March 30, 2008



At the risk of causing some of my readers to have a heart attack, I think Hillary Clinton should stay in the race.

While I can understand why Obama supporters and the overlords of Democratic Party LLC would want her out, I'm troubled by the pressure coming from a media that is not only meant to be objective but, more importantly, is supposed to enjoy politics and not take all the fun out of it.

But then little about the media coverage is normal. Reporters who once used to get their kicks undoing campaign spin and telling tales out of school increasingly treat candidates as abstract symbols of virtue - whether it be of ethnicity, gender or military service - rather than as real people. Issues have become filler material. Some of media bosses are just getting bored or budget wary and pulling their correspondents off the trail entirely.

It seems also that the media has become obsessed - in the manner of the corporate world it admires - in defining winners as opposed to describing the process that leads to victory, which is what democracy is actually meant to be about. If all you need is a winner, a dictatorship does the job a lot easier. If these journalists were sports announcers rather than political correspondents, many TVs would be turned off by the end of the fourth inning as the results were already in: "It is now clear that the Red Sox should get out of the game so unity can return to Major League Baseball." Further, I can't resist the hunch that a number of these journalists are already sucking up to what they perceive to soon be the Obama administration.

It all reflects poorly on the trade. In fact, if the only thing that matters is who won, we don't even need the press. The names on page one and CNN have mostly won and the readers and viewers have mostly lost. It's not much more complicated than that.

But even in the face of the inevitable and the immutable, the reporter can still describe, can still tell stories, can still offer hints to how to avoid it the next time, can still leave a record of how it all happened. I sometimes explain my work as painting pictures on the walls of the Lascaux caves of our times. Even failure offers something worth remembering.

I wouldn't write about politics if I didn't enjoy it as much as others enjoy football. I don't want the game to be over. Besides, there's so much to learn. For example, it has taken us months to discover that Obama isn't Jesus after all and that sometimes he's not even that much of a Democrat. It is a delight - having been berated for over 15 years for my criticism of the Clintons -to find others discovering HRC's casual connections to the truth and that the Clinton operation, like a mob, functions more on loyalty - as James Carville put it - than on more typically democratic principles.

And we haven't even gotten to John McCain. The media, which hates any information more than three months old, will eventually have to drop its myths that the intensely conservative candidate is a maverick and that military service is a synonym for military expertise. Then reality will start to enter that story as well.

This all takes time, especially when more and more journalists don't report the news but rather simply repeat a simulation of it as provided by various campaigns and public relations specialists.

If we're not going to have real reporting, then we going to need more time to find out what's going on. And as Yogi Berra told us, it ain't over til it's over.

FIRE: APRIL 4, 1968

Sam Smith

 The issues the Capitol East Gazette covered in the 1960s and the causes it pressed ran the gamut. We campaigned for the then novel idea of packer sanitation trucks to replace the high sided open trash trucks. And we warned readers not put dog and cat dirt in their trash cans, quoting a trashman as saying, "How would you like to stand up in that truck in that stuff all day?'

We also quickly became a leading voice of the anti-freeway movement, and a precocious supporter of light rail and bikeways years before such phenomena became popular. My wife would later recall going to an anti-freeway meeting and being astounded that we thought we were actually going to stop a highway. In fact, we didn't stop the one we were fighting; it sliced through Southeast Washington, dividing public housing from the rest of the community. The Gazette ran a photo two young boys looking wistfully up at "Southeast's Berlin Wall." But before it was all over, people like us all over DC had stopped hundreds of lane-miles that would have made the city look like an east-coast Los Angeles.

There was always something to save - such as the 200-old trees in Lincoln Park - and something to promote -- such as a new swimming pool - and something to cover - such as activists Janie Boyd and Marguerite Kelly, who were taking on the local supermarket chains. They challenged quality disparities between outlets in different parts of town and campaigned for the open dating of meat. Meat at that time was dated with a code known only to supermarket employees. The Gazette took the bold position that "an understandable date on each package of meat would be of considerable value to the shopper," noting that "we have shared with other consumers the experience of having meat go bad soon after it has been brought home and put in the refrigerator."

The consumer activists also went comparison shopping, coming up with prices at inner city Safeways up to a third higher than those in a white section of town. Further they demonstrated that prices were hiked when welfare checks came out.

During congressional hearings, Rep. Henry Reuss double-checked the figures at lunch time, returning to the hearing room with bags of groceries that he placed on the podium. When a Safeway official blamed some of the price differences on human error, Reuss responded, "In an hour and half I found quite bit of human error."

