Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Burris deserves better from Senate Democrats

By DeWayne Wickham

In saying they won't let Roland Burris fill the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, Democrats controlling the Senate said Burris would be "plagued by questions of impropriety" if they let his appointment stand.

That reeks more of political bluster than concern about good governance.

Burris is the former Illinois state attorney general named by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to replace Obama, who gave up his seat after winning the presidential election. Burris' selection comes three weeks after a federal prosecutor charged Blagojevich with trying to sell the Senate seat for
personal gain.

Blagojevich claims he's committed no crime, even as a committee of the Illinois legislature holds impeachment hearings and federal prosecutors press ahead with their case. There were mounting calls for Blagojevich not to fill the vacant Senate seat with this legal cloud hanging over his head.

But despite the seriousness of the charges against him, Blagojevich retains the constitutional authority to fill the Senate seat - and Senate Democrats should not reject Burris' appointment out of hand.

"Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint a good and honest man," Blagojevich said in announcing his selection. "This is about Roland Burris as a U.S. senator, not about the governor who made the appointment."

But as news of Burris' selection leaked, Senate Democrats said they would stop him from taking office. This "is not about Mr. Burris, it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat," Democrats said in a statement.

"Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois" and will not be allowed to take a seat in Congress, the Democrats went on to say.

Senate Democrats were aided and abetted in this bad judgment call by President-elect Obama. While calling Burris "a good man and a fine public servant," Obama said he agreed with the Senate's opposition to his appointment because Blagojevich "is accused of selling this very Senate seat."

To accept this tortured reasoning is to treat a mere accusation as proof of criminal behavior. The charges against Blagojevich are serious; but Obama and the Senate's Democratic majority need to be reminded they are just that - charges.

I'm not suggesting Senate Democrats should be unmindful of the federal prosecutor's claim that Blagojevich is corrupt. But since the Illinois governor has neither been convicted of a crime nor impeached by state lawmakers, his choice to fill Obama's Senate seat should not be rejected without good cause.

Under the Constitution, the Senate has the authority to "be the judge of the elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members." So instead of announcing a knee-jerk rejection of Burris - even as they say they "respect his years of public service" - Senate Democrats should take a more deliberative approach to his appointment.

They should hold a hearing to determine if Burris bought his way into the Senate - something no one has accused him of doing. If he didn't, they should let him take a seat among them.

Senate Democrats should not lump Burris and Blagojevich together. It makes no sense to say a man they know to be upstanding can't be allowed to fill the Senate vacancy because the governor who appointed him is accused of wrongdoing.

What the Senate doesn't need is a posse of Democrats gunning for an accused governor and making collateral damage of a man widely considered a class act.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

As Castro's Cuba turns 50, it's time to end the fight

By DeWayne Wickham

Like a couple of punch drunk boxers who have stayed in the ring long after the blows they rain on each can produce a decisive victory, Cuba and the United States are still flailing at each other half a century after Fidel Castro’s revolution succeeded.

In the world of geopolitics, this ought to be the definition of insanity. Cuba’s brand of communism turns 50 on New Year’s Day. That it has survived so long is a testament to the resiliency of this one-party state, which — despite the claims of its critics — has widespread support among the Cuban people.

But longevity alone is no predictor of survival. For the past 50 years, Cuba has been a nation under siege, rallying people to its defense with calls to patriotism and the fear that another U.S. occupation force will descend upon the island nation that sits just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

Between 1898 and 1933, the United States sent military forces into Cuba four times. After the Castro regime came to power in 1959, American government operatives helped arm and train an invasion force of Cuban exiles that was defeated in the 1961 Bays of Pigs invasion.

“I have spent all of my adult life in the trenches,” Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, once told me. He was talking about the time he’s spent defending Cuba’s communist regime from U.S. efforts to topple it.

Alarcon won’t escape that trench any time soon — nor is it likely there will be an appreciable change in U.S.-Cuban relations in the next 50 years — if the two countries continue their fistfight. It’s time for Cuba and the U.S. to replace their pugilism with diplomacy — time for both to make some meaningful concessions to bring this fight to an end.

And just what concessions do I have in mind? Well, to begin with, the incoming Obama administration should shut down Radio and TV Marti, the federally funded Spanish-language stations that attempt to penetrate Cuba’s airwaves with “news” shows largely controlled by Cuban exiles in south Florida. In return, Cuba should open its broadcast airwaves to legitimate news programs that come from beyond its borders so that its people — like those in many other countries — can get a broader perspective of the world.

The Castro government should free all of its so-called “political prisoners,” in return for which the Obama government should stop giving aid and comfort to Cuba’s political dissidents.

The Obama administration should return the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to Cuba. Control of that land was coerced from Cuba more than a century ago as a condition for ending the first U.S. military occupation of that island. In return for this giveback, Cuba should agree to allow its citizens to freely travel abroad and emigrate anywhere they want.

Cuba should admit that in shooting down two unarmed planes in 1996 it overreacted to the provocations of the south Florida exile group that operated those flights. The United States should apologize for not putting Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles on trial for their alleged roles in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that took 76 lives.

Congress should end the economic embargo of Cuba — and the Castro government should open Cuba’s political process to all comers.

Of course all of these actions will draw a blood curdling cry from those who still hope for a knockout punch in the U.S.-Cuba political fistfight. But the more rational among us know the time has come to get these old combatants to take off their boxing gloves.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bush should pardon shoe thrower

By DeWayne Wickham

Two days before Christmas, President Bush issued 19 pardons and one commutation. But nowhere on that list was the name of Muntazer al-Zaidi.

Al-Zaidi is the Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at the president during his surprise visit to Iraq earlier this month. Of course, Bush's power to forgive the bad acts of people doesn't extend to crimes committed by foreigners in their native land.

But al-Zaidi is a special case, and there is still time for Bush to launch a pre-emptive strike against his prosecution. Bush should ask the leaders of the government his administration played a big role in creating to pardon the shoe thrower.

As it stands now, al-Zaidi's trial is scheduled to begin on New Year's Eve. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for five to 15 years.

Al-Zaidi was attending an impromptu press conference held by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki when he ripped off his shoes and tossed them at the American president.

What he did was a foolish expression of the disdain many Iraqis feel for Bush. In the Arab world, showing someone the soles of your shoe is a sign of contempt. Bush nimbly ducked both shoes. After security officers hustled al-Zaidi from the room, Bush joked about the incident, then linked it to his efforts to turn Iraq into a democratic state.

"I don't know what the guy's cause is," Bush said. "But that's what happens in free societies, where people try to draw attention to themselves."

Exactly. And it is a free society that Bush wants as his legacy in Iraq. Al-Zaidi wasn't trying to harm Bush physically, he wanted to insult him. What he did was - in the context of his culture - an act of political protest.

But the Iraqi journalist is charged with "aggression against a foreign head of state" and could end up spending a lot of time behind bars. And that could undermine Iraq's fragile democracy.

With provincial elections set for the end of January, opponents of al-Maliki are trying to paint the Iraqi prime minister as an American puppet and al-Zaidi as an Iraqi hero who stood up to the leader of the country that invaded Iraq.

Americans can argue the merits of this argument (again, an expression of democracy), but in Iraq and much of the Middle East the shoe-throwing is seen as a David-and-Goliath incident.

If al-Maliki's government convicts al-Zaidi for an offense not considered a criminal act in that region of the world, it will hand the opponents of democracy in Iraq a highly symbolic victory at a crucial time.

