Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Domrémy Candidate

Obama's speech. I think it's a good one -- breathtaking, in fact. I've only read it, not seen it, mind you. But if you skim the campaign boilerplate, the rest of it says things I don't think I've ever seen come out of the same mouth in the same breath. Truths about black people, white people, Americans all.

I paused for a long time when I came to this bit:

As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Somebody's going to jump on him for bungling the quote ("The past is never dead. It’s not even past.") and for not knowing what Faulkner meant by it. Fact is, ever since Faulkner put it on paper in a not-very-successful book, the quote has jumped out of his text and become national property. We all understand it, in a general way. The more so in the South, but all of us understand it.

And it is, after all, appropriate. It is said, in the play, to a woman named Temple with a violent, dark past, who has just said she is dead. She is seeking to save the life of a black nurse sentenced to death for killing Temple's child. The plot is pure Faulkner, and regardless of the quote, he belongs in this speech. It is a knot of tortured personal histories, bound tight in race and region.

The people tend to enter his speech in pairs, contrasting pairs. He is the son of "a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas" the grandson of "a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas." Obama himself, with his atypical family tree, is paired with his wife, "a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters." He closes with a story of his white campaign worker Ashley Baia and the (oddly nameless) black man.

But the main figure in the speech is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Who can be paired with him? Well, Martin Luther King Jr. makes a cameo, but it's not him. I say, Faulkner is Wright's double. They are mirror images of the same thing, in Obama's perception; human and humanist geniuses, intemperate voices trapped by the circumstances of the crippled world that they cannot stop living in. It's a shame Obama didn't say more about Faulkner.

Obama -- with his writers -- seems to have climbed some high mountain and looked out on the land and seen the broiling angers not as immediate heat, but as irrational expressions in real thwarted lives. Even in people who would hate him for who he is. The ability to see that is rare enough in a politician. I understand why hearing some politician actually up and say it is an experience to some people like finding a fountain in the desert.

It solidifies my belief this election is only partly about choosing the next president. It also is a national revival. These happen maybe once in a generation. In the 19th century, when so many were excluded from direct participation in politics, they were religious revivals or outpourings for social improvement. Now, they are political campaigns.

Obama's case is most obvious, but people also are plunging into the fray for Hillary who never did anything like this before. Yet this year will be remembered as 08ama. Amba had a great post before I left (can't find it now) pointing out the substantial similarities of Obama's political style and career to Jack Kennedy's. He brings the rhetoric, the life story, and the charisma. Yet it's only partly about personality. Which is where Geraldine Ferraro was wrong, though in a different year she'd have been right. It's the people who are ready to catch fire.

Many have years of disillusionment with the government. Their habit of slacker aloofness is a pose, and it is dry tinder before a rhetorical lightning strike that goes to the heart. They will wade through their own tears of ecstasy to answer the altar call. Their sudden sense of collective power in democratic participation will stay with them for a long time.

For the rest of my life and probably yours, this country will have leaders and servants who, when asked what got them started, will point to these weeks.

Kennedy was a terrible president. The clan's attitudes and actions in the Oval Office were almost antithetical to the idealism he inspired. The practical effect of his foreign policies wasted lives and almost destroyed the world. Yet those people stayed inspired, stayed in the process and became the next generation of political movers in America.

I still don't think I'm going to vote for him. I don't think I want another Jack Kennedy experience. But I'd be wary of working too hard against him. Not because of the backlash. Because, right or wrong for the job, this candidacy refreshes the tree of liberty.