”We are one people.” It is easy to say, but we have struggled over it for 232 years. The charismatic speaker, who once wrestled with his biracial identity and found his footing as a community organizer in south Chicago, brings a conviction that gives people goosebumps. It is a vision that clashes with the hard truth voiced by Bruce Springsteen: ”No secret my friend / You can get killed just for living in / Your American skin.” Barack Obama knows it is hard, and includes GLBT Americans in his call to action.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) points out that Martin Luther King was 34 when he said, ”I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”’ Thomas Jefferson was 33 when he drafted that creed. If Obama wins, he will be 47 at his inauguration — a year older than Bill Clinton, four years older than Jack Kennedy, five years older than Teddy Roosevelt. His toughness is evident in his remarkable coolness in the face of smears by the Clintons.
To be sure, Obama has fought back against those attacks. Former President Clinton, who switches between charming elder statesman and eager practitioner of win-at-any-cost politics, blamed the divisiveness on Obama and the media, and used civil-rights veterans John Lewis and Andrew Young as trump cards instead of addressing charges that he was behaving like the late GOP operative Lee Atwater. Those who fault Obama for fighting back must have admired Kerry’s month of silence after the ”swiftboat” attacks in 2004.
Obama notes that the Clintons’ attacks began only after he started rising in the polls. One of his central messages is, ”Change doesn’t come from the top down, but from the bottom up.” By contrast, Hillary Clinton implicitly compared herself to Lyndon Johnson, emphasizing his key role in passing civil-rights legislation. What was patronizing about that comment was the implication that change chiefly depends on Washington politicians.
Obama raised a stronger vision of leadership on Jan. 20 at King’s own Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, with a speech of rare grace and power. At one point, after saying ”none of our hands are entirely clean,” he admonished his audience: ”We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.” This was not pandering.
Obama challenges gay people as well by refusing to respond to opponents of gay equality with boycotts. As he wrote in response to the controversy over a campaign appearance by antigay gospel singer Donnie McClurkin, ”We will not secure full equality for all LGBT Americans until we learn how to address that deep disagreement and move beyond it.” He understands that our cause requires many painful discussions, not demands for silence from those whose views offend us. He shows the way by talking to churches and ministers about homophobia.
If you are not careful, life can beat the hope out of you. Some activists I know, old enough to remember the ’60s, support Hillary. They have pictures of King and Bobby Kennedy on their walls, yet now back someone more reminiscent of Richard Nixon. Instead of supporting a leader who can inspire a broad spectrum of Americans, they support someone whose idea of the presidency is managing the bureaucracy, and whose idea of bipartisanship is co-sponsoring a measure against flag burning.
Some claim that Obama lacks detailed policy proposals. They should visit BarackObama.com. Others hesitate to support him because they worry about what might happen to him. But if we are governed by our fears, we are defeating ourselves.
The times call for a leader who offers more than a continuation of the scorched-earth politics of the past two decades — someone who will do more than triangulate and outmaneuver partisans on the other side. Once again a gifted man from Illinois has come forth who understands that a nation divided against itself cannot stand, who exhorts us to summon the best in ourselves to continue the work of building our nation. I will not lower my sights because the work is hard. That is why I support Barack Obama for president.
Richard J. Rosendall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.