Bush can take al-Maliki off of the hook by asking him to pardon al-Zaidi.

"There is hope in the eyes of Iraqis' young," Bush said shortly before al-Zaidi tossed his shoes. "This is a future of what we've been fighting for - a strong and capable, democratic Iraq that will be a force of freedom and a force for peace in the heart of the Middle East."

Maybe so. But the prosecution of al-Zaidi could become the cause célèbre that unravels all of what Bush thinks he has accomplished in Iraq.

Al-Zaidi is not Richard Reid, the Briton who tried to blow up a Miami-bound airline using a shoe packed with explosives. He rightfully got a life sentence from an American court for that act of madness.

For throwing his shoes at Bush, al-Zaidi should be judged only for the political statement he was trying to make in the newly democratic Iraq.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rick Warren is Obama's Booker T.

By DeWayne Wickham

If you’re looking for an explanation of Barack Obama’s decision to invite conservative evangelical preacher Rick Warren to give the invocation at his Inauguration that goes beyond the desire for a kumbaya moment, I’ve got one.

Obama wants to make Warren his Booker T. Washington.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Washington was one of this nation’s most influential black leaders. His willingness to try to find common ground with whites who viewed – and treated – blacks as an inferior race made Washington someone presidents reached out to.

Theodore Roosevelt, especially, turned to Washington for advice on “the Negro problem.” Taking counsel from “the great accommodationist,” as Washington was called, was an act of steam control by the Republican president at a time when the racial divide was undeniably this nation’s most explosive problem.

“In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” Washington said in an 1895 speech that established him as a black leader who was willing to temper the demands of blacks for racial equality.

Last week, Warren – who, like most evangelical leaders, disagrees sharply with Obama on social issues like abortion and gay rights – sounded a similar note when he sought to assuage the concerns of those who question why he was asked to give the invocation.

“You don’t have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand,” he said in a speech to a group of Muslims in California.

With the election of the nation’s first black president America’s continuing racial problems will – for a time, at least – be pushed onto the back burner. A greater threat to the Obama administration will be the cultural warfare that flared up during the election that hoisted Obama into the White House. Voters in three states, Arizona, Florida and California passed constitutional amendments that banned gay marriage. And in Arkansas, voters passed a ballot measure that makes it illegal for gay couples to adopt children or serve as foster parents.

Warren was actively campaigned for passage of Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriages. “We support (it), and if you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Prop 8,” he said in an October email that was sent to members of his Saddleback Church in southern California.

Three months earlier, Obama announced his opposition to the California amendment, saying that he supports civil unions for gays and lesbians – though not marriage. He called the California measure “divisive and discriminatory.”

Theodore Roosevelt believed blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and did little to protect their civil rights during his time in the White House. Even so, Washington became one of his advisers on matters of race – and a conduit for the few patronage appointments that he doled out to blacks.

In accepting Obama’s invitation to give the invocation at next month’s inaugural, Warren gives some pressure relief to Obama, who was backed by just 24 percent of white evangelical voters. Three-fourths of these Christian conservatives voted for John McCain, his Republican opponent in the presidential election.

Republicans won’t be able to make a serious challenge to Obama’s reelection in 2012 without the strong backing of the party’s Christian conservative base. Obama’s outreach to Warren – and Warren’s acceptance of that embrace – threatens to take some of the steam out of and GOP efforts to make Obama the chief target of their cultural battles.

Just as Roosevelt used Washington to keep blacks from deserting the Republican Party, Barack Obama’s effort to befriend Rick Warren could prevent evangelicals from massing in opposition to his presidency.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Obama's first foreign policy test

By DeWayne Wickham

The first foreign policy test for Barack Obama didn't come in the form of a 3 a.m. phone call about a looming threat from some distant enemy. It came Wednesday from a gathering of some of America's closest allies.

At a meeting of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries - including Mexico and Brazil - the assembled leaders called for an end to the 46-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba and creation of a regional alliance that doesn't include the United States or Canada.

The organization, which Mexican President Felipe Calderon said should be called the Union of Latin American and Caribbean States, would rival the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States for political supremacy in the hemisphere.

The proposed union is just the most recent manifestation of the United States' declining influence in its geopolitical backyard. The Russian and Chinese presidents recently visited the region. The Russian and Venezuelan navies are holding joint war games off the coast of that South American country, and the Iranian president is expected to make a state visit to the region soon.

And the Rio Group - a collection 22 Caribbean and South American states - announced during the Brazilian summit that it has admitted Cuba to its ranks.

None of this bodes well for the nascent Obama administration.

During the presidential campaign, Obama said he would lift restrictions on Cuban Americans' ability to travel to Cuba and on remittances sent to people in the socialist state.

But that isn't much of a change in the nearly half-century-old embargo - nor is it an enlightened foreign policy.

But there is still time for Obama to signal to his hemispheric neighbors that "change" was more than a campaign slogan when it comes to how this nation treats countries in the Americas.

"We have to wait for the new U.S. president to take office and see what his proposals are for Latin America and Cuba," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said in response to calls for countries at the summit to immediately recall their ambassadors from the United States to protest the Cuba embargo.

It's unlikely that such a drastic step will occur even after Obama takes office and makes only minor changes to the embargo. But the summit discussion suggests he will have to do more than tweak restrictions on travel and remittances to forge a Cuba policy that satisfies these countries, which see the embargo as an arrogant act of American jingoism.

And of course that's exactly what it is.

The embargo has succeeded only in limiting the Cuban people's access to badly needed food and medicine. Instead of pledging to keep it in place until Cuba meets certain conditions, Obama should end it.

Instead of trying to topple the Cuban government - the real goal of the embargo - Obama should push the doors to Cuba wide open. He should let American companies do business in Cuba and free all Americans, not just Cuban Americans, to freely travel to the island nation.

That would pressure the Cuban government to relax its restrictions on individual rights, which it claims were enacted in response to the external threat posed by the United States. It also would strip Cuba of any plausible argument that its domestic problems are American-made.

If Obama produces a meaningful change in U.S.-Cuba policy, he'll out-maneuver critics of the United States’ Cuba policy and thwart their efforts to undermine this country's leadership.

If he just retools a bad Cuba policy, Obama will diminish the standing and influence of the United States in its own backyard.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bush may save GOP from itself

By DeWayne Wickham

George W. Bush may have saved the Republican Party from itself – and pumped a bit of helium into his deflated approval rating.

If, as expected, the Treasury Department gives General Motors and Chrysler the stop-gap loans they need to prevent their collapse – and keep a ripple effect from laying waste to businesses far beyond the auto industry – Bush could rescue the GOP from self destruction. Last week, Senate Republicans scuttled a House-passed bill that would have given the two American automotive companies about $11 billion in emergency funding.

The federal loan will allow General Motors and Chrysler to avoid bankruptcy and continue operating until Congress and the incoming Obama administration can broker a longer term deal to keep this nation’s homegrown automobile industry from going the way of the dodo bird.

While Senate Republicans publicly bandied about laissez faire arguments as the reason for their opposition to this federal bailout, MSNBC uncovered a GOP document last week that suggested another motive. “Republican should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it,” read the unsigned “Action Alert” memo that was sent to GOP senators before the vote.

In other words, Republicans wanted to strike a blow against the United Auto Workers Union, which worked mightily to elect Barack Obama and has given $10 million to other Democratic candidates over the past decade. Some of that money went to opponents of some of the Republican senators that now oppose the bailout, the Detroit Free Press reported.

