Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hoping against hope?

“I am not running because I think it is somehow owed to me. I am running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now.” - U.S. Sen. Barack Obama

TOLEDO, Ohio — I watched Barack Obama percolate through the throngs here on Sunday with a tremendous sense of foreboding.

People began lining up outside the University of Toledo’s Savage Hall at 3 a.m. - more than 12 hours before the magnetic Illinois senator was scheduled to speak - and the stadium was clogged to its 10,000 capacity.

A staggering 5,000 more people were turned away.

Amidst the swooning students, burly union jacks and bubbly chants of “Obama! Ohio!” there was a palpable electricity that I’ve never witnessed in the three presidential elections I have covered (or the eight I’ve lived through). No, it is something I have only read about, history nerd that I am.

This is the stuff of 1968.

It is the frenzy of the “fierce urgency of now” that Martin Luther King first spoke of at the 1963 March on Washington that would explode across the ‘60s - the last decade anybody really thought that anything was possible.

After hearing Obama’s commanding 30-minute oratory, there’s something funereal about John McCain sniffing about his “empty eloquence.” And when Hillary Clinton churlishly mocks her rival’s presidential plan as “waving a magic wand,” she comes off as a bitter battleaxe who slept through the ‘60s.

There’s no question in my mind that Obama will wrest the nomination from her. I believe he’ll win Michigan in the fall, though he’s never appeared on a ballot here.

If he makes it that far.

These are words uttered in hushed tones in campaign offices and in living rooms across America. These are words I don’t want to write.

But there is a reason, after all, why Obama was the first candidate this cycle to need Secret Service protection.

There is a haunting sense of 1968 in the air that has all the trappings of a beautiful tragedy. There’s the indefatigable, anti-war, upstart senator underestimated by the party bosses who hustled his way to become the frontrunner.

Obama shares Bobby Kennedy’s brooding visage that can dissolve into an improbably broad grin, as well as his soaring rhetoric. Obama’s is punctuated by his stratospheric intelligence and methodical, pragmatic approach to problem-solving, much like that of John F. Kennedy.

(Lest I be accused of having a crush on Obama, he is not nearly as accomplished as either Kennedy – he never launched a full-frontal assault on union corruption, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book or was a war hero).

Everyone knows what happened to the Kennedys during that rollicking era of hope and rage, of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And many more black leaders were gunned down during those last throes of acceptable racism – King, Medgar Evers and other pioneers.

I surely am a pessimist. But I talk to people who insist Barack Hussein Obama is a crack-smoking Muslim and routinely encounter those who say flat-out, “I won’t vote for a black guy.”

There remains a deep, virulent racism in this country. And I wonder how far we’ve come.

Race will be the undercurrent of a race between Obama and McCain. I have no doubt that McCain, an honorable man, won’t stoke the flames. After all, he watched his own presidential dreams shrivel up in 2000 when George W. Bush’s goons made robo-calls in South Carolina that McCain had sired a “black baby” (who was actually adopted from a Bangladesh orphanage).

The problem is, McCain’s hired many operatives who hatched the racist calls and others who designed the equally dishonest 2004 Swift Boat ads against John Kerry.

These folks aren’t exactly known for straight talk.

After three years of plotting against Clinton, the GOP is playing catch-up on how to best disembowel Obama. In the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove painted a vivid picture of the senator as “lazy,” attributing his “trash talking” to days spent “playing pick-up basketball.”

Yeah, we get your drift. So did many shiftless African-Americans, leaving Republicans to whine that they just don’t know how to run against the Kenyan-Kansan without being called racist.

Never fear. Under our mangled campaign finance system (which currently doesn’t even have a functional Federal Election Commission) right-wing activists can launch their own smear jobs without leaving fingerprints.

Will that be the backdrop to some nut job whipping out a 9 mm to keep the White House, er, white?

I can see the macabre scene unfold, just as it did with RFK in that sweaty California ballroom on June 4, 1968. I can see a dour Hillary Clinton carrying on, claiming Obama’s legacy to no avail, as safe and steady John McCain wins handily in the fall.

And journalist Jack Newfield’s agonizing words would ring true again: “From this time forward, things would only get worse; our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope.”

I hope not.