We also ran a feature on Jane Hardin who had opened a combination laundromat and legal services office on Pennsylvania Ave., where on the first day someone stuck a quilt into a washer, jamming up the pipes. And we wrote about community police officer Ike Fulwood who, as we drove past some grim public housing, remarked, "There's trouble. They never ask the police their opinion when they build public housing." Fulwood would eventually become the city's chief of police.

But things were already well beyond the capacity of any one community to solve. America's cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even in Capitol East. In September 1967, anti-poverty activist Lola Singletary convinced the white businessmen of H Street to form a organization dedicated to involvement in community problems The group, the Gazette reported, "intends to deal with such issues as employment, welfare, safety, health, housing, recreation and urban planning."

In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various leaders of Capitol East into an informal leadership council with the possibility of forming a major neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people attended a meeting on January 31: 7 white and 7 black.

Among our purposes:
To share our group differences so we can increase our knowledge of one another's group positions, plans and needs.
To increase opportunities to share our group concerns so that we can better support one another's group efforts.
To obtain full representation for our community in civic and governmental affairs.
To unite in common action where we have agreement.
Your participation in the Council does not commit your organization to any position or organizational arrangement.
In February 1968, I wrote in the Gazette:
As contrary as the thought is to our national self-image, it is entirely possible that we are giving up the struggle to solve the deepest problems of our cities. ~ National Guard troops are undergoing special training. Hotlines are being established. Armored trucks are being purchased. Police riot equipment is being beefed up. ~ Ramsey Clark, the Attorney General, was probably correct when he told a group of police chiefs and city officials recently that the nation's power to deal with urban riots is increasing faster "than the underlying layers of frustration that cause them."
On March 6, I wrote a prospective member
Although the Leadership Council has yet to establish a formal structure, the present trend appears to be in favor of a loose federation of leaders, relatively unstructured, and designed so we can act effectively when we have agreement but not get hung up when we don't.
In the issue that appeared in late March, I wrote:
It seems like a lot of people, both the militants and the extremist moderates, are putting down Martin Luther King. I share some of the doubts that have been expressed as to whether his efforts this spring will make any difference. On the other hand, I wonder whether anything will. MLK does have one big factor in his favor. He is doing something. Congress isn't. The White House isn't. The District isn't. The Urban League isn't. Stokely isn't. Possible or impossible, King's show is the best we have in town this spring and it behooves all who would like to see some changes made to lend a hand.
That same month, the US Court of Appeals ordered the city to halt construction on four major sections of the city's freeway system. For a change, it looked as if we might be winning.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, I was up on T Street with a group of anti-freeway protesters picketing the mayor's house, when word came of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. We went home as the police cars poured by filled with shotgun-armed and helmeted police.

The next morning things were quiet enough that we went about our business as usual. But I came home that afternoon from the office to find a slow stream of people walking down the street with liberated articles: hangers full of clothes, a naugahyde hassock, a television set. Somewhere in our neighborhood a woman walked off with a case of whiskey from a liquor store. When she got home she realized she didn't have any soda to go with it. She went back and was arrested as she tried to liberate her chaser.

There were only a few whites living in the block; but I felt little tension or hostility. I mainly noted the black smoke drifting down from H Street, four blocks away. Kathy was out back working in our foot-wide strip of garden, listening to reports of looting and arson on a portable radio as a black fog settled in. We decided to go up on the roof for a better look. H Street was burning. Others areas had gone first and the radio reported a lack of fire equipment to deal with the situation a few blocks to the north. I tried to count the fires but they congealed under the curtain of smoke.

We decided to pack just in case. For about ten minutes we gathered an instinctive selection of nostalgic items, favorite photos, the non-valuable but irreplaceable. Then we looked at what we had done and laughed. Like loyal children of our generation, we settled down in our smoky living room to watch on television what was happening to us.


At six-thirty the next morning, a white friend from around the corner rang our doorbell. He wasn't in trouble; he just wanted company on a tour of the area. We got into his car and drove to H, Seventh and 14th Streets. As I looked at the smoldering carcass of Washington and observed the troops marching down the street past storefronts that no longer had any windows, I thought, so this is what war is like. As we drove past a gutted store on 14th Street it suddenly reignited itself and flames leaped towards the pavement.

That day and for several days thereafter, we stuck to home. The trouble had flared again. We received anxious calls from friends and relatives in another parts of town and in other towns. We assured them we were all right; they seemed more upset about our physical safety than we were and I did not want t alarm them by speaking what was in my mind.

