Thursday, December 15, 2016

Moving Stars

[ed. See also: My President Was Black (Ta-Nehisi Coates)]

The truth is, I couldn’t bring myself to watch that first strange meeting.

I knew President Obama would rise to the occasion, would do what needed to be done. But I didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to see him humbled, didn’t want to watch a dignified and decent president, the first black one the United States has known, forced to welcome a race-baiting demagogue to the People’s House.

But one can only turn so long from history.

So when Obama held a post-election press conference a few days later, I poured myself a glass of wine and buckled up, prepared to be depressed. But no—Obama came out smiling. Not the forced grimace of the defeated nor the smirk of the victor but a warm and genuine smile. He joked with the press corps about their question-stacking habits and spoke movingly about the death of journalist Gwen Ifill. He covered issues ranging from Syria to climate change, and for over an hour fielded questions about the election, the state of the nation, the President-elect. He calmly and understatedly made clear the difference between the man going out and the man coming in:

“This office is bigger than any one person. And that’s why ensuring a smooth transition is so important. It’s not something that the Constitution explicitly requires, but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy—similar to norms of civility and tolerance, and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis. It’s part of what makes this country work. And as long as I’m President, we are going to uphold those norms and cherish and uphold those ideals.”

Hey, what’s the temperature there, in the presidential shade?

What was most striking during that hour-long exercise in leadership and maturity was not his steadiness, his tact and diplomacy in the face of defeat. What was most striking was just how undefeated Barack Obama really was.

Of all the accomplishments of Michelle and Barack Obama, individually and together, this may be their greatest: They leave the White House not only strong, but actually stronger than when they entered. All visible evidence points to two people utterly centered, at perfect peace with themselves, each other and their place in history.

See Michelle’s ease as she oversees the arrival of the White House Christmas tree or shushes yet another desperate voter calling for her to run for president. See her joke with James Corden and dance with Jimmy Fallon. See her going peacefully to bed on Election Night: “Once you do what you can do, you rest easy. It was in the hands of the American people. Anything I felt about the election, I said, and I stand by.” See her leave the White House more toned, more glamourous, and utterly, utterly self-assured.

See Barack smile as he serenades a child dressed like Prince for Halloween. See him stand side-by-side with Angela Merkel, world leaders on the world stage. See him politely welcome the man who unrelentingly and unceasingly promoted lies about his birth.

See the Obamas’ easy self-assurance despite eight years not only of Republican political obstruction, but personal vilification. See their glowing contentment despite a relentless questioning of their legitimacy as citizens, as leaders—and most pointedly as representatives of the United States. See their Gibraltar-like centeredness despite threats and public rantings, US congressmen screaming out “you lie” during a joint address, bumper stickers praying for their deaths, public officials comparing them to monkeys and apes, people working themselves into a frenzy because Michelle Obama pushed for healthier school lunches and reduced childhood obesity (Ted Cruz promised that his wife would bring French fries back to school lunches if he was elected).

The Clintons left the White House embattled and defensive, grimly plotting their return. George H. W. Bush evacuated to Texas to lick his one-term wounds while his son, done but dampened, ambled home to paint, leaving behind a nation on the verge of economic collapse. Jimmy Carter retreated south of the Mason-Dixie line utterly defeated, though later he resurrected himself. Even mild-mannered Gerald Ford left Washington vanquished, too hoarse to give his concession speech, bowing his head to the anger at pardoning his crooked former boss. Only Ronald Reagan departed the furnace as sunny and raven-haired and Teflon-coated as he entered (despite the assassination attempt), but Teflon eventually deteriorates.

The Obamas are not Teflon. The Obamas are Lonsdaleite. Even as our nation convulses and writhes, a king snake biting itself, the Obamas stand calm. America may well be broken. The Obamas are not.

Of course it is this very unassailable, meteorite-hard sense of self that so infuriates Obama’s enemies. That sends the Joe Wilsons into paroxysms of anger. That rankles the Ted Nugents and makes the small-town, public official racists in Indiana and Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Kentucky smack the send button on their ranting Facebook posts. Obama’s sense of self rankles and frightens not because his enemies really believe he “has a deep-seated hatred of white people,” (to quote a pre-enlightened Glenn Beck) but because they fear, deep in their little hearts, that Obama doesn’t much care about white people either way. Which is to say: Michelle and Barack Obama clearly love and respect many human beings, including close friends and family members, who happen to be white (which sets them apart from the 75 percent of white Americans who report that their core social network includes no people of a race different from their own). But with whiteness itself they are unimpressed.

This is their real crime.

This is their real crime, and every black American knows it: how many times have we ourselves stood accused. All it takes is a perceived “unfriendliness,” a declined lunch invitation, a disinterest in being the Best Black Friend. I’ve been labeled angry, aloof, and even uppity at institutions from Phillips Exeter Academy to the New York Times, and not once could the people who really knew me understand the origins of such projections. Once a friend (who happens to be white) pulled me aside at her dinner party to ask why the absent husband of one of the other guests had reacted with snarky anger to the mention of my name. I did not know this man, had never spoken to him, had seen him only in passing on the local school playgrounds and soccer fields. But he told my friend, “She walks around this town like she owns it!”

My friend was bewildered; she didn’t know what he meant. But I knew. He meant I engaged that town and those people as though I belonged there, as though, in my confidence of my right to be, I could focus my attention where I liked. Which was not on him. (...)

The Obamas leave Washington intact because they internalized none of the hatred which swirled around them. They were never victims, even when being viciously victimized. This may be their greatest legacy to us, if we allow it. We can all learn something from them. If it’s not already too late.

by Kim McLarin, TMN |  Read more:
Image: Obama, Pink, 2010. Nicola Green