Wednesday, March 03, 2004

John Kerry Hopes to be the "second black president"

Back from a two-week hiatus during which yours truly spent a long weekend in fine art-laden London, stories like this about the democratic party nominee for president leave me wishing I'd claimed political assylum in Britain.

According to this story by Ron Fournier in Yahoo! News, John Kerry has cited the oft-used expression for former president Clinton, "America's first black president", and expressed his desire to be thought of in the same vein (Kerry Looking for Super Tuesday Triumph ). As Yahoo! links are not permanent, I will quote the "meat" of the article below:

Pre-election polling gave Kerry an edge in almost every Election Day venue as he sought a lion's share of the victories to make Edwards' presidential bid a political, if not quite a mathematical, impossibility. Kerry was already pivoting toward a general-election fight with President Bush.

"Boy, wait until you see the fire in my belly," he told a TV interviewer. (Langtry aside: Thanks, John, but I'll have to pass. That job seems better suited to your gastroenterologist.")

"President Clinton was often known as the first black president. I wouldn't be upset if I could earn the right to be the second," he told the American Urban Radio Network.

If I were a black woman, I would be deeply offended by Kerry's obvious condescension. As a white woman, I find Kerry's condescension to be instantly recognizable, the worst form of noblesse oblige: old-school, disingenuous, white, upper-class disdain masquerading as 'down with it', streetwise sensibility. As the democrats continue to disregard the upwardly-mobile, middle class Southerner (regardless of race), so goes their continued condescension to "urban (read: black) America". It's shameless pandering, and patently offensive to anyone who believes, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated, "it is the content of one's character that matters, not the color of one's skin." (my paraphrasing)

Lest Kerry think this "Do you feel me" approach is a good idea, I'd like to call his attention to the example provided by the "first black president" (as coined by the author Toni Morrison during the Lewinski scandal, BTW), Bill Clinton.

At the time, the relocation of Clinton's post-presidential offices were hailed as leading a new renaissance whereby other prominent individuals might choose to bring their companies to Harlem, residents of that New York neighborhood are now deeply critical of their former hero. Kerry might do well to recall that many blacks saw through Clinton's charade (Kevin Alexander Gray: Clinton and Black Americans) and those who originally celebrated Clinton's arrival in Harlem are now profoundly dissatisfied with Clinton's failure to bring about real change and urban renewal (Clinton, Harlem hero, is a phantom presence ). According to the Erik Gershon of the Columbia News Service, the primary print & online publication of the Columbia University School of Journalism, Clinton is rarely to be found in his Harlem offices:

Many people in Harlem respect Clinton, but they rarely lay eyes on him, it seems. Two years into the 42nd president's trumpeted 125th-Street tenancy, he appears to have become a largely theoretical presence, if one that conveniently represents the neighborhood's uneasy gentrification.

Based on more than a dozen impromptu interviews, people who work at or near 55 W. 125th St. expressed mixed feelings about Clinton's largely phantom presence.

Some people, such as Donna Clayton of Wimp's bakery, on Clinton's block, hinted at disappointment.

"In my opinion, he's probably not a part of the neighborhood as people would have expected when he first moved in," said Clayton, whose husband, Winzle, baked an 11-layer cake presented to Clinton the day he moved in. "To be honest, we don't feel his presence a lot. A lot of people ask. To me, it doesn't feel all that different."

If John Kerry finds himself inclined to use the expression "America's second black president" he may find that such expressions of urban sensibility are not met with electoral success. Clinton could at least lay claim to a poor childhood in the hard-scrabble South; Kerry's roots are decidedly genteel, and the consequences for his campaign of coopting urban culture are much greater.

My advice to him as a candidate is that he'd do well to end such flights of fancy now, before the insincerety of his actions become clear to potential voters. My advice to him as a republican, however, would be to keep it up. It is bound to make George Bush, for all of his foibles, appear to be a man of greater sincerety and integrity than his democratic presidential foe.

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