For a year and a half of running a neighborhood newspaper, I had observed, and tried to report, a part of the community seething with emotions much of the other part refused to recognize. Now it was worse than even I had thought and anger, frustration, and helplessness washed up on my mind's shore.

I subconsciously prepared myself for it to get worse. In the middle of one of the riot nights, I awakened to a rumbling noise in the street and ran to the window expecting to see tanks rolling past our house. There were no tanks. In fact, the physical threat of the riots barely touched us.


The strange ambivalence of the riots -- the slashes of violence mixed indiscriminately with the sparkle of carnival, the sounds of racial war penetrating the tranquility of a white couple's home four blocks from disaster, our strangely ordinary experiences in an extraordinary situation -- made the disorder a crazy amalgam that took weeks to sort out. For months after, when sporadic violence hit stores in our neighborhood, I expected to find our newspaper office smashed and looted. It wasn't, despite the inviting glass storefront. I was inclined, with normal self delusion, to attributed this to having paid my dues. It was more likely that our second hand electric typewriters weren't worth the candle when there was a whole Safeway up the street and a cleaners right on the corner.

Some people seemed to think I had something to do with it all. One of my advertisers, the photo dealer Harry Lunn, told me late one night that if anyone firebombed his store he was going to come and personally burn my house down. He had been or was still with the CIA so I tended to take him seriously.

Len Kirsten, an advertiser and owner of the Emporium, was more blasé. A lady walked into the store one day and, spotting the pile of Gazettes on the floor, said, "Isn't that a Communist paper?"

"Oh no," Len replied cheerfully. "The editor's a communist but the paper isn't."

On the other hand, Lee, of Helen & Lee's Chinese carryout was totally indifferent to politics. Lee and his wife ran a regular ad bragging that the carryout had been recommended by their four doctor sons. One of the items on the menu was a pork chop sandwich -- the chop still on a bone slapped between two pieces of Wonder Bread. After Helen died, the sign over the door was changed to read: & Lee's Carryout.

Another favorite advertiser was Harry Spack, owner of. Spack's Chicken on the Hill, which had a storefront windows filled with an 1883 Swiss music box, an airplane propeller, opera glasses, statuettes and drug store jewelry. There are Arabic sabers hanging over the restroom doors and travel posters on the wall. Also "the world's smallest bar" -- a few shelves filled with miniature liquor bottles.

"Now someday this place is going to have class," Spack told our reporter, Greg Lawrence. "You know -- cosmopolitan, relaxing, with fine music from the past. For instance," he said as he reached for an object under the counter, "this vase from Europe has been dyed by its creators in pigeon blood. Now I ask you, what other cafe on Capitol Hill features decorations dyed in pigeon blood?"

The riot did more than $3 million worth of property damage. In the vicinity of H Street and some 124 commercial establishments and 52 homes were damaged. Another 21 businesses were damaged on or near 8th street. I wrote:
The destruction did not end with the quelling of the riot and the removal of federal troops who had guarded the area after being called in by city officials Sporadic arson occurred, primarily along H Street, doing hundreds of thousand of dollars additional damage. . . Reaction varied from the intense anger of many white merchants at the failure of police to shoot looters to the feeling on the part of some community leaders that a new opportunity had been created to correct old economic and social wrongs
During the riots, Mayor Walter Washington had been called to the office of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, where he was told to start shooting looters. Washington refused, saying that "you can replace material goods, but you can't replace human beings." Hoover then said, "Well, this conversation is over." Replied Washington, "That's all right, I was leaving anyway."
One white businessman, Milton Hoffman of Art Young's clothing store, which had been burned in the riot, proposed a one percent of gross sales contribution by businesses to be used for community projects. Black businesses posted large "soul brother" signs on windows and walls. Private social agencies and anti-poverty centers were left alone. A laundry near the US Marine Barracks received special attention; guards with fixed bayonets protected the troop's clothing inside. The riots had created their own rules.


At the time of the riot early 25% of the labor force in Capitol East was either unemployed, earning less than $3000 a year or employed only part-time. Over half of all adults living in the east part of the neighborhood had eight years or less schooling. Over a quarter of the housing units in this same area were listed by the census as dilapidated or deteriorating.

Not long after the riots it was Easter and three local ministers, Tom Torosian, Jesse Anderson and Ralph Dwan held a sunrise service on 8th Street, refusing what Camus called the sin of despair.

The riots weren't the end of it. Even where there was a building to come back to, business on H Street wouldn't really return for decades. A real estate dealer's home was fire bombed as was a local settlement house. White and black friends no longer saw each other. And one day, in the dingy basement offices of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael said that we whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. Black nationalism had arrived and people like me were out.