If you think what the GOP did is simply good political payback, consider this: Since 1990, America’s automobile industry – manufacturers, dealers and suppliers – has given Republican candidates $100 million. During the same period, Democrats got just $34 million from these sources, according to the Center for Responsible Politics.

So why did Republicans pick this fight? Because they are badly in need of a short-term victory; even one that could do them long-term harm.

When all the victors in November’s election are sworn in, Democrats will control the White House, both houses of Congress and a majority of the nation’s governorships. And as America hurtles toward the time (projected to arrive around 2050) when minorities will make up a majority of the population, the Republican Party is increasingly becoming a political organization that appeals to whites only.

Obama was elected president on the strength of a coalition that contained 95 percent of black voters, 66 percent of Hispanics voters and 43 percent of whites.

His Republican opponent, John McCain, picked up just 4 percent of the black vote, 32 percent of Hispanics and 55 percent of whites – a smaller share of each group than Bush won in 2004 – all a smaller share of these groups than what Bush got in 2004.

Now largely a regional political force (it holds sway in a shrinking number of states mostly in the South and Rocky Mountain West), the GOP’s opposition to the auto industry bailout is meant to kill off the UAW before it can make big inroads in organizing auto industry workers in Southern states where several foreign car manufacturers have assembly plants.

To his credit, Bush understands that the GOP’s opposition to the bailout might be good “get-even” politics for members of a critically-wounded, regionally-isolated political party, but it is bad governance by members of our national legislature.

In agreeing to use a portion of the $700 billion Congress gave the Treasury Department to aid the nation’s struggling financial institutions to keep General Motors and Chrysler afloat, Bush rises above the pettiness of congressional Republicans to put this nation’s needs ahead of his party.

That’s an act of leadership that deserves to be acknowledged.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Honest Abe" Blagojevich

By DeWayne Wickham

Moments after accusing Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of heading a "political corruption crime spree," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald delivered his punch line. Blagojevich's conduct "would make (Abraham) Lincoln roll over in his grave," the federal prosecutor said.

Connecting Blagojevich, who is arguably the state's most infamous politician, with Lincoln, Illinois' most revered, is good political theater. Lincoln is considered one of America's greatest presidents. He led this country during the Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered the freeing of slaves in the Confederate states. His reputation for honesty earned him the nickname, "Honest Abe."

Despite being elected as a reformer, Blagojevich's political resume is far from impressive. He's allegedly been the subject of a federal investigation for some time before he was taken into custody by FBI agents a few days ago. Fitzgerald said the arrest came after the governor conspired to award the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder. Under Illinois law, Blagojevich has the power to name someone to serve the remaing two years of Obama's term.

Fitzgerald also said Blagojevich tried to get the Chicago Tribune to fire several editorial writers who had angered him in return for state help in selling Wrigley Field, a baseball stadium the newspaper owns.

His Lincoln line was meant to draw a sharp distinction between Blagojevich and this nation's 16th president. But when it comes to political wheeling and dealing, Lincoln and Blagojevich have more in common than Fitzgerald, apparently, knows.

When Republicans gathered in Chicago in May 1860 to pick their presidential candidate, one of Lincoln's floor managers was Chicago Tribune editor Joseph Medill. Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot. But that victory came only after Medill promised a member of the Ohio delegation that Lincoln would give the state's favorite son candidate - Salmon P. Chase - "anything he wants" in return for Ohio's votes, journalism historian Harry J. Maihafer wrote in his book, "War of Words: Abraham Lincoln & the Civil War Press."

Another one of Lincoln's floor managers won over the backing of Pennsylvania delegates by promising that their candidate, Simon Cameron, would be named secretary of war if Lincoln won the presidency, Maihafer wrote.

Although Lincoln publicly maintained he would "make no contracts" to get the nomination, he honored the deals his floor managers made. Chase was appointed treasury secretary and Cameron was made secretary of war and later, ambassador to Russia.

The deals that gained Lincoln the Republican Party's presidential nomination fall short of the pay-to-play scheme that Blagojevich is alleged to have hatched. But, so far, Blagojevich's offense appears to be one of more talk than action. Lincoln, on the other hand, actually traded Cabinet positions for his own political gain.

"The tapes reveal that Governor Blagojevich wanted a number of things in exchange for making the appointment to the Senate seat - an appointment as secretary of health and human services or an ambassadorship, an appointment to a private foundation, a higher paying job for his wife or campaign contributions," Fitzgerald said at his news conference.

Of course, Lincoln and Blagojevich are not kindred souls. The Illinois governor has shown no signs of greatness - not even as a grifter. While Lincoln, or at least his surrogates, went a lot further than Blagojevich in their political horse-trading without being subjected to arrest, they did it for political not personal gain.

Unfortunately for Blagojevich, while he lives in the "Land of Lincoln," he inhabits a far different political environment than the one that put Lincoln in this nation's highest office.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Michelle Obama gets my honor

By DeWayne Wickham

In a few days, Time magazine will name its "Person of the Year” – something it has been doing since 1927. Today, for the first time, I'm naming my choice for "American of the Year."

Time's award is given annually to the person who "has done the most to influence the events of the year." Mine goes to someone who, through deeds or inspiration, makes this nation a better place.

For a lot of people, President-elect Barack Obama would be a no-brainer for Time's honor.

During the 80 years Time has handed out its award, most of the recipients have been national leaders in the U.S. and abroad. He is, after all, a politician unlike any this nation has seen. When Obama is sworn in on Jan. 20, he'll become America's first black president — a startling feat that comes four decades after the Kerner Commission warned that this nation was in danger of becoming "two societies, one black, and one white— separate and unequal."

Obama forged an interracial, multiethnic coalition that lifted him to a sweeping victory that was remarkable for many reasons — not the least of which is that he rewrote the campaign-financing record book by raising more than $745 million and dramatically altered the political campaign playbook with his ingenious use of the Internet.

Since his election, Obama has impressed Democrats, Republicans and independents with appointments he has made to key positions. His administration, it appears, will reflect the nation's diversity. And so it should come as no surprise if Time picks Obama as its "Person of the Year."

What might surprise you is that he is not my pick for "American of the Year." The first recipient of my annual acknowledgement of a person who has done something to improve the lives of people in this country, or given us the inspiration to make America a better place, is Michelle Obama.

In his winning presidential campaign, Obama helped a nation traumatized by the events of the past eight years heal its wounds. As his partner in marriage and his political life, Michelle Obama had an even bigger impact this year. She debunked the myth of the black woman. She is not a welfare mother, an angry woman, or an overachieving can't-find-a-good-man sista. Obama said his wife is his "rock" — the strong, steadying force in his life. But for many black women, Michelle Obama is their "everywoman."

She is the well-educated black wife and mother that Hollywood won't acknowledge and much of white America hasn't discovered. She's a black woman with wide hips and an occasional bad hair day who moved Erin Aubry Kaplan to say in a article: "Barack's better half not only has stature but is statuesque," the black essayist writes. "She has coruscating intelligence, beauty, style and ... a butt."

While such descriptions of Michelle Obama might make some people uncomfortable, it goes to the heart of what makes a lot of black women rave as much about her becoming first lady as they do her husband's becoming president. She looks more like them than Halle Berry or Beyonce does.

Obama's election ends the long monopoly white men have had on this country's highest office. But as the loyal partner in his life, Michelle Obama shows the world the strength that many black women possess. And, in doing so, she salves the centuries-old wounds of the millions of black women who have been victimized and marginalized by negative stereotypes.

For all these reasons, Michelle Obama is my "American of the Year."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Even in Venezuela, all politics is local

By DeWayne Wickham

Hugo Chavez believes he has a better idea. He wants to forge a socialist revolution out of Venezuela's struggling democracy.

The one-time army lieutenant colonel, who was jailed in 1992 for leading a failed coup against the country's elected president, wants to use Venezuela's oil wealth to undergird his "21st century socialist revolution."

But with just four years remaining in his second six-year term as Venezuela's president, time is running out on him.

So Chavez is making another attempt to change the country's constitution to allow him to seek re-election again — and again and again.

A similar referendum was defeated last year. But, buoyed by his party's win of 17 of 22 governorships in last month's election, Chavez says he'll try again in a February referendum to get voters to remove the term limits on his office.

As it is now, Venezuelan presidents can serve just two six-year terms. That, apparently, is not enough time for Chavez to transform Venezuela into the socialist state he envisions and make himself South America's most powerful leader.

But he's off to a good start.

A few days ago, Chavez and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met on a warship off the Venezuelan coast, shortly before their navies conducted a joint exercise. In October, China launched into orbit Venezuela's first communications satellite. It's being monitored from a Venezuelan space center at an air force base south of Caracas.

As America's economic crisis causes financial markets across the globe to contract uncontrollably, Venezuela is pushing ahead with plans to create the "Bank of the South," Chavez's alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Given the billions of dollars the United States is spending to fight two wars abroad and shore up its economic system, a Chavez-controlled development bank would fill a void — and enhance his standing — in the region.

But all of this may be for naught if the Venezuelan president doesn't take to heart the admonition of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill: "All politics is local."

Chavez's popularity, while still high enough to give his party an impressive showing in last month's elections, is threatened by a surging crime rate that helped the opposition party win governorships in three of the country's most populous states, plus the mayor's office in Caracas.The danger for Chavez is one that many populist leaders face when their message collides with the day-to-day survival concerns of the people they govern.

A 2002 coup that nearly toppled him and a failed 2004 recall vote have helped keep the revolutionary fervor of Chavez's supporters high, but other Venezuelans have more basic concerns as crime rages out of control. The country of 26 million has averaged 10,000 homicides a year since Chavez took office, The Washington Post reported in 2006.

While Chavez has done much to reduce illiteracy and protect the rights of his country's indigenous people, crime in the capital city of Caracas has turned it into one of the world's most violent cities.

So not surprisingly, Antonio Ledezma, one of Chavez's longtime political opponents, was elected mayor of Caracas last month. He made crime and poor trash collection — not Chavez's leftist leanings — the top issue in that contest.

While Ledezma's party managed to win just five governorships, those victories came in heavily populated areas that are home to 40 percent of Venezuela's population.

That's a warning sign Chavez shouldn't ignore.The governors' races and the mayoral election in Caracas suggest that, like politicians the world over, Chavez needs to work a lot harder on the basics of government than on his grand scheme.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Rangel shouldn't fall on his sword

By DeWayne Wickham

Charlie Rangel is in a tough spot.

Two newspapers — his hometown The New York Times and The Washington Post – have called for him to step down as chairman of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means while ethics violation charges against him are investigated.

The Harlem congressman says he's guilty of nothing more than bad judgment. But the Times claims that Rangel, now in his 19th term, has committed a long list of transgressions, including helping an oil and gas drilling company keep a federal tax loophole in place while the company's chief executive was pledging a $1 million gift to a City College of New York school named in Rangel's honor.

As bad as that sounds, the case against Rangel has been based mainly on newspaper reports and has not moved much beyond that toward legal evidence.

So far, there are no claims of the existence of audio or videotape recordings of the congressman breaking the law, or clear offering of proof that he violated any ethics rules. And there's been no call by the House Democratic Caucus, or its steering committee, for Rangel to give up his chairmanship.

In fact, House Democrats voted unanimously last month to let Rangel maintain his leadership of the tax-writing committee — a decision they can reverse anytime they see fit.

While denying any wrongdoing, Rangel has asked the House ethics committee to investigate allegations against him. That's exactly what the panel is doing. Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she expects the committee to finish its work and issue a report on Rangel before the next Congress convenes on Jan.6.

In the absence of that report, or a call from the Democratic Caucus for him to step down, Rangel shouldn't give in to media calls for him to resign his chairmanship.

News organizations play an important role in uncovering acts of wrongdoing by public officials. But their reports, even when factual, often don't constitute proof as needed to seat a grand jury, or the probable cause necessary for law enforcement to target someone for investigation. And up to now, Rangel has neither been indicted, nor has it been announced that he is the subject of a criminal probe.

Sure, the allegations made in the Times stories appear to be damning, but no public official should be stripped of a position on the basis of a newspaper story — alone.

In court, no one ever looks guiltier than when the charges against him are being argued, famed defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran once told me. And defendants never look more innocent than when their side of the case is being presented. The same is often true with the news media.

From now until Jan. 6, the ethics committee likely will hear testimony for and against Rangel and then render its decision. One way or another, this matter is expected to be settled between the time the new Congress convenes and before Barack Obama's swearing-in on Jan. 20.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington if he won the White House. Now, as head of the Democratic Party, he'll inherit a share of the responsibility for dealing with Rangel if the allegations against him prove true and remain unresolved when Obama moves into the Oval Office.

Until then — until the ethics committee, his Democratic colleagues or some legal entity conclude otherwise Rangel should retain his post. For now, he has every right to ignore calls, by newspapers flexing their muscles, for him to fall on his sword.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Financial literacy: A way out of economic crisis

By DeWayne Wickham

Like many other people, I’m feeling the ripple effects of the economic meltdown this country is now experiencing. If the losses I’ve suffered in my retirement account can’t be recovered, I may have to work well into my golden years before I can retire.

I worry that I won’t have the savings to help put the last of my three daughters through college. And I fear that as the value of the nation’s housing stock declines, the equity my wife and I have built up in our home will shrink further and rob us of the financial security we’ve built up over a lifetime of work.

Having spent 20 years of my life in public housing, I know what it is to be knee-deep in poverty and I understand the angst of those whose current financial situation is more perilous than mine.
But if this nation is going to do more than just survive this brush with economic collapse we must realize that a big part of the fix we need is a massive financial literacy education program.

The lack of financial literacy is the tip of the spear that has pierced the soft underbelly of this nation’s economic system. Sure, for a lot of people, greed is a big part of the problem. Too many folks knowingly charged more than they could afford on a seemingly endless supply of credit cards. And a lot of people bought homes with exotic mortgages they knew were a financial sleight of hand.

But there are also a lot of people who didn’t know better – people who accepted the onslaught of credit card offers and too-good-to-be-true home mortgage deals because they were financially illiterate. They are the dupes of the financial mess we now face.

A short term solution to the problem many of these people face surfaced a couple days ago when the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department announced an $800 billion plan to make it less costly for Americans to buy a home, a car and make credit card purchases.

But if we want to avoid a replay of the current economic crisis, the federal government needs to push financial literacy training in our schools. Too many schools graduate students who are illiterate when it comes to managing their money.

