One of the editors poked me with a stick yesterday; he wanted me to write about Barak Obama's speech in Philadelphia. As a result, I spent about three hours last night flopping around in bed like a fish on a dock.
It's not that I had ignored the speech. It was impossible to, seeing how everywhere I looked in the newsroom, people were watching, whether gathered around a TV, or plugged into their computers. But I was working on something else - a piece about the unmeritorious way that Pennsylvania picks its judges. Every time I started talking about judicial elections and the lack of minority representation, the conversation worked back to Obama's speech, in which he condemned the offensive remarks of his former pastor, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then went on with naked honesty to say things about how blacks and white see America.
"The most honest political speech I have ever heard," two people told me that day. Same exact words.
I went to sleep convinced that Obama had taken the third rail of American politics -- race -- and turned it into a balance beam from which he pronounced the most difficult truths.
And about 1 a.m. I woke up thinking we are not ready for the truth. I don't think we're ready for Obama. I thought we were. I was naive.
When my wife and I would talk about the Democrat candidates for president I kept telling her that her Hillary was unelectable. I'd recall the eight hours I spent in a room with her in 1985, as she sat in for her husband the goveror and talked to a dozen education reporters about school reform in Arkansas. I was blown away by her brilliance. And then I'd tell my wife that Hillary is just what the opposition wants. No one would energize the base like another Clinton to hate, and we'd be caught rehashing the past when the need to fix the present is so urgent.
Obama is the unelectable one, my wife, the reconstructed Southerner, would reply. Despite lip service, she argued, in the privacy of the voting booth too many white people will not be able to pull for a person of color. A few months later, I'm coming around to my wife's position.
After Obama's speech I went blog hunting, and the headline on the Politico site left me dismayed: "GOP sees Rev. Wright as path to victory." They look at Obama. They see his angry pastor.
"It was a speech written to mau-mau the New York Times editorial board, the network production people and the media into submission," said GOP consultant Rick Wilson, who was behind the 2002 ad that tied former Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam war-wounded Democrat from Georgia, to Osama bin Laden. "Beautifully calibrated but deeply dishonest." It didn't take long to spin poetry.
Hate was all around. In the words of the Clinton volunteer at a Philadelphia phone bank who told an Los Angeles Times reporter that he was voting for Hillary because "I love the Lord and I don't want a person named Al-Barack Hussein Obama to be our next president."
In the work of an aide to John McCain who was suspended on Thursday for spreading on the Internet a race-baiting YouTube video that mashes Obama's words with those of Rev. Wright, Malcolm X and the Public Enemy song "Fight The Power."
And in a posting on the BooMan Tribune, a liberal Philadelphia-based blog. The writer, an Obama supporter, had scored a seat at the National Constitution Center for Tuesday's speech, and afterward was walking through The Gallery when he sat down and searched for a wireless signal for his computer.
"An elderly white woman sat down next to me and was silent for a little while. Then she said, "That's where my tax dollars go."
I looked up at her, not knowing what she was referring to, and asked, "Excuse me?".
She nodded at a group of young early-20's black people (some with a baby carriage) walking by, and repeated herself. The people she was referring to were nicely dressed and appeared to be enjoying themselves as they window-shopped in the mall. I think I just mumbled something like "Mmmn" and returned my attention to my laptop. Then the elderly woman said, "Do you know that Hillary is coming here today?"
I nodded, "Yes. I just came from seeing Obama."
She frowned at this news and then said, "I'm very excited to see Hillary. She knows how to deal with (she swept her hand around to indicate the mall crowd) this." I excused myself.
Part of me wonders whether this anecdote was a bit of bloggy stagecraft to advance the Obama cause. But you don't have to make up something like this. It's everywhere.
It reminded me of what I heard covering Europe and the Middle East from 2000 to 2003. The Kosovars blaming the Serbs. The Serbs blaming the Americans. The Palestinians blaming the Jews, the Jews blaming the Palestinians. Each nation intoxicated by its own victimhood. Drying out is difficult when it feels so right to have been wronged. You don't have to go about the hard work of moving forward that Obama talked about in Philadelphia.
I listened again to the Obama speech Friday morning as I walked the dog. As he explained the resentments harbored by both black people and white people -- the two separate realities -- I remembered the last time I said something to set off a minor racial incident at work. I was talking to a cherished colleague, who is black, and she was mourning the number of minorities who lost their jobs at the paper during last year's layoffs because they were among the most recent hires.
At least it will be easier for them to get jobs, I said. I was trying to say something helpful. I wound up saying something hurtful. What made me think it would be easier? she asked. She didn't make eye contact with me again for days. I insisted to myself I was right. Wait a year, then we'll see. In fact, it has little to do with numbers, everything to do with perception. Each convinced we were right, each a little buzzed on our victimhood. At least we're starting to talk about this.