The dream of a functioning bi-racial community was in pieces. H Street, with its jagged free standing walls and piles of rubble, looked like photos from a World War II retrospective. For me, hope had lost its virginity. There was no work for a white editor in a black neighborhood anymore. If I was to talk to anyone now, they would have look a lot more like me.

To be sure, a bi-racial slate of reform Democrats was elected in early May as convention delegates and central committee members. The slate included both Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy supporters, united in a desire to defeat the locally popular Hubert Humphrey. I won one of McCarthy's slots on the party central committee. McCarthy had stated that he wanted no part of a coalition but some of his supporters, including myself, disagreed and so worked out a deal. On March 31, the anti-war Democrats for Peace and Progress held a neighborhood convention in Capitol East. Five persons -- a community organizer, a minister , a physicist, a school lunch clerk, and myself -- were nominated. To my surprise, the Kennedy organization accepted us as well as other McCarthyites from around the city.

It was an unprecedented relinquishment of political power to mere party members and it produced an unusual slate that included community organizers and college professors, mothers on welfare and lawyers, black militants and a white philanthropist. Possibly no slate in America has ever been so varied.

For example, the slate included Sophie Reuther, wife of Victor Reuther. A former union organizer, she had once jumped out of a second story window to escape armed KKKers who had been set upon the union at the urging of management. Recalled Victor later, "She went underground and it took me three days to find her." It was not a singular incident. On her 25th birthday, the party had been interrupted by two gun-wielding company thugs who forced their way in and began pistol-whipping Walter Reuther, her brother-in-law.

Our campaign was short, lasting about month and for some of us election day began to close rapidly before we had any notion of what we were supposed to be doing. Typical of our appearances was a "debate on Vietnam" before a group of 12 persons. Since my opponent was also opposed to the war, our confrontation was rather turgid. We were preceded by a couple of 14th Precinct cops who promised to get an abandoned car towed away and to take action on other matters less cosmic than withdrawal from Southeast Asia. I was glad the policemen were not running for office. Still we knew we had support. A poll taken by a community group found that 44% already favored an end to the war's escalation and to the bombing of North Vietnam.

On election day I stood outside my precinct distributing sample ballots. The Humphrey people were there too, but our main competition came from a man who accosted as many voters as he could and read them a two-page polemic against the police department for having stolen his watch three years earlier.
We won and the next day, the Evening Star offered this editorial comment on the new Democratic Central Committee:
They are likely to be more militant, more aggressive and more insistent on direct participation in local affairs. What this bodes for the community remains to be seen.
With such unbridled enthusiasm from the establishment, we were off to a good start. One month later, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. On June 7, I wrote:
The nation had watched John Kennedy die and had not changed. It had watched Martin Luther King die and had not changed. And it had watched Robert Kennedy die. . . .The central point of these tragedies was not their proximate cause but rather that we, as a nation, had assigned so much of the burden of hope, progress, decency and faith to so few men.

Tomorrow I shall go down to see the funeral cortege arrive at Union Station. I shall go not just out of sorrow and respect, but also to try to find some small sign that we collectively -- without waiting for someone else to do it for us -- are willing and able to have a dream, or seek a newer world. Then, perhaps, we can become young again.
In June I wrote:
To a large extent, a community such as Capitol East is limited in its ability to respond with justice and adequacy to the current situation. Even if we had the will to change, we would remain hostage to the larger inertia of the nation and the city.
In September I wrote:
The Republicans have nominated Richard Nixon for president. The Democrats have nominated Hubert Humphrey for president. The reading scores of Capitol East schools are lower than ever. Some 9th Precinct patrolmen don't want to ride in integrated scout cars. Some white DC fireman don't want to use the same breathing apparatus as black firemen. Congress has passed, and the President has signed a bill ordering the District to complete a freeway program overwhelmingly opposed by the people of the city. DC Transit wants another fare hike and the transit commission says there's nothing it can do about it. . . We could write an editorial on each of these items, but they'd all be pretty much the same. From the mundane to the cosmic, it's been a busy month. We think we'll just wait until October and hope things get better.
About six months later, I folded the Capitol East Gazette into the DC Gazette, a publication more like the many underground papers sprouting throughout America.

Later I would explain it by saying that it seemed like too many of my readers wanted to burn down too many of my advertisers, but it wasn't really funny. And it still hurts.

March 20, 2008


I'm in trouble again. The proximate cause is not acceptance that Barack Obama is as good as we're going to get as president given our fouled up election system, but that I'm not enthusiastic about it. As a fellow journalist put it, "You haven't taken the Kool Aid." I'm in trouble not for being politically incorrect, but for being politically unimpressed.

