POLITICS MARCH 20, 2008
Save for the odd occurrence of a black contestant managing to win more than fifteen cents on “Deal or No Deal,” I rarely feel any racial pride. I’ve never experienced even the slightest pang of national pride either, yet this election cycle having cast my lot behind Senator Barack Obama, I often find myself wearing the wry, proud smile one uses to greet newborn babies, friends newly released from jail, obedient puppies, and colleagues whose latest books have ended up on the bestseller list.
Early on in the presidential race, I never understood what the big deal was about the junior senator from Illinois. I’d turn to the TV, read an interview, download an op-ed piece hoping to get some insight into why everyone was so excited. I didn’t get it. Where was the vaunted professorial intellect? The galvanizing charisma? All I saw was a man with a suspect afro and an even more suspect health plan mispronouncing Taliban the same way Governor Schwarzenegger mispronounces California. The Tal-ee-ban.
Okay, I liked that he seemed genuine. The smile wasn’t too forced. He didn’t fawn over babies or act overly deferential to the elderly and the wounded war vets. He punked Tavis Smiley and raised the blackles of a bunch of other Negroes I can’t stand. Bob Johnson, a man who made his fortune peddling video opiates to masses, hinted to Obama’s drug use. Andrew Young, who was a congressman at 40, accused the Senator, 46, of being too young to be President. Rapper 50 Cent, whose claim to fame is in being a street corner repository for bullets, endorsed Senator Clinton because Obama might get shot. All that was fun to watch, but none of it explained his ascendancy.
Obama’s star power is partly a testament to the miasma of incompetency rising from the nation’s capitol. In some respects Obama is to Bush and post-9/11 America as Adenauer was to Hitler and post-war Germany, and Tony Dungy was to Sam Wyche and the hapless ’95 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s change. He’s new. He’s completely unidentifiable with the blunders, war crimes, and bad play-calling of the previous administration. It was no accident Adenauer was a Nazi dissident, and it’s no accident Obama and Dungy are African-American. In white male bastions that aren’t subject to affirmative action bylaws—such as head football coach, late night talk show host, and President of the United States—blacks, women, and other marginalized folks often are considered for the job only when things seemingly can’t get any worse.
Yes, I know that after his resounding victory in the Iowa caucus, pundits decided that Barack’s win proved that race was of political inconsequence, but I bet that they thought the same thing the day after O.J. Simpson was arrested. You mean to tell me that if Gore had won the 2000 election and Iraq had never been invaded, that Barack would be the Democratic frontrunner? What would have been his campaign slogan? Sameness in ’08! Status Quo—Vote for the Bro!
Just the other day Geraldine Ferraro was quoted as saying, “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position, and if he was a woman [of any color] he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
Never mind the fact that I agree with the folks at Bossip.com, that if Obama were white, the Democratic nomination would be over—and that if Hillary were black, she’d be Star Jones, and that if she were a black male, she’d be mayor of Detroit—it’s obvious that Obama’s candidacy isn’t solely a matter of timing. His political narrative is not the fictional happenstance that placed Douglass Dilman into the Oval Office in Irving Wallace’s The Man and cast Chris Rock into the Blockbuster bargain bin in Head of State. Barack has more going for him than good timing, the proper complexion, and the appearance of marital fidelity. He’s got cool, and cool is the ultimate transcendent.
It’s a jazz man equipoise that has served him well. When the Clintons accused Obama of being a proponent of Ronald Reagan’s ideas and of falsifying his anti-war stance, it was his coolness under fire that allowed his being quoted out of context to become an opportunity for him to recontextualize his ideology and leadership style. It’s a cool that permits him to laugh off the slight of a debate moderator asking about Bill Clinton’s being the first black president.
"I would have to investigate more Bill’s dancing abilities … before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother," Obama responded.
I finally bought into the hype. “That was cool.” I thought. “I bet dude knows how many chambers there are in the Wu Tang.”
Nobody—not Sharpton, not Bill Bradley, not Muskie, not Humphrey, not Chisolm, not one of his generation’s cool presidential forebears—has ever contemplated using dancing ability as a measuring stick for any damn thing. For me, it was the equivalent to Hillary’s New Hampshire diner blues—a sympathetic peek underneath the pancake make-up they both wear incessantly.
It’s not so much Barack’s blackness that makes him hard to attack so much as it is his unaffected cool, because the state of being f’able is ineffable. How can you find the words to attack something that there are no words for?
What’s impressed me about Obama is that like any truly cool person, he doesn’t seem to know how cool he is—although lately his campaign has started to feel a bit like watching Al Pacino in Sea of Love. Remember cringing in the theater, as Pacino acknowledged and embraced his cinematic cool? Transmogrified into a screaming nebbishy shadow of himself? The strange karate chop moves? His voice rising to feverish pitches for no apparent reason except that it worked in Dog Day Afternoon? Serpico ain’t been the same since. And Obama hasn’t been the same since Ohio, Texas, and Ferraro.
Barack’s hipness quotient has by no means fallen to the Any Given Sunday depths of Pacino’s, but he’s using his laidback, phlegmatic reserve in the same way Pacino uses his histrionics—as a crutch. Only now the Hugo Boss stoicism that wowed the Iowans, South Carolinians, and Oprahites comes off not as icy but as weak. He’s letting Keith Olbermann and Maureen Dowd fight his battles for him.
A friend of mine says that what endeared her most to Obama is that he didn’t have the defeated mien that most African-Americans hide behind a fake smile, a tightly-woven set of cornrows, or if not a white spouse, then the white weekend jump-off. But as of late, given his soft responses to Clinton’s attack ads, my friend feels that Barack is beginning to look like “any other black motherfucker.” Bowed and beleaguered. Looking more and more like “the bargainer” in Shelby Steele’s “challenger/bargainer” Darwinist black taxonomy (politically-correct euphemisms for “uppity niggers” and “Uncle Toms,” respectively)—another defeated, voiceless accommodationist, whose campaign is doomed to fail because he must walk some slack tightrope that spans his white patronage and black base.
I was inclined to agree with my friend’s observation. Barack is starting to look a bit world-weary. The smile seems forced. The eyes don’t sparkle as bright. But if I take a step back, I see that he hasn’t lost his cool. In fact, his cool has only deepened. While under the utmost duress, he’s reached that transcendental stasis that back in the day the homies referred to as “maintaining.” Cops got your face pressed against the wall for no good reason, and someone asks how you’re doing? You’re maintaining. Bills due? Maintaining. Sitting through another agonizingly stilted Halle Berry performance? Maintaining. Running the first credible campaign for the White House, and Shelby Steele calls you not a challenger, but a bargainer? Maintaining.
Yet isn’t the hero always at his coolest when the outcome is in doubt? When times are toughest and knuckleheads like me are mistaking your passivity for cowardice? Right now Obama is Jackie Robinson circa 1947, standing on third, working the base path, plotting to steal home plate while feigning dumbfoundedness to the slurs hurled from the grandstand and the press box, from opponents and supposed teammates. He’s Fonzi facing the Malachi brothers after they’ve put Pinky Tuscadero out of commission with the infamous Malachi Crunch. He’s Toshiro Mifune, hand over the bullet hole in his belly, charging the bandit leader with one last desperate sword thrust. He’s Mary J. Blige all day everyday.
Win, lose, or dream ticket draw, his coolness will prevail. And if nothing else, it will shame Will Smith from running in 2016.
Paul Beatty is a novelist and poet. He is the author of, most recently, Slumberland.