Hillary Clinton got some deserved criticism for her lecture about how “it took a President” to pass the Civil Rights Act (didn’t Obama prove he values the role of the President when he started running to be the next one?). But Robert Caro’s op-ed today reminds us she could have said something worse:
“Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans,” I have written, “but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.”
This isn’t poetic – it’s just offensive. Did LBJ tie African-Americans’ shoes before they left the house to vote? It should go without saying that African-Americans have been a “true part of American political life” since before the birth of the United States. Among other things, they led a movement which seized the franchise by shifting public opinion and transforming the political landscape. That movement made the difference between the days when LBJ was strategizing against Civil Rights legislation to the days when Jesse Helms must claim to support it.
Caro seems smug towards Civil Rights activists who didn’t trust Johnson’s support until they got it. No doubt which bills Johnson supported, and when he came around to support them, is indeed, as Caro says, some combination of “ambition and compassion.” It’s short-sighted for historians to lionize Johnson’s choices while disparaging the people whose vision, tactics, and courage made it possible for him to wed the two. Of course it makes a huge difference who the President is. But the Great Man Theory that tells us Lincoln freed the slaves and then Johnson gave their descendants the vote is a theory that should be in the dustbin of history by now.
Let’s remember that as we consider the progress Barack Obama’s nomination represents as well as the struggles ahead should there be an Obama presidency.
But even as the Democratic political discussion grows and engulfs him, Obama is engaged in another more personal and historical conversation – with Wright and Ellison, with his parents, and with those two tragic and prophetic figures, Lincoln and King. Obama, of course, would never be so immodest as to compare himself to either of these men. But being clear-eyed, he must see what others do: that among American politicians, he alone has the potential to one day be mentioned in the same breath.
So when I, a black man with a funny name, born in Hawaii of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, announced my candidacy for the U.S. Senate, it was hard to imagine a less likely scenario than that I would win–except, perhaps, for the one that allowed a child born in the backwoods of Kentucky with less than a year of formal education to end up as Illinois’ greatest citizen and our nation’s greatest President. In Lincoln’s rise from poverty, his ultimate mastery of language and law, his capacity to overcome personal loss and remain determined in the face of repeated defeat–in all this, he reminded me not just of my own struggles.
Strom Thurmond’s successor, Senator Lindsey Graham, apparently thought this was funny:
“We don’t do Lincoln Day Dinners in South Carolina,” he said. “It’s nothing personal, but it takes awhile to get over things.”
Steve Gilliard says Graham “is being unfairly attacked” for a perfectly innocent joke about the burning of the State Capitol and that
nothing to apologize for, because every South Carolinian knows he’s talking about Sherman’s March and not slavery.
Really? Every South Carolinan? There’s plenty to fault Lincoln for, be it his racism or his erosion of civil liberties. But for a US Senator from a state which attempted to seceed from the union and fought an extended war against the United States, a war which had little to do with slavery for the North but a great deal to do with it for the South (Apostles of Disunion I’d say makes the most succinct case here), to say of the man who is for most Americans the defining symbol of the winning side in that war – the very man murdered by a confederate havinga hard time “getting over things” in the wake of the war – that the people of his state bear him an enduring grudge is shamefully reckless. Whatever Graham’s intentions, it suggests something to the listener – be he Pennsylvanian or South Carolinian – other than disagreement with military tactics. And one can’t help but wonder whether, when Graham constructs the “We” who don’t do dinners for Lincoln, he means to speak for the descendants of slaves who worked and died in bondage in South Carolina as well.
The Nation is coming under well-deserved criticism for its cartoon on the controversy over Lincoln’s sexuality. Simply put, The Nation, unlike, say, the Weekly Standard, should know better. The problem with the cartoon has nothing to do with Lincoln and everything to do with the stupidity and irresponsibility of reinforcing stereotypes as gay men as (depending on one’s reading of the cartoon) effeminite, transvestite, or transgendered – and vice versa. Using a dress as visual short-hand for a gay man is as defensible as using a big nose as visual short-hand for a Jew. Come on. As Doug Ireland writes:
The brief paragraph from the mag’s editors introducing the letters and Grossman’s reply, as originally posted, read: “We regret it if the cartoon demeaned homosexuals, transgender people or even Log Cabin Republicans. –The Editors” (Ah, that cowardly and Clintonesque “if”…) Then, it was changed to read: “We regret if anyone was unintentionally offended. –The Editors” I can’t quite figure out what that change means in their little heads, unless it’s to excise any hint of an admission that the ‘toon “demeaned homosexuals”, as the first version put it. (Moreover, the second version is illiterate–it reads as if there are queers running around who are feeling offended without meaning to be, instead of what I suppose was meant, that the mag’s editors did not intend to offend anyone. But nobody thinks the mag’s editors sat around intentionally trying to think up ways to offend gay people, so this non-apology is puerile and avoids the real issue–one of attitude, and of judgment).
I’d say Kerry’s speech is comparable to Edwards’: it hiet each of the major points it needed to, with some good moments that were memorable in the short-term but seem un-likely to get re-aired on on C-SPAN at future conventions, and some low points too.
I’d say he did a largely effective job of talking sympathetically in about his own life in a way which personalized him while tying him to a national narrative and avoiding appearing self-aggrandizing or apologetic. His explicit gendering of his parents was irritating. His unapologetic ownership of the accomplishments of 60’s movements was gratifying. His refusal to mention gay liberation, or the gay community, was not.
It was good to hear the word “poverty,” but disappointing not to hear more about it, and particularly not to see Kerry’s support for raising the minimum wage and recognizing card count neutrality agreements touted as centerpieces of his economic plan. I did think he set forth his stance on the Bush tax cuts with admirable frankness and simplicity, and in a way which doesn’t leave the Republicans much room to maneuver.
I remain pleasantly surprised to see Kerry talking about spending more money on Head Start instead of the prison system, a welcome departure from Clinton’s strategy of apeing Republican rhetoric on crime. The fact that the line has the entire staff of The New Republic apoplectic is a good sign. Calling the “family values” crowd on not valuing families is well-deserved and long overdue. Reaching out to those who self-identify as people of faith is all well and good, but you don’t need to announce that you’re doing it. The Lincoln quote is one of the great ones in American politics, and put here to great use.