The causes for this emotional vacuity are several fold.

For one thing, I've lived in DC most of my life, a town which has been run by blacks for 40 years, which has had a black woman mayor and a black woman chair of the city council, where, for a while, women were in the majority on the council and where only one white has been elected to one of the two top positions in the over 30 years of home rule. The last time I can recall ethnicity or sex being raised as a serious concern was in the mid-90s when a black male cab driver told me he would have a hard time voting for Sharon Pratt Kelly, soon elected mayor, because she was a woman. I remember thinking, wow, that's strange. If this is the politics you know, the whole Clinton-Obama debate sounds, well, so 1970s. And the white media commenting on it sounds like a bunch of nuns discussing sex.

So it may not seem hopelessly weird for me to admit that when I see Obama my first image is not that of a black man, but of a Harvard Law School graduate. If I had to choose one stereotype that would be it, which is to say an intelligent, analytical, somewhat self-possessed and arrogant fellow of innate caution and limited imagination. The sort of person you'd want around to handle your divorce or complete your merger, but far from the prophet whose role he has been assigned.

If you examine his politics even slightly, you would be hard to find one example of Obama saying or doing anything much out of the ordinary. You will, however, find many things with which progressives would have cause to disagree: his lousy healthcare plan, his support of the Iraq war after 2002, his approval of Bill Clinton's assault on social welfare, his uninspiring record on environmental issues, his support of the war on drugs, Real ID, the PATRIOT ACT, the death penalty and No Child Left Behind.

Does this matter, and it is cause for something less than applause? I think so.

Then there are his words. The embarrassing truth is that Obama bores me. I find him platitudinous, single toned, , sometime pompous and often guilty of that classic Washington sin described once as confusing somberness with seriousness. To be sure, I don't like listening to most politicians these days, but there is something so predictable and annoyingly didactic about Obama, as though he was trying to bring a bunch of freshman students up to speed, that I tend to turn him off and read the text instead.

I have a suspicion that my reaction may be one reason why Obama has a hard time reaching less than elite whites. It's not that he can't reach across the ethnic divide; it's the class divide that keeps him apart. He talks like someone who considers himself better than his audience.

Oddly, Obama gave a not bad description of himself when he was dissin' Ralph Nader: "My sense is that Mr. Nader is somebody who, if you don't listen and adopt all of his policies, thinks you're not substantive. He seems to have a pretty high opinion of his own work."

If you compare Ralph Nader's own work with that of a man who was a mere state senator four years ago, you might find some excuse for the former's high opinion of himself yet be left confused by the latter's assumption that he has already paid enough dues to be president.

It is also striking that Ralph Nader and Paul Wellstone, whom Obama described as a "gadfly," come off worse than a couple of rightwing senators Obama wants to stuff in his cabinet or even his beloved former minister who has caused him such grief. And that his constitutional law advisor says he would be 'stunned' if Obama named anti-business Supreme Court justices.

Which raises the useful question: just how liberal will Obama be as president? His enthralled throng hasn't even stopped clapping long enough to ask the question.

Finally, my work leads me into a frustrating dichotomy. At some points of the day I concern myself with the often trivial distinctions we make between candidates. But then, moments later, I find myself facing news that glaciers are in their worst shape in 5,000 years, that the Iraq War may cost $1 trillion, that Bush has assaulted the Constitution again, and that the financial markets are in their worst shape in decades. And none of the candidates who stand a chance of being elected - McCain, Clinton or Obama - have anything useful or meaningful to say on such topics.

And I am reminded once again why I can't bring myself to cheer.

March 18, 2008


SAM SMITH - The most notable fact about Barack Obama's speech on ethnicity is that it took him so long to make it, an uncomfortable reminder of the hyper-cautiousness of this candidate who proposes to produce so much change. It wasn't until he had been embarrassed by the words of his black preacher that Obama felt compelled to address a topic on everyone else's lips.

It wasn't a bad speech, albeit delivered in that preachy, pompously didactic tone that annoys some and causes others to swoon. Its most interesting section, however, was the part in which Obama finally emphasized something that should have been front and center from the start: he's not black; he is multicultural and half white at that.

But then when you're going for 90% of the black vote in Texas you don't want to talk much about such things. Pennsylvania is a little different; there Obama has to reach white voters who aren't comfortable with him yet.

