The great state of New York, famous for a thing or two besides hosting my birth a half-century ago, has lately regaled us with its gubernatorial disasters. First Eliot Spitzer was elected governor in a landslide, then he was overtaken by a firestorm of accusations of using state employees to harass his opponents, and finally he was swept out of office by a tsunami of a prostitution scandal. The guy who trudged in to pick up the debris was a fellow named David Paterson, handpicked by Spitzer to be a Lieutenant-Governor with no real role in actual administration. You would think that a fellow who landed on top of the heap through a perverse series of unintended consequences would have the good grace to keep a low profile. But you would be wrong.
Governor Paterson chose the other day to insert himself into the Presidential campaign. He responded publicly to the practice of mocking Barack Obama for his years of being a ‘community organizer’. Sarah Palin effectively scathed the opposition by defining her prior job as mayor as being “something like a community organizer… only with actual responsibilities.” Since that time, it has been clear by listening to elected Republicans or campaign spokespeople that it was open season on the status of ‘community organizer’. That was changed overnight from a badge of honor to a mordant punch line.
Paterson lashed out at this rhetoric, accusing it of being a fig leaf for racism. In other words, it had become common among blacks to create community organizations to relieve inner-city poverty. Some very fine individuals had played this role. Some others may well have abused it, turning it into a springboard for personal gain. Thus, a nasty racist might choose to belittle black people without saying so directly, by simply mocking the title of ‘community organizer’. Now, Paterson could well have had a point in a different time and a different place. Here in the Presidential campaign, his charge can actually be disproved.
If you notice, that particular thrust in combating Obama was not tried before the Republican convention. For a comedic specialist like myself, this was a very alluring target. I would have ordinarily been quick to puncture this pretension. There was one problem, both from the perspective of honest critique and from the perspective of effective polemics. There was no way I could poke fun at that title without being certain it was hollow. All the Republican candidates and advisors were in the same boat. It would be highly imprudent to risk being confronted with lineups at Obama rallies and press conferences of one beneficiary after another. So what we watched closely was the Democrat convention.
Try to imagine this scene. Republicans all go around sneering at the position of community organizer, implying that Obama did nothing for those three years but burnish his political credentials. Suddenly the huge stage at the Democrat convention becomes the scene of an immense display of gratitude from all the people he helped. One by one they come out and tell touching little stories about how he changed their lives. They came to him broken, hopeless, disconsolate. They were laid off at the plant. They were turned down, turned on and turned out. As soon as they came into his office, their lives changed magically. He put his arms around them and promised everything would be all right. He started making phone calls and signing papers; before you know it, educational opportunities beckoned and employment resulted. Now they live happily in suburban homes, their children attending the best universities.
So not a peep was heard. Candidates, spokespeople, advisors, columnists all held their fire… and their breaths. They watched the stage at the convention. No one had announced that this would happen, but it was a natural for a spontaneous demonstration. If a few such families came out with bouquets of flowers in their hands and tears of gratitude in their eyes, no one would have ever heard the slightest whisper of ridicule against Barack’s years organizing whatever it was he organized however the heck he organized it.
When the Democrat convention passed without a single heartwarming heart-tugging tale from a single breathing human being, the radar of observers began to ring loudly. Where was the community? Where was all the organization? Then, and only then, was the taboo removed. Thenceforth ‘community organizer’ was wide open to attack. So until such time as the organized community steps forward and tells us how our Presidential aspirant showed the early flashing of his leadership genius in turning their lives around, I join Sarah Palin in scoffing.