They don’t understand the need to live within their means. They don’t know the long-term value of a personal savings account. They buy cars they can’t afford, clothes they don’t need and homes that cost more than they can actually pay.

In most cases, these people are drawn into making bad decisions by the deceptive advertising of credit card companies that bury their true cost in fine print, and mortgage lenders that offer homebuyers deals in which the real cost of a home doesn’t come due until long after the unsuspecting buyers have moved in.

Schools need to do more to keep people from falling prey to these predatory practices. They need to not only teach students how to manage a checking account (which too many graduates can’t do), they have to help them understand the actual cost of a purchase made on a credit card that charges its users a double-digit interest rate.

For a lot of Americans, credit cards are as addictive as crack cocaine.

Schools need to teach students that Social Security was never intended to be a person’s primary source of retirement income. It was supposed to supplement the savings people amassed over a lifetime of work.

The billions being spent now by the federal government to bail the nation out of this financial mess is a short-term fix. Increasing the financial literacy of Americans is a big part of what it will take to find a long-term solution.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Al-Zawahiri doesn't know Malcolm X

By DeWayne Wickham

The more I think about this, the more it bothers me.

From his hiding place, probably a deep cave somewhere in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan or Pakistan, Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece, Ayman al-Zawahiri, took a cheap shot at Barack Obama.

He called the president-elect a "house Negro." That's a derogatory term that is used to describe blacks who are servile to whites.
On the streets of Chicago's Southside, where Obama comes from, those are fighting words. But with less than two months to go before he moves into the White House, Obama has decided not to "play the dozens" with al-Zawahiri.

The dozens is trash talking, usually between two inner-city guys who hurl insults at each other in a rhythmic cadence while the level of hooting and hollering of people around them score their verbal clash. Al-Zawahiri would have been an easy target for a rapid offering of some of the "yo' momma" jokes that guys who play the dozens often hurl about - if Obama had decided to strike back.

He didn't, but I will. Not because I think it is my job to defend Obama. It isn't. It's my job is to "seek truth and report it" - and al-Zawahiri's charge that this nation's first black president is a house Negro is far from true. It reeks of the big lie that megalomaniacs like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri use to pull gullible people into their orbit.

"You represent the direct opposite of honorable black Americans like ... Malcolm X," al-Zawahiri said of Obama in a post-election videotape that surfaced last week. "You were born to a Muslim father, but chose to stand in the ranks of the enemies of the Muslims, and pray the prayers of the Jews, although you claim to be Christian, in order to climb the rungs of leadership in America."

To strengthen his point, al-Zawahiri appears in the video flanked by an image of Malcolm X and a photo of Obama wearing a yarmulke during a visit to Israel earlier this year. But al-Zawahiri's words betray his ignorance of the true Malcolm X. Five days before he was assassinated on Feb. 16, 1965, the civil rights activist gave a speech in Rochester, N.Y. that rejected the us-against-them religious dogma of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.

"I believe in one God ... And that that God taught all of his prophets the same religion, so there is no argument about who was greater or who was better: Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, or some of the others. All of them were prophets who came from one God," Malcolm X said at the time.
"They had one doctrine, and that doctrine was designed to give clarification of humanity, so that all of humanity would see that it was one and have some kind of brotherhood ... I believe in that," he continued. "I believe in the brotherhood of man."

So does Obama, who - when he is sworn into office on Jan. 20 - will assume an office that Malcolm X didn't live long enough to even imagine a black man one day holding. How were blacks going to get around the segregationists and racists who held so much power in the federal government, he asked in that Rochester speech? "Now how are we going to get around them? How are we going to get justice in a Congress that they control ... Or a White House that they control?" he asked.

I think Malcolm X would believe that Obama, who won the presidency with the backing of 95% of black voters, hardly fits the description of a "house Negro." I think he would look at Obama and see a black man who is intent upon making America's future much better than its past - for all of us.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Obama's no "house Negro"

By DeWayne Wickham

So, Ayman al-Zawahiri wants to “play the dozens.”

That’s what it sounds like to me from his recorded response to Barack Obama’s election victory. Why else would Osama bin Laden’s mouthpiece call the president-elect a “house Negro.”

Playing the dozens is a game I’m sure Obama, a former community organizer, knows well. It’s a public exchange of insults between black youths that often takes place in this nation’s inner cities. More than anything else, playing the dozens is a war of words – ugly words. Calling someone a “house Negro” is to accuse them of being servile to whites.

In his attack on Obama, al-Zawahiri draws his invective from a 1963 speech in which Malcolm X described the conflicting roles of field slaves and those who worked in their master’s house.

“The house Negroes – they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good 'cause they ate his food – what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved their master more than the master loved himself…Just as the slave master of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slave master today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent,” Malcolm X said.

Al-Zawahiri believes this house Negro description fits Obama.

I think he’s spent too much time in the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan hiding from American troops. Far from a house Negro, Obama is the master of the White House he will soon move into. In less than two months he’ll be this nation’s commander-in-chief.

People who play the dozens battle for respect. Not needing the deference of al-Zawahiri and bin Laden, Obama chose not to respond to this verbal attack. And in a way that might be an even bigger putdown. But during a recent interview on “60 Minutes,” Obama made it clear he has bin Laden – the al-Qaida leader who ordered the September 11 terrorist attacks – in his crosshairs.

“I think it is a top priority for us to stamp out al-Qaida once and for all. And I think capturing or killing bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al-Qaida,” said the President-elect. “He is not just a symbol, he’s also the operational leader of an organization that is planning attacks against US targets.”

The verbal shot Al-Zawahiri took at Obama appears to have been intended to rally opposition to him among Muslims, who hold in high esteem Malcolm X, a one-time member of the Nation of Islam who near the end of his life changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and practiced a more traditional form of Islam.

In his message, Al-Zawahiri condemned Obama for wearing a Jewish skullcap during a July visit to Israel. But that’s the kind of religious demonization that Malcolm X rejected after his conversion. “I believe in one God…And that that God taught all of his prophets the same religion, so there is no argument about who was greater or who was better: Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, or some of the others. All of them were prophets who came from one God,” he said in a Rochester, N.Y. speech five days before his assassination, on Feb. 16, 1965.

“They had one doctrine, and that doctrine was designed to give clarification of humanity, so that all of humanity would see that it was one and have some kind of brotherhood…I believe in that,” he said. “I believe in the brotherhood of man.”

And so does Barack Obama, whose great political success would surely delight – not enrage – Malcolm X.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Comedian Paul Mooney slams Al Qaida official who called Obama a "House Negro"

By DeWayne Wickham

Shortly after the story broke that Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri called President-elect Barack Obama a "House Negro," comedian Paul Mooney - who knows how to play the dozens - cracked on the cave-dwelling terrorist.

"If Obama's a 'House Negro,' he's a sand nigger," Mooney said of Zawahiri, who apparently doesn't understand that he can't slam a black man without taking return verbal fire.

Zawahiri's lucky comedian George Wallace didn't go on the attack with some of his "yo' momma" blasts. You've got to wonder how Zawahiri would take it in his den if Wallace said this of his mother: "Yo momma so ugly they filmed, 'Gorillas in the Mist,' in her shower."

Of course, Wallace didn't say that about Zawahiri's mom, but he just might be preparing to lob some of his best slams at the al-Qaida mouthpiece, if he disses this nation's first black president again.

So stay tuned, this could get real ugly.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bush: Africa's "compassionate conservative"

By DeWayne Wickham

A few hours before one of the nation’s leading African American organizations made what many would consider an oxymoronic gesture of bestowing its Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award upon President Bush, a senior State Department official tried to make the case for that action.

“From a policy point, I’ve never seen Africa policy better served than under President Bush,” said Jendayi Frazer, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs. “There’s not a single thing that we said we were going to do in 2000 that we haven’t done…

“We’ve done everything we said we were going to do and we’ve done far more than I ever expected, and I’ve been working Africa issues for more than 30 years. The administration’s record far exceeded my own expectations,” Frazer boasted.

Of course, every president – even one as maligned as Bush – tries to put the best face on the things he’s done. And there is usually no shortage of political appointees who stand ready to sing their praise.

But the honor Bush received last week from Africare, the oldest and largest black-run African aid organization, didn’t come from a right wing group bent on burnishing his record. And Frazer – who soon will leave government for a position at Carnegie Mellon University – is no self-serving flatterer.

Despite Bush’s failure to live up to his “compassionate conservative” label at home, he did better than most people are willing to give him credit for in his dealings with Africa, a continent long victimized by the geopolitical tug of war between America and its adversaries.

“The Bush administration has broadened and deepened U.S. policy towards Africa,” said Melvin Foote, president and CEO of Constituency for Africa, a coalition of groups that work to improve conditions in Africa. “I don’t know if it got involved for all the right reasons, but once it got involved it realized this was a good thing to do,” Foote said of the Bush administration’s efforts to stabilize Africa’s fledgling democracies and combat its daunting health problems.

Most impressive of these efforts has been Bush’s efforts to stop the spread and treat the victims of AIDS in sub-Sahara Africa, where there were 22 million people infected with HIV at the end of last year.

Earlier this year Bush signed a bill that authorized up to $48 billion to combat HIV/AIDS tuberculosis, and malaria – most of it to be spent in sub-Sahara Africa – between 2009 and 2013. Since 2003, the Bush administration has provided funding to increase the number of Africans receiving antiretroviral drugs from 50,000 to about 1.4 million, Frazer said.

“It’s probably true that the Bush administration has directed more resources to the African AIDS problem than did the Clinton administration,” said Nicole Lee in a grudging offering of support. But Bush’s African AIDS program has been "a double-edge sword,” said Lee, executive director of TransAfrica, a Washington-based advocacy organization for Caribbean and African policy.

It’s been undermined, Lee said, by the Gag Rule, a Bush administration policy that forbids foreign nongovernmental organizations from receiving U.S financial support if they offer abortion or abortion counseling.

This kind of criticism is unwarranted, Frazer said, because Bush rescinded the Gag Rule’s application to its African AIDS relief program in 2003. “It’s one of those little known-things that’s already been taken care of that the activists are still activated about,” she said.

She’s right; the rule’s application to the Africa program was rescinded 5 years ago – an action that largely has escaped public notice by Bush’s right-wing supporters and his left-wing critics.

What shouldn’t go unnoticed by historians is what Bush did to combat the scourge of AIDS in Africa.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

America's new political majority

By DeWayne Wickham

Here's something that's missing from most postmortems of the presidential election: The white majority that has elected 43 American presidents was marginalized by the coalition Barack Obama amassed on his way to becoming this nation's 44th chief executive.

What has emerged from the voting that made Obama this nation’s first black president is a new American majority. While Obama got the backing of just 43 percent of white voters, His largest percentages of support came from blacks, Hispanics and young whites.

Obama won support from 95 percent of black voters, 66 percent of Hispanics and 66 percent of whites, aged 18 to 29. He took most of the white vote in the East, but lost it to Republican John McCain in every other section of the nation, according to the Pew Research Center.

No Democratic president has won a majority of white votes since Lyndon Johnson's 1964 landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater, but Obama won a smaller share of that vote than any Democrat elected to the White House since then.

McCain took 55 percent of the white vote, topping Obama by 12 points. When Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976, he lost the white vote to Gerald Ford by 6 points. In his 1992 victory over George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton lost the white vote by just 2 points. Four years later, Clinton won re-election while losing the white vote by 3 percentage points to Sen. Bob Dole.

While Obama won the backing of urban whites by 4 points, suburban and rural whites voted for McCain by much larger margins. The roots of Obama's loss of the white vote - and of the white majority's marginalization - can be found in the South, where whites overwhelmingly rejected his candidacy.

"White Southern conservatives have been isolated by this election," said David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Obama lost the white vote in each of the 11 states of the former Confederacy. He took less than 15 percent of that vote in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and in Arkansas, Texas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia he got less than 35 percent.

He did a lot better - still without winning a majority of the white vote - in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, former Confederate states where he won overall.

The significance of this seems to have escaped the notice of analysts viewing this election through the old template of Democratic and Republican Party politics. Obama's victory has reshaped this nation's political landscape.

The Republican Party, comatose and with little chance of resuscitation, comprises a shrinking portion of this nation's white majority. Its Southern base, recruited into the GOP by Richard Nixon's cynical embrace of a "Southern strategy" aimed at exploiting the region's racial fears and bigotry, has become a political albatross.

But Obama's win is also a warning shot for Democrats.

In the past, the Democratic Party has been much more in sync with organized labor and liberal interest groups than with the millions of new black, Hispanic and young voters who backed Obama on Election Day. It would be a mistake for Democrats to assume these new voters will embrace their old ways of doing business.

Obama's coalition is the political party of the future. It won this election under the Democratic Party's banner, but there’s no guarantee it’ll remain there. What seems certain is that this coalition is born of a new political paradigm - one in which the power to elect a president is no longer firmly in the hands of this nation's white majority.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Change we can believe in"

Jarrett on Obama: He's a realist, not an idealist

By DeWayne Wickham

It isn’t often that Americans get a revealing insight into the decision-making style of a president before he takes office.

Usually what passes for such a preview comes from the bluster of a political campaign’s talking points, or the distant assessment of journalists who claim to possess a special understanding of the president-elect’s thinking.

Rarely do either of these sources tell us much about an incoming president that, upon close inspection, matches up well with his behavior when it comes to the exercise of power.

But it’s possible, in the wake of this most unusual of presidential election, that we’ve gained an understanding of President-elect Barack Obama that is a true predictor of the way he will wield the awesome power he’ll soon possess.

“I’m not sure people understand how pragmatic he is,” Valerie Jarrett, the co-chair of Obama’s transition team told me Sunday. “He’s a pragmatist. He really wants to get things done…He won’t just stake out a position” and cling to.

Jarrett, a longtime friend and confidant of Obama and his wife, Michelle, is no sedan-chair carrier. She’s got her own impressive resume – which includes degrees from Stanford and the University of Michigan Law School, plus a long list of powerful jobs and important appointments in Illinois, where politics is a blood sport. When she talks about the president-elect, Jarrett speaks with the self-confidence of a political insider, not the pandering voice of someone jockeying for a West Wing office.

And if you pay close attention, what she told me and other members of The Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists and commentators, shortly after she made a national television appearance on “Meet the Press,” is quite revealing.

It’s a mistake, she said, to talk about Obama in terms of the left or right. He plans to change the political paradigm. What does that mean? Jarrett said Obama is a realist, not just an idealist, as many of his critics claim.

He won’t be a tool of liberals, or an easy target for conservatives. He’ll try to get done that which he thinks is “doable” and can “change the lives of the American people,” said Jarrett. Proof of this can be found in Obama’s approach to the nation’s daunting economic problems.