Said Obama:
"I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help 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. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many, we are truly one."
It's a point he could have usefully brought to the fore a lot sooner but there aren't enough self-identified multicultural voters in this country yet, and to make this a major theme would have taken more courage than, say, yakking about hope. So once again, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright did his friend a favor by making it easy for him to talk about it.

In the end, Obama's speech was of a familiar pattern: all evocation and analysis, but no solutions - in political terms, all foreplay and no climax. We now know more about Obama's past than is the case with many politicians. His true view of the future, however, remains a mystery.

March 12, 2008


Sam Smith

FROM A POLITICAL standpoint, Geraldine Ferraro's comment that "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," is pretty stupid. In real life, the truth must always be spoken, but the truth need not always be told. In politics, neither are necessary and both are sometimes fatal.

The fact is that few politicians could have pulled off Obama's stunt, rising from state senate to presidential candidate in less than four years. True, Obama talks good and is, as they say in Maine, a charmah, but his ethnicity also played a big role as did the party bosses desperately looking for a new image for the Democratic Party. It wasn't an accident that he was picked out of 1,971 senatorial peers in state legislatures to give the national convention address in 2004.

To be sure, white guys have benefited from the same sort of thing - as recently as 1988 when an unknown governor from Arkansas was asked to give the convention address. In fact, Bill Clinton's speech didn't go over anywhere near as well as Obama's.

But it was part of a remarkably similar process, that I attempted to describe in my book, Shadows of Hope:

"How one comes to matter in Washington politics is guided by few precise rules, although in comparison to fifty years ago the views of lobbyists and fundraisers are far more significant than the opinion, say, of the mayor of Chicago or the governor of Pennsylvania. This is a big difference; somewhere behind the old bosses in their smoke-filled rooms were live constituents; behind the political cash lords of today there is mostly just more money and the few who control it.

"Thus coming to matter has much less to do with traditional politics, especially local politics, than it once did. Today, other things count: the patronage of those who already matter, a blessing bestowed casually by one right person to another right person over lunch at the Metropolitan Club, a columnist's praise, a well-received speech before a well-placed organization, the assessment of a lobbyist as sure-eyed as a fight manager checking out new fists at the local gym. There are still machines in American politics; they just dress and talk better.

"There is another rule. The public plays no part. The public is the audience; the audience does not write or cast the play. In 1988, the 1992 play was already being cast. Conservative Democrats were holding strategy meetings at the home of party fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. The meetings -- eventually nearly a hundred of them -- were aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. They were regularly moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss, the Mr. Fixits of the Democratic mainstream. Democratic donors paid $1000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrats.

"Clinton may have bored millions of Americans on TV that night, but Clifford, Strauss, Harriman and the DLC found him intensely interesting, extremely intelligent -- an appealing pragmatist, willing to compromise, and fully at home with the policy jargon of the capital."

And so now they have come up with Obama: intensely interesting, extremely intelligent -- an appealing pragmatist, willing to compromise, and fully at home with the policy jargon of the capital. And black.

The assets that any unknown pol brings to the table varies, but this year it clearly includes the color of Obama's skin, just as when Ferraro ran, gender mattered a lot.

So why does Ferraro have a hard time with this?

Because the intricacies of ethnic and gender politics are nowhere near as simple as the media and cultural moralists would have us believe.

Consider the fact that Ferraro is Italian, one the major American ethnic groups - like the Irish and Germans - who found themselves de-ethnicized with the civil rights era and later developments. We could have saved ourselves a lot of misery if we had remembered to respect everyone's culture and past as we were helping those whose culture and past had been repressed. I once suggested to a top executive of NPR that the network could do the nation and civil rights a favor by including more stories about Italians, Germans and the Irish. Part of the problem, after all, is that everybody wants to be in show business. You can't have multiculturalism that works if you leave anyone out. The NPR exec looked at me as if I were nutty.

Here's a bit of Ferraro's story from Wikipedia: "Ferraro was born in Newburgh, New York. Her father, an Italian immigrant, died when she was eight; her mother was a seamstress. Ferraro received her undergraduate degree from Marymount Manhattan College, and a J.D. degree from Fordham University School of Law, going to classes at night while working as a second-grade teacher in public schools during the day. Ferraro graduated from law school in 1960, one of only two women in her graduating class."

She was the Obama of another era, but that era has passed.

In fact, it may have also passed for a lot of older feminists who lined up behind Clinton, and even if you don't care for their crummy choice of icon, you can appreciate the source of some of their bitterness: this young black guy is going to get what we may never get in our lifetimes - one of ours running the place.

