Wielding actual power in the highest position is very different from games and principles expressive of a narrow focus down below. All of that becomes clear as we look at what Barack Obama, the "new sheriff in town," has to deal with as troubles rear up in the forms that tell us exactly where we are on the frontier of American experience. Obama shows that he is ready and far more shrewd than many who thought him no more than a charming motivational speaker who could, at best, move from his preferred world of the cool into the sweaty hair shirts of the hot whenever necessary.
The way that our almost new president dealt with the old fashioned race hustle enunciated by Bobby Rush at a press conference held by then Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris, his selection to replace Obama in the Senate, is highly instructive. Rush, the nearly toothless former Black Panther who fled the field of battle bullets for the high and low rhetoric of electoral politics, made a very weak case for Burris. It was so moldy that every sentence seemed either green or to have white hair growing from it. Rush interpreted the threat to not seat Burris made by Harry Reid and the Democrats as being somehow analogous to Bull Connor releasing the dogs and letting loose the fire hoses on civil rights workers in Birmingham!
Obama chose to walk into the lion's den of the social and financial conservatives and, like Daniel, impressed the lions more than they did him.
Invoking God, of course, Rush said it was extremely important to seat Burris because there were so few "African Americans" in the Senate and asserted that Gov. Blagojevich's appointment was in the same spirit America revealed when it was shocked by the brutality shown the men, women, and children of Birmingham. One must assume that Blagojevich was then doing the work of the Lord. Rush concluded by saying that Burris should not be "lynched" by the Democrats who did not intend to seat him.
Those are the old race and quota politics that will surely die a very slow death but that Obama addressed by not addressing them. He merely let Harry Reid know that Burris was a squeaky clean guy and that seating him would put the controversy, Blagojevich, and Rush's fossil mentality behind them. Burris in Obama's vacated seat would silence the whole greasy matter until Blagojevich, the troubled crook once in charge, has his day in court and all of the details of his preferred suit of slime will be measured in public.
The train of history had obviously passed Rush by and was disappearing into a tunnel of actual power that he obviously does not understand. This new power is not based in manipulative ploys intended to set white guilt afire.
Blagojevich, just as phony as Rush, picked up the term lynch from the congressman and, playing the besieged and exasperated victim, implored the press not to lynch him! Well, if playing a tape of a man exposing himself as a crook willing to sell appointments is a new form of lynching done with surveillance tape, then we have truly entered another part of the forest. Clearly our technology is now redefining virtually everything we know, including the actions of an hysterical mob murdering someone with a hemp necktie.
Rush and Blagojevich are both wild swine whose tusks have turned to rubber and are now being shipped to the slaughterhouse of the outmoded, dishonored, and disregarded. Ham, bacon, and sausage on the way.
The meaningless controversy over Obama having dinner this week with Republican intellectual pundits is a lesson in misinterpretation. Obama dined with pundits of a high order as opposed to those usually thought of as witches and warlocks, like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. He did not use the occasion to show off his charm school techniques or suck up to those men in an attempt to bring heavier conservative minds aboard his ship of ideology. It was a high class power play as unprecedented as it was probably effective.
Neither George Will, the first class reigning mind of conservative America, nor any of the others invited is accustomed to sitting at a table with the president and having to answer the sorts of questions that might be asked at an informal dinner. Such as, "Do you actually think that will work? If so, how and why? Enlighten me, please." Or, "What do you think we should do about two million lost jobs? A magic wand won't get it."
For a president to probe ideas at length with his ideological opponents put them on notice in a way that was a moment as fresh as it was almost surely superb. These are largely men of intellectual integrity but I am willing to bet everything I have that the kind of arrogance some of them are so good at showing when spouting their supercilious beliefs on Fox News or elsewhere disappeared at the very moment that the subject arrived and sat there in front of them—a human being instead of an electronic image on a television screen or a convenient phantom made of statistics, polls, sound bites, and conventionally dull witted editorial opinions passed off as "insights."
Each of those men knows full well that Barack Obama did something that neither one of them nor anyone they know could have done and that his reading of American possibility redefined our moment in ways that no one ever has in the entire history of our nation. Yes, his victory was the result of many things but it was largely the result of a man more politically brilliant and disciplined than anyone in Washington right now. This man's charisma is not blunted by the blandness necessary to handle the pervasive scrutiny of our voracious media that has neither known nor shown any limits since it took down Gary Hart for "monkey business." Obama can meet the constant measure of the electronic microscope and remain at full force. That is not a power to be underestimated.