Before holding his first post-election press conference last week to let the nation know that he is focusing on this crisis as he prepares to assume to presidency in January, Obama pulled together a politically eclectic group of economic advisers that included the chief executive of Google, Michigan’s governor, Los Angeles’ mayor, two former treasury secretaries and an ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Jarrett said Obama went into that meeting and others he had during his presidential campaign with an open mind – and a willingness to listen to what people had to say before making a decision. She admits there occasionally were “great discussions with differences of opinion.” But there was no public backbiting and no sniping leaks to the press – which Jarrett credits to Obama’s leadership.

That kind of decision-making in his White House will help Obama retain the moral authority that many people believe America regained with his election.

What we know for certain is that presidents who lack inquisitiveness and surround themselves with sycophants become self-indulgent policy makers. That’s what happened to George W. Bush’s presidency, according to his former press secretary, Scott McClellan.

His was a surly presidency in which Bush never reflected, never reconsidered and never compromised on his positions, McClellan said in his book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.”

Jarrett gives us reason to hope that Obama’s presidency won’t get stuck in that bog.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Who voted for Obama - and who didn't

Before the records of this historic election are trampled asunder by those who claim to know much more than they actually do about who voted for whom, here are some election FACTS that you need to know.

1. In winning the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama got 43 percent of the white vote; 95 percent of the black vote and 64 percent of the Hispanic vote.

2. Despite all of the hype about how energized young people were by Obama's candidacy, people 18 to 29 accounted for just 18 percent of those who voted in the 2008 general election. That's an increase of just one percent over their level of participation in the 2004 presidential election vote.

3. Sixty-four percent of the voters in the 2008 presidential election were age 40 or older.

4. Fourteen percent of white Democrats voted for Republican John McCain, while only eight percent of white Republicans voted for Democrat Barack Obama.

5. More white Independents (49 percent) voted for McCain than voted for Obama (47 percent).

6. Women of every race and ethnic group voted for Obama in a higher percentage than men in their group.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

A future better than our past

By DeWayne Wickham

How did America get to this point?

Some 220 years ago, it adopted a Constitution that counted blacks as just three-fifths of a person. President Theodore Roosevelt was widely condemned 113 years later for having a black man dine with him in the White House. And now, the country has voted, giving a black family a 4-year lease for that great edifice at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

How is it that only 43 years after Congress struggled to enact legislation giving federal protection to the voting rights of blacks that Barack Obama — a black man — could be elected president of this majority-white nation?

Pundits and historians will, no doubt, dissect Obama's winning campaign strategy and Republican John McCain's failed candidacy in search of answers to the key questions, but they will likely be looking in the wrong places.

The answers lie within the discovery that voters made about the campaign of Sen. Obama.

To be sure, Obama ran a brilliant campaign. He was masterful in his use of new media — text messages, blogs and YouTube's free video-sharing — to raise a massive amount of money and bring millions of new voters into the political process. And his message of change — coming as it did from a 47-year-old first-term senator who is the son a black man and a white woman — trumped the change message of McCain, who looked and sounded very much like the linear successor to President Bush.

More than anything else, the thing that lifted Obama into the Oval Office was his ability to convince sizeable chunks of voters that he could give them something they desperately wanted — something they yearned for above all.

Whites who voted for Obama want their country back. They still recall Florida in 2000, when a botched vote count put the outcome of the presidential election in the hands of a conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which promptly gave Bush the keys to the White House.

Their country was taken from them by the deception of the neo-cons who took this nation to war in Iraq, by the overreach of the USA Patriot Act, and by the greed of the Wall Street robber barons whose actions gutted the stock portfolios and retirement accounts of millions of Americans — and threatened to topple the world's financial system.

Of course, blacks, too, were hurt by these things, but the long history of their disenfranchisement left them with a more deeply rooted need. They wanted a radical break from the past. They wanted, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, a future that "ain't what it used to be" — a future in which being judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is more than an empty civil-rights catchphrase.

Obama's White House campaign gave blacks reason to believe that that future could be now. It gave them hope that Jim Crow Jr. — the kinder, gentler form of racism that replaced Jim Crow after the victories of the civil rights-era — is in full retreat.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," the president-elect said in his victory speech Tuesday.

In creating a winning coalition, the blacks and whites who voted for Obama arrived at the same American crossroad from decidedly different directions. And when they got there, they embraced the vision of a man whose promise of change offered them that which McCain didn't — a nation that is far better than its past.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama's acceptance speech

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It's the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. I congratulate him and Governor Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation's promise in the months ahead.

I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton and rode with on that train home to Delaware, the Vice President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.

I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last sixteen years, the rock of our family and the love of my life, our nation's next First Lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House. And while she's no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure.

To my campaign manager David Plouffe, my chief strategist David Axelrod, and the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics - you made this happen, and I am forever grateful for what you've sacrificed to get it done.

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to - it belongs to you.
I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington - it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.
It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth. This is your victory.

I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime - two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you - we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years - block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek - it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.
So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers - in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.
Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House - a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends...though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down - we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security - we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright - tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America - that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing - Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.
When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves - if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

On Cuba, McCain and Obama resist change

By DeWayne Wickham

As Barack Obama and John McCain crisscrossed the presidential battleground state of Florida on Wednesday, a United Nations vote challenged the idea either man is really serious about bringing meaningful change to America's foreign policy.

By an overwhelming margin of 185-3, the U.N. voted to condemn this country's 46-year-old economic embargo of Cuba. Two countries abstained and two others didn't show up.

The U.S. embargo of Cuba is a relic of the Cold War - and a foreign-policy stalking horse of politicians who shamelessly court Cuban-American voters in South Florida.

While it has failed to choke the economic life out of Cuba's communist government, the embargo has been kept in place to satisfy Cuban-American leaders who are tone deaf to the call for change that has dominated this presidential contest.

Despite the U.N. vote - and despite widespread support here at home for an end to the Bush administration's political intransigence - it doesn't seem likely either McCain or Obama would heed the world's call to end the embargo.

McCain has said he would try to get international support for a further tightening of the embargo.

Obama has said he would loosen restrictions on travel and money transfers to Cuba. He also would immediately permit Cuban Americans to visit the island nation once a year and send remittances to a wide range of relatives in Cuba.

Under 2004 rules imposed by the Bush administration, Cuban Americans can send $1,200 a year to immediate family members only, and are allowed to visit them just once every three years.

McCain's position represents change in the wrong direction, and Obama's stance is far from enlightened.

By allowing limited travel to Cuba for only one group - the 1.4 million Cuban Americans - this country discriminates against the other 298 million Americans who aren't allowed to travel there.

More importantly, continuing the embargo sharply restricts Cuba's ability to feed and provide medical treatment to its people, condemning untold numbers of Cubans to an early death.
Obama, the front-runner in the presidential race, has vowed to repair America's standing in the world. That won't be easy if he doesn't undo the embargo, which is opposed by virtually every other country in the world. Only Israel and Palau joined the U.S. in voting against the U.N. condemnation of the embargo.

Even Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries heavily dependent on American troops and financial aid, don't support the embargo. Afghanistan voted Wednesday to condemn it, and Iraq voted against it last year. This year Iraq didn't bother to show up for the vote.