But history plays by its own rules. For example, the most striking moment of this campaign for me has been Obama's victory in the Mississippi primary. I remember Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party trying to get seated at the 1964 Democratic convention and I covered the grim Mississippi hearings of the US Commission on Civil Rights in 1965. If Mississippi can elected Barack Obama, there may be something to progress, after all. As S.B. Buck, the black owner of Buck's Restaurant in Greenville, put it, "It's the greatest thing since salt."

Still, that's just one American story. It's not the story of Geraldine Ferraro, the daughter of an Italian immigrant and it's not the story of Geraldine Ferraro, the woman who made it the farthest in national politics but still not to the top.

We forget that others have stories, that pain is distributed as well as virtue, just like hopes and ambitions.

But most of all, we have been taught to forget that it's not a matter of what color or what sex wins the election but who will win or lose as a result. And so nobody seems to notice, what with all the harrumphing over proper language and etiquette, that neither the black nor the woman candidate has offered any significant programs to improve the lives of the less fortunate of their ilk. A white guy named Edwards tried that, but this is a year for symbols, rather than real things, and so he lost.

Of course, it's been coming for a long time. Over the past thirty years, we have been taught to use iconography and nice words over substance in such matters. Check a timeline of either the civil rights or the women's movement and you'll find this confirmed. Here's how I described it once:

As things stand now, America's cultures are standing on their separate turfs hurling symbols at each other. And some have divined in this the message that it is all right to hurl other things as well. Working our way out of this jam will take a willingness to come together, to think of the future more than of the past, to learn how to enjoy our differences, and to speak honestly, without violence, of our fears and, yes, even of our prejudices. It will mean finding ways of revealing the individual under the mask of culture. It will above all take a revival of the often forgotten faith that there is a powerful advantage in doing these things. For without that, everything else we do will be a lie no matter how politely we treat each other.

I once asked the black journalist Chuck Stone to give me a one sentence recipe for improving multicultural relations. His answer: treat everyone as a member of your family. Coming from an often fractious family of six siblings, I knew exactly what he was talking about. And I recalled my father's oft-stated rule: you don't have to like your relatives; you just have to be nice to them.

In fact, both Ferraro and Obama in his reaction are playing a game, trying to score one or two points in a tight race. That's okay, but what we shouldn't forget some of the unintended consequences, such as the effect our obsession with language has on what we say we're trying to achieve.

One of the most common causes of prejudice is the feeling that one - or a group of ones - has been screwed and then looks around for someone to blame. The people at the top know this - whether old time southern white elite or contemporary presidential campaign managers - and they use it, exacerbate it and distort it.

You don't fight it by insisting that everyone use nice language. In fact, mean or harsh words often serve as a useful warning of unattended problems. The best way to fight it is with policies that make life fairer for everyone.

During the long years of southern segregation, the white establishment managed to convince poor whites that it was blacks rather than itself that posed the biggest threat. Only occasionally was the myth challenged, as when Earl Long went after black votes while holding onto his low income white constituency. When Long was elected in 1948 there were only 7,000 black voters in Louisiana. By the time he left office a decade later, there were 110,000.

It was not that Governor Long was any moral model. His language, for example, would have shocked today's white and black liberals. What he did do, and quite well, was to put together people who many at the top didn't want together. And at a time when the likes of Lyndon Johnson and William Fulbright were carefully avoiding the race issue, Long took on the White Citizens Council.

In fact, the best way to change people's minds about matters such as ethnic relations is to put them in situations that challenge their presumptions. Like joining a multicultural political coalition that works. It's change produced by shared experience rather than moral by revelation.

Martin Luther King understood this as he admonished his aides to include in their dreams the hope that their present opponents would become their future friends. And he realized that rules of correct behavior were insufficient: "Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right."

Yet when then presidential candidate Howard Dean said he wanted to get the votes of people who drove pickups with confederate flag stickers, he was immediately excoriated by other candidates.

The Dean controversy was driven by several factors. One was the growing liberal preference for proper language and symbolism over proper policy. Thus confederate flags soared above such other possible issues as the drug war with its disastrous effect on young black males, discrimination in housing and public transportation, and the lack of blacks in the U.S. Senate.

Further, while liberals are happy to stigmatize certain stereotypes, they are enthralled with others, such as the self-serving suggestion that they represent a new class of "cultural creatives" saving the American city. And from whom, implicitly, are they saving the American city? From the blacks, latinos and poor forced out to make way for their creativity.

Another factor has far deeper roots: our fear of public discussion of class issues. Although this has repeatedly been noted by both black and white observers, it has little effect on our politics or the media, both of which project the myth that ethnic conflict occurs independent of economic divisions.

