Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Strange timing ...

I swear I hadn’t read Ruth Ann Dailey’s column when I wrote my last post, this morning. I had in mind David Brooks and William Kristol of the NYTimes, both of whom have been complimentary of Barack Obama. When your enemies compliment you, you have to wonder what their motivation is.

Ruth Ann does not get around to complimenting Mr Obama until the last paragraph, but I assume she was baiting me with this early remark: “The column's timing is curious, appearing just as the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton is laying bare the cognitive dissonance of the left wing's decades-old racial posturing.” (probably not baiting me, but honestly, how many people use “cognitive dissonance” in everyday column writing?)

The remark refers to a column from Leonard Pitts Jr, discussing the history of the allegiance of black voters to one party or the other. A reader asks about Martin Luther King’s being a republican, and about Southern democrats such as Lester Maddox and George Wallace. Mr. Pitts responds by talking about the changeover Southern Democratic politicians had made (eventually to joining the Republican party), but he doesn’t really pin down the time that happened. Ms. Dailey pounces on that, and makes the point that during the civil rights era Republicans were still very sympathetic to African-Americans, voting in greater proportion than Democrats for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now, I’m not sure about what greater proportion means, it could mean that 90% of Republicans voted for the two acts, and only 89% of Democrats voted for them. Obviously, a lot of Southern Democrats were seeing the potential end of their careers (if blacks were no longer disenfranchised), and might well have voted against the Acts. Later as I understand it no small number of Southern Democrats switched parties (which Ms. Dailey notes), part of a deliberate “Southern Strategy” pursued by Richard Nixon. Ms Dailey is no also doubt accurate in documenting Lyndon Johnson’s move from being essentially racist in the fifties to championing civil rights in the late sixties.

But Ruth Ann goes on to try to identify the “Real Killers”, which is to say the real villains in the south. She points the finger at extremists in both parties, at African American leaders who want to maintain their power base, and lastly (and not surprisingly) at the “baby boomer” media which sees the leaders of the civil rights movement as heroes. I have to say the first three groups are easy targets, and I think Ruth Ann is advancing her own agenda in pointing at the media. There is surely some hero worship of figures like Kennedy and King, but it is harder than ever to run away from the truth, even if it is a little threatening to one’s self image.

Caroline Kennedy’s piece in the NYTimes, endorsing Barack Obama because he reminds her of what people tell her about her own father, might well be looked at in terms of cognitive dissonance. She writes in a style that reads like something out of a bad third grade civics textbook. She actually tells us that since the Democratic candidates policy proposals are so similar, we can safely ignore and make our choice based largely on “qualities of leadership, character and judgment”.

The thing is, Jack Kennedy was a very human president. He was a cold warrior with very good anti-communist credentials, for example his brother Bobby was a counsel for the “Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations”, Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist committee. Later Bobby ended up as part of the investigation of McCarthy. JFK was almost certainly a philanderer, but the media of the time was reluctant to reveal such things. Kennedy got us deeper into Vietnam and of course set the tone for our relationship with Cuba. The country at the time was pretty divided about Kennedy, much the way it was divided in the (Bill) Clinton years.

Certainly Kennedy had some strong qualities. His handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, although hardly well thought out at the time, was a successful masterstroke of restraint. Kennedy brought us the Peace Corps, the manned effort to reach the moon, civil rights, the 1963 tax cut and generally did set an optimistic tone for the country.

Kennedy, the assassinated myth, holds a special place in US mythology, along with his brother and Martin Luther King. But we should really remember the man, who rose past his foibles to be good (although perhaps not great) president.

No comments: