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Looking at the Obama phenomenon.

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President Mod Squad

Looking at the Obama phenomenon.

“I would ask him how he can attend a church where his mother wouldn’t be welcomed,” asserted author Shelby Steele at a Hoover Institution gathering in New York City on the eve of the final debate between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton in California before the crucial Super Tuesday polling.  Shelby Steele’s new, “A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win,” poses the intellectual puzzle of the
Obama success.

Mr. Obama has become a bargainer, and the bargain is that he will not speak of race prejudice to the white race, and the white race will not see him as threatening and will thus give him approval.  Steele argues that this bargain means that Obama is bound
from achieving the nomination he seeks, since the more he pleases the white majority, the more he disquiets the black minority which is critical to the Democratic Party.  And if he emphasizes the facts of his blackness to attract black votes, he will lose white votes.

To maintain this balance, Steele argues, Obama must abandon not only the most unusual facts of his blackness, such as his Kenyan Luo father, an often-wed Muslim, but also the unusual facts of his American white mother who made her own way in the world and guided him to Columbia and Harvard and gifted achievement.  Steele pointed to the irony that Barack Obama today attends an exclusivist church in Chicago that does not easily welcome non-black worshippers and is said to represent notions contrary to Obama’s own campaign speeches of unity.

Mr. Steele completed his book last July, before the turn of events in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina propelled Obama onto the same stage as Mrs. Clinton at the Kodak Center in Los Angeles.   Steele said he is glad that Obama is doing so well, and that he finds it encouraging that a man whose campaign policies are indistinguishable from his rival’s, and whose chief words are the innocuous “change” and “hope,” should be at the brink of the nomination.  

Hosts John Raisian and David Brady and the other guests (myself, Monica Crowley of The McLaughlin Group and HUMAN EVENTS, the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, NYU’s Tunku Varadarajan and historian Richard Brookhiser) observed the phenomenon of the first woman being this close to the nomination the first time she  runs. Some spoke of the surprising fact that John McCain has come from far back in the field and moved this close to the nomination despite the observation that he is a serial heretic to the conservative phalanx of the GOP.

In sum, everything about the nomination process in 2008 is unprecedented, unpredicted, unimaginable two months ago — not just Shelby Steele’s discerned bargainer role for Mr. Obama, but also Mrs. Clinton’s struggling Carrie Nation role and John McCain’s “old as
dirt” Buck Rogers role. 

There are no ready models.  We have never been here before.

It is as if the Mod Squad, that vacuous 1960s crime opera, has been transformed into the national melodrama. The hip black man Clarence Williams III, the glamorous blonde girl
Peggy Lipton, the ingenuous white guy Michael Cole, motoring trendily across the American landscape, mumbling and high-fiving.  Can anyone doubt that Mrs. Clinton and Barack Obama present themselves as the new wave atop the Democrats, or that John McCain presents himself as a gleeful punk rocker atop the Republicans?  And that the media love all three as franchise stars?

Then again, there is one unusual footnote of American presidential history to compare: the election of 1872.   It is so obscure a moment that at first I thought it was dismissible, yet it may be suggestive of where the republic finds itself today.   In May of 1872, with the near-certainty of the Republican sitting President Ulysses Grant’s being ready to overwhelm the unstable piety of the publisher Horace Greeley and his pals, the rump Democrats calling themselves Liberal Republicans, a collection of progressive women from the suffrage movement came together in New York City to form the Equal
Rights Party.  Nominated for president was the “Free Love” candidate, a Vanderbilt pal and Wall Street tyro, the thirty-four-year-old Victoria Woodhull, whose clarity was her weapon: “I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may . .
.” 

The Equal Rights platform was astonishingly prescient of what we now know as the social welfare government of the New Deal, the Great Society, even Compassionate Conservatism, using the phrase “cradle to grave.”  Most importantly, the vice-presidential choice, without his permission, was the famous abolitionist and Lincoln ally Frederick
Douglass. Douglass, certainly an early example of Shelby Steele’s “bargainer,” represented the non-white component of the party’s equation of extending equal rights to all citizens, male and female.

Unsurprisingly, Equal Rights was refused listing on the ballot, received no votes that were counted, and was challenged as illegitimate because Woodhull was not thirty-six years of age at the time. What is important is not how well it did but that the
party existed at all — in the era of the Klan rising and of routine brutality toward women and children — and that it received much attention in the New York press, especially in Greeley’s Tribune. Also, the Equal Rights Party was hardly repudiated by the results of
the election. Grant’s sweeping victory led him into his catastrophic second term, anew low point in American commerce and justice. Greeley’s loss  ended his effectiveness as the naïve pontificator of the bullying Republican Party.  The dormant Democratic Party was reborn from the anger at Grant, the narrow earnestness of the so-called Liberal Republicans of the North, the revanchist cunning of the ex-Confederates of the South.

What I take from this anecdote is that the single prior instance of a white feminist and a black orator running for the presidency side by side, along with a Republican elf on the scale of Horace Greeley, may have been possible just because the political stage was rotten and disregarded.  Eighteen-seventy-two was a period of surly partisanship,
infamous graft, ideological drift and bravura greed in the Republican and Democratic parties, similar to no period in American presidential history more than to 2008.

Shelby Steele acknowledged that the phenomenon of Barack Obama is not that of a politician thrusting himself upon a quiescent people but rather of a restless electorate calling out an impressionable talent such as Mr. Obama’s.  We get the kind of government we demand. Perhaps it is possible that this same public desire for fresh inspiration simultaneously beckons the skills of the reformist Mrs. Clinton and the iconoclast John McCain as well.  President Mod Squad.

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Written By

John Batchelor is a novelist and the host of the John Batchelor Show on WABC in New York and KFI in Los Angeles.

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