One who understood otherwise was the black writer, Jean Toomer - who once described America as "so voluble in acclamation of the democratic ideal, so reticent in applying what it professes."

Writing in 1919, Toomer said, "It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition."

The flap over Ferraro's words is one more sign that, even 90 years later, we don't really want to talk about the real stuff yet.

March 07, 2008


Hillary Clinton is right about one thing: Barack Obama doesn't have enough experience.

With us.

We've spent 16 years reading, hearing and arguing about HR Clinton and can't honestly expect too many happy surprises to await us.

The public's broad consciousness of Barack Obama, on the other hand, is barely a year old, based largely on spin, rhetoric, heartwarming photography and cuddly fanship. So effective has this theater been that even the cynical may forget that as recently as three years ago even those who knew anything about Obama knew him as a state senator, hardly a common launch pad for the White House.

Consider the closing words in Todd Purdum's profile in Vanity Fair, in which he describes Obama saying good bye to the Illinois state senate in the fall of 2004:

"Afterward, he faced the Springfield press corps for the last time. Someone asked why he had already ruled out running on a national ticket with Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008. His answer was crisp and immediate. 'You know,' Obama replied, 'I am a believer in knowing what you're doing when you apply for a job. And I think that if I were to seriously consider running on a national ticket I would essentially have to start now, before having served a day in the Senate. Now, there are some people who might be comfortable doing that, but I'm not one of those people.'

Concludes Purdam: "But he is one of those people. He is. And wherever he is going, he has been one of them for a long, long time."

What has happened since can only be explained as a triumph of propaganda and political organizing combined with the unusual susceptibility of a frustrated electorate that has been deceived too often.

But step back from the campaign, forget the names of the leading candidates and this is what we face: a nation trapped in a foul war, dismal economy and dangerous environment choosing as a leader an eccentric right-winger of unpredictable behavior and uncertain lifespan or a largely unknown, untested and unchallenged man who has yet to tell us with any precision what he plans to do, and certainly didn't do a good job of it four years ago.

The choice seems lodged somewhere between the careless and the reckless. Both men are where they are because they are mythical symbols of things of which many dream. At a time when America desperately needs reality we refuse to turn off the TV. Time will tally the cost.

March 01, 2008



SAM SMITH - The rampant hostility towards Ralph Nader among liberal Democrats raises some uncomfortable questions about that wing of the party. Here's a guy who - unlike any recent Democratic presidential candidate - represents everything a liberal Democrat used to stand for and he is treated as an egotistical pariah.

In fact, his ego is no worse than that of a favored Democratic candidate who believes he deserves to be president despite have done virtually nothing to prove the point.

There are, to be sure, good reasons not to go with Nader but they are tactical in nature and therefore vacant of moral content. Foremost, there is the argument - to which I subscribe - that ending the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era is more likely to prove beneficial than Nader getting five percent of the vote. But having said that, I also understand those who argue, "I simply can't go and vote for someone who will deny a decent healthcare program and seems indifferent to the collapse of constitutional government and to the ecological crisis."

I do not regard such people as fools, ego-driven or cultish. And I certainly don't think they owe one penny to a Democratic Party that has for decades increasingly betrayed its own heritage. I think of them as good, well-motivated and honest people who are less cynically pragmatic than myself.

It would be nice if liberal Democrats who like to talk so much about choice, freedom and diversity would be more accepting of it in their own politics.

But of even more concern is the fact that to despise Nader you have to dislike what he stands for. Instead of it merely being a choice of tactics, between passing or running, there is something deeper. It would be difficult, for example, to be strongly in favor of single payer and not at least feel some sympathy for Nader. It would be difficult to believe strongly in a democratic system of government and trash Nader's right to run. It would be difficult to recognize all the issues the leading Democrats have ignored and not accept the possibility that there may be some who choose something different.

The hostility towards Nader has echoes of the liberal hostility towards Edwards, a partly class driven antipathy over deeper economic and social issues from which many better educated and better off liberals seem to feel immune.

The irony is that it is the Democrats' refusal to deal directly with many of these issues that opens up the space which the GOP fills with such crowd-pleasing vote getters as gay marriage, abortion and Obama's middle name.

There are good reasons for voting Democratic this year, but they are rooted in the inequities of our political system, pragmatic considerations and the fact that you can't do much with only one or two percent of the voters. These are not, however, moral reasons. So don't brag about them and don't blame Ralph Nader for what happens as a result. Give your vote to someone else but at least show Ralph a little respect. And hope for the day you can vote for someone as good as Nader who can actually win.