January 06, 2008


Sam Smith

I've been trying to figure out why I find Barack Obama less impressive than many of my white friends and have come up with two tentative answers:

First, I went to the same school as Obama, albeit graduating magna cum probation from Harvard College rather than with honors from its law school. Now Harvard graduates come in all flavors, but too many of the most successful ones learn quickly to gravitate to gratuitous gravitas. If you watch Obama closely he seems in public to have only two moods, happy or look-how-serious-I-am-about-this, the latter being the quality that allows Washington officials – and Harvard Law grads - to convince everyone else they should invade Iraq and Vietnam or forget about global warming for the time being. The problem is that, as one journalist noted, there is a big difference between being somber and being serious. And gravitas – with which Obama overflows – seems often just a karaoke version of seriousness.

(If you are inclined to think that college background is irrelevant, just remember this: The Vietnam war was in no small part the invention and obsession of machismo-seeking Harvard grads and during the last twenty years of America's extraordinary decline, our country has been in the hands of products of Yale: two Bushes and a Clinton.)

The other difference I have with many of my white friends is that I have lived and worked most of my life in Washington, DC, which has as much pulpit borne politics per square inch as any place in the country. When Obama does his Martin Luther King cover, therefore, what comes to mind is not "I have a Dream" but, "Oh no, not again," for it brings to mind crummy council members and dubious mayors being propelled into office with the help of similar irrelevant rhetoric.

The fact is that King is long dead and black preachers, just like white ones, don't act like that much any more regardless of their comfortable cadences. The ministry - white and black - has walked away from the 1960s and its values just as surely as have the politicians and the media. So when someone tries to pull the noble preacher shtick, I feel more like I'm being conned than being converted.

The alternative to this is to spend less time looking for Jesus or JFK and MLK and more time seeking policies and a politics with which one is comfortable. They can come in all colors, geographies and genders - not because of them but because, for the good things in life, it just doesn't matter.