OUR “UPPITY” PRESIDENT
Most days, I’m nowhere near as impressed with Maureen Dowd as she is with herself. I have often found her, especially in the post-Bush era, to be straining for effects and for laughs. Even when she was on her Pulitzer-winning roll, smirking and snarking her way through the Ken Starr inquisition and its grubby sideshows, I thought there was little in the core of her “analysis” except glib, even smug emptiness.
But today (7/26), I have to hand it to Dowd. She earned her Pulitzer and my respect with her Op-Ed column on Skip Gates vs. the Cambridge police. She got at the essence of the matter a lot sooner than anyone else, including the president (about whom, more later):
“As the daughter of a police detective, I always prefer to side with the police. But this time, I’m struggling.
“No matter how odd or confrontational Henry Louis Gates Jr. was that afternoon, he should not have been arrested once Sergeant (Jim) Crowley ascertained that the Harvard professor was in his own home.”
Ten-four, period and Amen. This was a situation where embarrassment, more than racism, was the prevailing malady. And embarrassment, more than violence, is as American as apple pie. Sorry, Rap Brown, but Kurt Vonnegut’s observation gets the cupcake this time around.
Dowd goes on to say that “President Obama was right the first time, that the encounter had a stupid ending, and the second time, that both Gates and Crowley overreacted.”
Not that this conclusion was all that difficult to reach, especially as the heat of the moment subsided and all those in the maelstrom, including Obama, were ready to put the whole thing behind them, continue paying the electric bills and keep obnoxious, “acting-out” argumentativeness where it belongs: Among loved ones.
Much as I, too, would like to leave it at that, there’s a sour taste lingering with me that has nothing to do with either Gates or Crowley, but with the immediate reaction to Obama’s charge of stupidity – for which he later apologized.
Don’t ask why, but I happened to watch the “Today” show the morning after that presidential press conference and the show’s spin-meisters had apparently decided that Obama’s spontaneous intervention in l’affaire Gates-Crowley overshadowed anything he had to say about health care reform – the ostensible purpose of that prime-time showcase. So it was the lead story for the show’s first (and least-brain-dead) hour.
The use of the word, “stupid”, especially seemed to unnerve the Victorian Beast that is mainstream media (Thank you, Tom Wolfe). Matt Lauer and his interview subjects seemed to obsess over whether the president had been presumptuous at best in using such strong language on a neighborhood dust-up.
“Stupid” is strong language? Granted, along with “shut up”, it’s one of the few non-curse words that grown-ups discourage their small children from using. But compared with saltier effusions of Harry Truman and the only-on-tape scatological riffs of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, it’s hardly the verbal equivalent of public defecation.
In fact, in the implied chiding of the president’s emotional, yet still rigorously contained outburst, I could hear a kind of collective gasp over the fact that the nice, well-spoken and thoroughly-educated African American man we’d elected president had…raised his voice in such a conspicuous manner. It was almost as if, for however long this story lasted before flaming out, Obama had assumed a kind of better-modulated, but no less pronounced belligerence towards those who’d believed him to be, well, less…obstreperous than other African American leaders.
Far more than the encounter between Crowley and Gates, I felt something in this reaction more than faintly reminiscent of the Bad Old Days of race relations in this country; that Obama had, by showing his anger on behalf of another Harvard-educated black man, behaved like a …yes…uppity negro to the mainstream; a mainstream that had apparently, but not surprisingly forgotten the president’s own insightful and eloquent words on racism’s lingering scars during last year’s campaign.
The Cambridge dust-up will recede, if it hasn’t already, to the precincts of celebrity gossip whose stories evaporate like Mountain Dew on linoleum, leaving, albeit, a sticky residue requiring more diligent scrubbing.
But the president is smart (or non-stupid) enough to know that however sincerely or deeply felt, his comments on such matters make him more vulnerable to the ditto-heads, both in public office and on the radio, waiting to trip those old, but still sturdy wires of condescension and dismissal threatening every person of color in and out of positions of authority. He also knows that there are two-faced, cunning greed heads who can’t wait to use such outbursts against the president in his push for, say, reforming health care.
I don’t blame him in the least for saying what he said about the Cambridge police. I said and thought the same things as an African American male. And I would have said the same things the president did after roughly 48 hours. But I also know how easily our humanity can be used against us as if it were a captured weapon.
Again: I don’t think I’m saying anything President Obama doesn’t know already. I’m just making sure the rest of us do, too.