The time has come to pick a president
By Courtney Hayden
The phrase is, “like carrying coals to Newcastle.” Unless you’re an English miner, a Newcastle resident or both, you may not recognize it as a simile for superfluity. Newcastle-on-Tyne, you see, is famous for coal mining and exporting, so much so that as early as 1661, historian Thomas Fuller was writing, “To carry Coals to Newcastle... [is] to busy one’s self in a needless Imployment.”
Nowadays we use more modern syntax, such as, “like taking Mike Huckabee to Samford University.”
On the Baptist campus last Saturday, The Man Who Would Be Bubba found safe haven among thousands to express ideas outside the mainstream of contemporary Republican thought. He spoke with a longtime preacher’s ease of topics that make him anathema to Bush-Cheney acolytes: a national sales tax and putting faith into practice.
Noted is the irony of the GOP getting what it claimed it wished for, namely, an active Christian in contention for the presidential nomination. All those years Atwater and Rove sought to energize the base, they never meant for evangelicals to get that energized. The ‘Publicans were quite content to herd the holy into polling places to cast votes for candidates giving lip service to Bible values, but once the elections were over, the Christian Right went back to being marginalized.
The rise of Huckabee from Arkansan anonymity has given the GOP Establishment shivering fits, mainly because he is not beholden to them. He has shown disquieting willingness to forego Bush-Cheney talking points in favor of his own agenda, decidedly less billionaire-centric than the current Administration’s.
Huckabee offers shivers as well to those still inclined to think that church and state should be separated. The candidate believes, “It’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God.” To that end, Huck would amend the Constitution “so it’s in God’s standards,” thus, presumably, making it possible to render unto Caesar and God at the same time.
Barring divine intervention, Huckabee will not win the GOP nomination. Even with the help of campaign pro Ed Rollins, he cannot outflank the cynicism of both Mitt Romney and John McCain, two pols clearly capable of saying and doing anything to cadge votes. However, in getting even this close, the preachin’ politician has crashed through the stained-glass ceiling. Perhaps next cycle Huckabee will head the slate for the Theocratic Party.
Another churchgoing candidate came to town last weekend, but he worked on the Sabbath. Barack Obama drew a crowd five times the size of Huckabee’s to Bartow Arena, plowing considerably different ground than his fellow Christian the day before. Mike Huckabee may have been born in Hope, but for many in the hall Sunday, Obama personified hope.
I eavesdropped Monday on a conversation between a young pundit and a radio host at Brown University to learn what might persuade African-Americans of the candidate’s viability. The pundit, a Birmingham native who uses the tag “Bronze In Alabama,” explained to the host that he was a former “Clinton acolyte” who believed in the couple’s service to American society. “However, when President Clinton began attacking Mr. Obama, implying that he is race-limited, he drove me from them,” the young man said.
“Bronze” was put off by Bill’s comparison of Obama’s chances with Jesse Jackson’s runs in the Eighties: “The implication was that any old Negro can win a primary in South Carolina.” He went on to suggest that such poisonous rhetoric endangered the Democratic Party alliance between Northeastern liberals and Southern blacks.
Though “Bronze” said he was taken by Obama’s unapologetically African-American bearing, he saw as well a literary allusion to a character in Ralph Ellison’s epic novel, Invisible Man, viewing Obama as a real-life Todd Clifton: “a real omni-American, an individual neither defined by race or education or any of these sorts of externalities, but an individual, as Dr. King said, defined by the content of his character.”
Amid the jumbled rhetoric preceding next week’s primaries, Barack Obama has used his considerable gifts to fashion a platform of hope on which to mount his campaign. It is powerful mojo; the stuff not of mere politicking but of statesmanship. The greatest of our presidents have used hope to channel deep American desires for transformation, the worst have taken hope in vain.
Much has been made of Senator Edward Kennedy’s somewhat unexpected endorsement of Obama — it had been thought he would remain neutral longer — but a more significant Kennedy endorsement appeared Sunday in The New York Times. In an op-ed piece entitled “A President Like My Father,” Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg drew a line of succession from JFK to BHO: “It isn’t that the other candidates are not experienced or knowledgeable. But this year, that may not be enough. We need a change in the leadership of this country — just as we did in 1960.”
Even after Tuesday’s voting the campaigns continue. Barack Obama will confront the truth that there can be no New Politics as long as there are Old Politicians. Even if he surmounts the doggedness of the Clintons’ machine, he faces a fall campaign potentially the most corrosive since Andrew Jackson’s time.
No matter who bears the Republican standard, Obama will be the target of special interests entrenched and empowered by the Bush-Cheney cabal, mighty money machines at home and abroad unwilling to accede to the scrutiny of open and transparent government. They cannot afford to be displaced, so whether through Swift Boats or crooked voting machines, playing the race card or the Tony Rezko card, they will use every means at their disposal to maintain Republican control of the unitary executive branch they have helped forge in the last seven years.
Should Barack Obama somehow triumph over those odds, all he has to do then is figure out how to govern what’s left of the nation. It is the luck of the oarsman: if you manage to run the rapids, you get to go over the waterfall...
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist.
Photos by Jonathan Purvis.