nashville’s “town hall” proved a fickle friend.

Parallels can be drawn with the Nixon/Kennedy debate. While Obama strode confidently about the platform or perched casually on his chair, his opponent tended to shuffle, appeared uncomfortable and, most damagingly, looked every one of his 72-years. Although unlikely to be decisive, this was not the big performance McCain supporters had expected.

In regards to substance, the event was nondescript, almost dull with neither offering any advance of what had previously been said. The highlight, a McCain finger pointed towards Obama, referring to him as “that one,” offered the Democrats scant ammunition, but it was nothing more than a manufactured controversy.

With four weeks to go, McCain is now clearly positioning himself as the underdog, with the debate in New York his last chance to convince the American electorate that he should be given the reigns of office. The Republicans should take heart from historical precedent. In October 2000 Al Gore led George Bush in the polls by 11 points; eight years later and Bush is still in the White House.

The question remains can a debate, particularly one in which verbal repartee is deliberately hamstrung, offer McCain any hope? Again, historical precedent suggests the Republican has a chance. In 1980, one week before the election, Jimmy Carter debated Ronald Reagan leading by five points in the polls. After the debate the numbers had switched and Reagan went on to win the election.

With less than a month to go and one debate left the race for the Whitehouse remains wide open.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.