Tag Archives: Obama

The Gentleman or the Abyss

Last week, I went to the Apollo to see the Prez. Let me repeat that because there’s something magical and ridiculously unlikely in that sentence.  Obama, is, of course, the first sitting president to ever come to the Apollo.  Ten or fifteen years ago, Harlem was much less safe and chic than it is today, and a presidential visit to the theater would have been unthinkable.  But then, to paraphrase Tom Tomorrow, if Dr. Who had landed in 2001 and announced that in 2008 America would elect a black man named Barack Hussein Obama president, it wouldn’t be the time travel part that would sound crazy.

Today 125th street has tour buses and chain stores, but still the feeling of history, and the Apollo is history.  Tickets were reasonably priced, starting at $100, far less than a Broadway show or a concert.  This was not a big donor crowd, just enthusiastic constituents, still proud of their President though some may have been a little disappointed that he hasn’t always been as forceful as we’d hoped.  (As someone said to me recently, “I still love the President. I’m just not in love with him anymore.)

Our politically savvy cousin (a former campaign manager for a sitting senator) who accompanied us, reviewed the President’s speech as a “incoherent, but exciting.”  Obama was trying out different things, honing his message for the coming election. He was in training.

The speech reminded me of why we had expected so much.  He hit the right populist notes, sounding like Jimmy Stewart in the never released Capra sequel, President Smith Runs for Re-election. He talked about the economic mess he inherited, how hard it will be to pull ourselves out, the need for the same rules to apply to everyone, and that we are all in this together. He talked about the good that government can do and referenced social security as well as health care reform.  He mentioned the GI bill, which his grandfather had used to go to college after the war.  My father also went to school on the GI bill.  In his case to attended optometry school at Columbia, although  before the war he’d  gotten a bachelor’s degree at City College (also in Harlem, USA), which back then didn’t charge tuition.  Imagine that!  A free university education.  What a country we once were back when that socialist FDR was in charge.

Obama talked about his opponents and how much the republicans had changed, referencing both Lincoln who created the Internal Revenue Service and Teddy (Bust the Trust)  Roosevelt.

But the moment that would be immortalized on YouTube was when he first came out, after the Reverend Al Green, and he began to sing Let’s Stay Together.  The crowd went wild.  Obama beamed that big smile, the one that inspired crazy Pam Geller to speculate that Malcolm X was his biological father (my absolute favorite conspiracy theory, not only for its absurdity and physical impossibility, but because I kind of wish, if only.)   At the time, I just enjoyed the moment.  It only hit me hours later that of course the singing was staged.

When the stakes are this high, nothing is left to chance.  I can imagine Obama with his advisers planning the marathon of his New York night — three dinners and a show.  I could see him being told that the entertainment would include Al Green, prompting an impromptu song burst, followed by one of the bright not-so-young men saying, “You’ve got to do that!”

I accept that he is after all a politician, an incumbent running for re-election in a tough economy. The line that has haunted me since Thursday wasn’t the musical interlude, it was when he said that this is not the same Republican party he ran against in 2008, that back then he ran against an opponent “who agreed that we should ban torture, believed in climate change, [and] had worked on immigration reform.”

Here’s what it comes down to. On one side are the republican candidates left standing. There’s  Romney, a rich man who can joke about betting $10,000, and about his being “unemployed,”  then turn earnest about corporations’ being people.  If he didn’t actually exist, Stephen Colbert would have had to invent him.   There’s Gingrich who doesn’t just pander to racists, he incites them while playing the victim. And Santorum is still in the race, a man openly disdainful of science, education and contraception.  Here are people advocating policies that would rid us of even the small safety net that exists, who would happily gut social security, rescind health care reform, destroy public education and leave an economy in shambles, men who talk about limiting government while advocating its entry into our bedrooms.

Before the show, as we waited on line (this being New York) that cold winter’s night.  Across the street, there were the usual motley band of protesters, occupy Wall Street types with signs about corporations and Guantanomo, proclaiming their status as part of the 99%.   Of course this was an event for the 99%.  Ironically, many of us had probably at least visited Zuccotti Park.  While some will argue that there isn’t much difference between the parties, at this point that’s unaffordable nihilism.   Maybe Obama is too “centrist” for some or too much of a gentleman when times call for a street fighter, but we are all standing on a precipice and it’s either him or the abyss.

One America? Oh really, Mr. President?

Over dinner the spouse and I were discussing a newspaper article about Obama’s having to weigh in on whether gay partners of federal employees should get health benefits. Thanks to the “defense of marriage act” signed by then-President Bill Clinton, the government opposes this, while the courts say yes.

Aside from generally being in favor of human rights, we watch this issue closely. Two years ago we got hitched. We love each other and all that. In fact, the marriage thing was probably the best decision either of us ever made, but it was a calculated decision. (I mean that literally. I used a calculator.) One of us is past the child-bearing years, and neither of us has any great desire to breed or adopt except possibly from the local animal shelter. We did not marry in order to raise a family.

After careful consideration, we married for the bennies. That’s benefits to my friends in more progressive places like, oh, CANADA. In the US there’s no national health and the cost of medical treatment is astronomical. Private health insurance is expensive and mostly doesn’t cover “pre-existing” conditions. I wanted to quit my job and knew that while I could afford to take lower paying freelance work, I could not afford to be without health insurance. The quickest and by far least expensive way for me to get health insurance would be by marrying which would enable me to get on my husband’s work-covered plan. There were other benefits as well. As a married couple, we could file a joint income tax and as I wasn’t making that much money, we would pay a lower tax rate. And then of course there’s stuff like social security and many other privileges available only to those living in wedded bliss.

As we waited for our food to arrive, we reflected on a recent fund raiser we’d attended sponsored by Garden State Equality in which the brilliant comedian Judy Gold did a slide-show about who can get married (Brittany and K Fed, Levi and Bristol, etc.) and who can’t (sane adults who happen to be gay, no matter how much they contribute to society, and not withstanding whether or not they are raising children together).

As the waiter arrived with our dinners, I made the following naive and foolish statement (I’ve gone kind of soft and idealistic since Obama was elected): “But if the conservatives just understood it as a rights and fairness issue. You can’t have some people getting these benefits and others not….”

My husband looked at me like he was seeing the first signs of senility. “But the religious right does get it. That’s the point. They don’t want gay people to have rights.”

“But we won the election. He can…”

“If he has the balls to stand up to them.”

“But they’re not the majority..”

“They are in Dixie.”

Then he went on his usual rant about how the cultural divide in the US could not be mended. Despite our President’s very appealing words, there are two America’s.

“The only solution,” my better-half argued, “is for the US to get out of Dixie. We should have let them go after the Civil War.”

“We’d lose New Orleans,” I said.

He pointed out that even the most backward nations have their points of progress and charming cities.

“Which city do you think New York has more in common with, Amsterdam or Dallas?”

“We’d lose Florida,” I pointed out, thinking about his mother in Boynton Beach.

“We could open up diplomatic relations with Cuba,” he countered.

He was tired of his tax dollars going to support energy policies that it made it possible for people in Houston to run their air-conditioners 365 days a year. He didn’t want to pay to bring water to the Arizona desert. He didn’t want to still be debating whether or not evolution should be taught in schools. Mostly, he didn’t want rapture-ready zealots getting us into stupid wars. He didn’t want to ever see Sarah Palin’s face again.

“There shouldn’t be a debate about what the founding fathers meant by the separation of church and state,” he said.

“Or about who can get married,” I added.

We sipped our wine in the Italian restaurant with its immigrant wait-staff and its multi-ethnic neighborhood clientele. Probably not one person in that room had voted for McCain or believes that god hates the gays. While the Obama presidency has made us all feel very good about ourselves, it’s not clear what can be accomplished if he has to kowtow to the South. I’m no great fan of partition – India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine being two examples that didn’t work out too well. But as Craig points out, left to its own devices, the South would not be strong enough or powerful enough to be a threat. It’s far more dangerous to the United States and the world as a backward, racist, backwater of a superpower.