They also learned at that dinner something a friend of mine said about Obama during the campaign: "He knows that the best way to handle a fire is to run into it instead of away from it." Obama chose to walk into the lion's den of the social and financial conservatives and, like Daniel, impressed the lions more than they did him. But he also learned everything that he needs to know about each of them as a man, which is always important to a serious leader.
Like Duke Ellington said, it helps to write music for a man if you know how he plays poker. Now, within reason, Obama knows what to expect of each of them. He knows now the difference between a truly subtle mind and how the haughty and huffy guy in an interview on television or living beneath a by-line becomes no more than a meek little frustrated man in person. That is not a minor set of discoveries. You can be sure that Barack Obama will make the most of it over his years in the White House.
Finally, there are those on the left disappointed in Obama because he gives absolutely no indication that he intends to bring George W. Bush and Dick Cheney into the dock on charges of war crimes, even though their own admissions, according to certain lawyers, should make the case a piece of cake. That is a cake that I am sure Obama is much too sharp minded to slice a piece of and lean back expecting a pleasurable mouthful of vengeful sweetness.
The reasons should be obvious to all: he has long-range plans and is given to thinking beyond the week, the month, the year. Obama says that he wants to move forward and not take the country backward. Nor, he says, does he want those responsible for protecting our country from terrorists to feel as though someone is looking over their shoulders. Forward is always a good word in a country as insensitive to history as the United States which is why Obama probably chose it.
As an exceptionally intelligent man who plays close attention to everything and everyone around him, our next president knows to whom he is actually speaking and how much more Americans love slogans than facts, quick reads rather than details, and pert answers instead of explanations that smell of the grit, the dung, and the grease of detailed understanding.
Let us move forward instead of backward is good enough because it gives the public the feeling that one is shining his political shoes with Tomorrow Polish. But what is really being said is quite simple and should make a good deal of sense to anyone who has paid attention to the Republicans over the years. Were Obama to send his attorney general after Bush and Cheney he would be asking for a fight in the first months of his presidency that could cost him dearly and prove him some sort of a fool rather than the cannily superior man we have come to believe that he is.
The Republicans would resent it so much that they would become obstructionists to every piece of legislation that they could, no matter how much sense it made. They would unleash all of the dogs of journalistic war on him, including Coulter and Limbaugh, neither of whom is ever to be believed, which is what makes both so popular: they can feed the fantasies of those who need to be told that the opposition always has to be subhuman in some way, even though the term is never used. If war crimes could be committed through the weapon of free speech we would see them then. The biggest of the Big Lies would be that Obama had sacrificed the sanctity of domestic peace in order to destroy his Republican adversaries. Following hard on that lie's heels would be the charge that he had proven himself anti-American and perhaps the Manchurian Candidate that so many had sensed back during the campaign when they had called him and his wife everything other than children of God.
I am sure of that because all we need to do is remember how removed from cultural reality the Republicans proved themselves to be when they thought they had Bill Clinton's presidential testicles caught in barbed wire because of hanky panky with Monica Lewinsky and were sure that they could remove them with an impeachment. They did not understand that ours is a country that has gone too far down a decadent path to actually get riled up by a case of consentual foreplay, no matter who was guilty of playing with private parts that were not his wife's.
Nothing has changed since, no matter how much scandal has come down on Republican heads, from influence peddling to men soliciting sex with other men in bathrooms and every kind of fraud and con job wrought by deregulation. The elephants remain as sanctimonious as ever. Nothing proves to Republicans that the framers of our basic documents assumed that human susceptibility to corruption or unfathomable motives are always to be guarded against in the very form of our democracy. That is what the naive always miss about the brilliance of those men. They were not celebrating the rights of human beings. Jefferson had already done that in The Declaration of Independence. They were expressing a profoundly unsentimental paranoia about the potential abuses of those in power. Hence our checks and balances system.
Obama knows this about his opposition or those who would join up to become his opposition if he were to have a case brought against Bush and Cheney based on their own admissions of advocating and ordering torture. So those who want the nail-filled paddle used on the backsides of Bush and Cheney are both disappointed and supremely naive. Barack Obama has bigger fish to fry right now and is busy pouring the cooking oil in his skillet.
Yet one never knows what to expect from a grand master of long range strategy. Come the seventh year of his presidency—if Obama is reelected—Bush and Cheney might hear a knock at the door and be surprised to know that someone in power still takes seriously the minor mistakes made by ordering the torture of some suspected terrorists jailed way down there in the Caribbean somewhere.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.