Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Jackie Robinson of Presidential Politics

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 
Philippians 4:8

When Branch Rickey was looking for a candidate to integrate professional baseball, he needed a gifted athlete, of course, but he also needed a man who could endure the inevitable epithets and slurs without striking back. Jackie Robinson was that remarkable mixture of spectacular ability, fierce competitive spirit and personal grace and dignity.

Barack Obama has been the Jackie Robinson of presidential politics.

Last February, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an opinion piece titled, “I Miss Barack Obama.”

We were still early in the primary season then, but already there were signs that the campaign this year would be marked by what Brooks called “a decline in behavioral standards across the board.” And then he observed that, “Many of the traits of character and leadership that Obama possesses, and that maybe we have taken too much for granted, have suddenly gone missing or are in short supply.”

I launched this blog the week of President Obama’s first inaugural. My first post was about the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery’s benediction, which I had found very moving. The prayer began with a quotation from James Weldon Johnson’s great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has become the Black National Anthem. And it ends with references to the Hebrew Prophets. In between, he called on the nation to reject greed and violence, to embrace inclusion rather than exclusion, and love rather than hate.

But Lowery drew intense criticism for the last paragraph of the prayer, when he called on the nation to work toward that day “when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”

The blogosphere exploded with righteous indignation that Lowery had declared that white people had never done what was right. Lowery, they declared, was a racist.

It was nonsense, of course, Lowery was taking an old racist rhyme and turning it upside down.

It probably never occurred to him that anyone would take it as a blanket condemnation of white people. It certainly never occurred to me.

But that firestorm over the inaugural benediction set the tone for the avalanche of attacks that would follow President Obama throughout his tenure. The general theme would be that our first African-American President was himself a racist.

Among other things, the attackers declared that he was not born in the United States, that he was a Kenyan, that he was a Muslim, that he was a Marxist, and that he was the worst president in history.

And through it all, he maintained a quiet dignity. He never lashed out. He never made personal attacks. And he never seemed to bear any animosity even toward people who obviously hated him.

Last fall, the poet, environmentalist and theologian Wendell Berry wrote about the racism directed at President Obama by members of congress:
“Some of the President’s congressional enemies—and these may be the most honest of them—have openly insulted him.  But such candor is not necessary.  Elected officials or candidates seeking the support or the votes of racists do not need to question the authenticity of Mr. Obama’s birth certificate or to call him a Muslim, a communist, a nazi, or a traitor.  They need only to stand silently by while such slurs and falsehoods are loudly voiced in public by others.  To the racist constituency, their silence is a message that secures votes.  Their silence declares that no truth or dignity is worth as much as a vote.”
Remarkably, those who have responded to his presidency with racism also accuse him of dividing the country. The contention is that President Obama is responsible for the racism of those who have attacked him. It is enough to make you crazy. But through it all he has maintained a calm dignity.

In his essay, Brooks outlined three great virtues of the Obama presidency:
“The first and most important of these is basic integrity. The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free. Think of the way Iran-contra or the Lewinsky scandals swallowed years from Reagan and Clinton.”
  “Second, a sense of basic humanity. Donald Trump has spent much of this campaign vowing to block Muslim immigration. You can only say that if you treat Muslim Americans as an abstraction. President Obama, meanwhile, went to a mosque, looked into people’s eyes and gave a wonderful speech reasserting their place as Americans.”
“Third, a soundness in his decision-making process. Over the years I have spoken to many members of this administration who were disappointed that the president didn’t take their advice. But those disappointed staffers almost always felt that their views had been considered in depth.”
President Obama has made mistakes and miscalculations. Policies are always subject to debate. But his basic character and demeanor have been exemplary. 

We will miss him.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

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