The two presidential candidates insist some form of embargo should remain in place until Cuba gives its people more freedom. What makes that laughable is that neither man has called for similar actions against the communist countries of China or Vietnam or against other countries State Department officials say have even worse human-rights records than Cuba.

McCain and Obama have made competing claims to being agents of change, but their support for the embargo mocks those claims. It also threatens the lives of many of Cuba's 11 million people, innocent victims of the long-running tug-of-war between the Cuban government and ours.

Whatever the outcome of next week's election, neither McCain nor Obama can be counted on to do much to bring meaningful change to this lingering Cold War struggle.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Can Obama change America?

By DeWayne Wickham

Long before Colin Powell proclaimed Barack Obama a “transformational figure,” the Illinois senator was already being seen as an otherworldly politician — a black man who might lead America out of the desert of its crippling racial divide.

I don’t know if Obama is a transformational figure, but I’m sure that this is a transformational time in the life of our country.

Obama’s meteoric rise from junior member of the U.S. Senate to front-runner in the presidential race has been widely viewed as a good omen. He’s arrived at the door of this nation’s highest office 60 years after another Democrat, Strom Thurmond, bolted the party to mount an anti-civil rights campaign for the presidency.

Obama is leading the White House race just 45 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed in his historic “I Have a Dream” speech that blacks were still “crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

Obama’s on the verge of becoming this nation’s first black president only 16 years after Rodney King — the black motorist whose beating by police sparked the 1992 Los Angeles race riot — asked, “Can we get along?” Violence in that city took 54 lives and resulted in the arrests of 12,000 people.

Obama, who has run a tactically brilliant campaign, is believed by many to have moved America well beyond this ugly past, into a post-racial era. But I don’t think we’ve gone that far yet. Color issues still are too often viewed through one lens.

Back in August a headline in The New York Times asked: “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?” The story talked about how the nation’s successful civil rights struggle has produced a new generation of black politicians, who do not see their job as “speaking for black Americans.”

Unanswered by that article — and generally by analysts — is whether Obama’s rise also marks an end to the white politics? In many ways, the black politics of the past 40 years was a parallel universe to the one in which white politicians dwelled.

During much of this time white politicians championed the interests of their white constituents in much the same way as black politicians. But this truth is largely ignored by those who contemplate the post-racial era an Obama presidency might produce. That’s a myopic mistake Obama shouldn’t make if he wins the election.

Obama has been pushed to the edge of victory by an amazing transformation in the political life of this nation. He is the beneficiary of a shift across racial and generational lines. He leads Republican John McCain among voters of all ages, genders and educational levels.

If he wins, Obama’s biggest challenge will be to not undermine this unusual coalition by governing as an old-line politician — either black or white. This doesn’t mean he should ignore the legitimate interests of one group to placate the other.

Instead he should remember what he told me during a July 2007 interview about how he can balance the interests of blacks and whites.

“The more we can say we’re going to fight on behalf of all working Americans and we’re going to do extra stuff for those who need the most help, that’s an argument we can win,” he said.

Now that's an approach to problem solving that can transform this country.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Not so subtle racism

By DeWayne Wickham

When you get right down to it, Diane Fedele and David Duke are kindred souls.

Fedele, the president of a California conservative Republican women’s group, resigned Wednesday after being harshly criticized for sending a racist depiction of Barack Obama to the organization’s members. Duke is the former Louisiana state legislator and Ku Klux Klan leader who makes little effort to disguise his racist contempt for the black presidential candidate.

The offensive image Fedele circulated appeared in a recent newsletter of the Chaffey Community Republican Women, Federated organization. It showed Obama’s face on a fake $10 food stamp bill surrounded by a slice of watermelon, a bucket of fried chicken, a rack of barbecued ribs and a pitcher of Kool-Aid.

“I do not think like a bigot, and because of that fact, I did not view this as racial, because I do not have a racially discriminating point of view,” Fedele wrote in her resignation letter, the Inland Daily Bulletin reported.
Well, then what was the point of linking Obama to food stamps and the welfare imagery which that government handout invokes? Why tie him to watermelon, fried chicken and ribs in this way? Was it because Obama has promised to give federal subsidies to hog and chicken farmers, and watermelon growers, if he makes it into the White House? Or did the newsletter’s depiction of Obama have another, more odious, connection?

In his 1986 book “Sambo: the Rise & Demise of an American Jester,” Joseph Boskin talked of how such imagery has been used to ridicule blacks, whose meals during slavery often consisted of pork scraps, chicken and watermelon. One early 20th century post card carried the picture of a black man, with a watermelon tucked under each arm, looking longingly at a chicken. This caricature of a black man struggling to choose between watermelon and chicken had the following caption: “Dis am de wurst perdickermunt ob mah life!”

More recently golfer Fuzzy Zoeller stumbled over his tongue in 1997 after Tiger Woods became the first black to win the Masters golf tournament. Winners of this prestigious sporting event get to pick the menu for the Champions Dinner the following year. Tell him not to serve fried chicken, Zoeller said to reporters following Woods’ victory. Zoeller apologized the next day, saying his comments were not meant to be racist.

Like Zoeller, Fedele should have known better. That she thought she could get away with branding Obama with such racially offensive imagery puts her in the company of Duke, who now heads a group called the European American Unity and Rights Organization. Shortly after Obama wrapped up the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Duke posted a commentary on his website in which he said the Illinois senator’s victory should be a warning sign to white Americans.

“Now the dreams of our forefathers have morphed into our own living nightmares in which anti-white racism and white self-hate dominate the political and media landscape,” Duke wrote. If elected president, Obama “will be a clear signal for millions of our people. Obama is a visual aid for white Americans who just don’t get it yet that we have lost control of our country, and unless we get it back we are heading for complete annihilation as a people.”

The warning that Duke sounded is different only in degree from that which Fedele circulated. It was only when there was a loud public outcry that Fedele pulled back – though not far – from what she did. She had tried to make an “ideological statement, not a racist one,” Fedele explained. But for all but the most naïve, the images on the phony money contradicts that assertion.

While she lacks David Duke’s shrillness, Diane Fedele was speaking in a similar voice when she tried to sound an alarm about the looming possibility that Barack Obama might become the next president of the United States.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Obama: The new "Powell doctrine"

By DeWayne Wickham

When you think about it, Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama should come as no surprise.

Not because, as some small minds reason, the former secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate are both African-American. Nor did Powell, a Republican, do it to get even with the Bush administration he once served for making him the foil for its rush to war in Iraq.

There was nothing petty about the choice Powell announced Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. It is a logical extension of his view of America's role as the world's dominant force for good. In telling moderator Tom Brokaw that Obama is his choice for president, the man who was the most respected member of the Bush administration laid out a new "Powell doctrine."

The next president, he said, should be someone who has the ability to inspire and reach out to all Americans, and has the rhetorical ability and the substance to lead the nation and the world during troubled times.

Powell's endorsement of Obama amounts to a prescription for civilian leadership at a critical time that complements the first Powell doctrine, which he articulated after the United States went to war in 1991 to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

While serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell said this country should send its troops into combat only when America's vital interests are at stake. And in such a situation, he said, we should use decisive force to achieve a clearly defined victory and exit strategy.

Back then, Powell wanted to win a war. Now he wants to secure the future of our nation. He sees Obama as "a transformational figure" among a new generation of world leaders who, more than John McCain, can lead America at the critical juncture in our history.

And so the more important question isn't why Powell endorsed Obama, but whether his endorsement will have a significant impact, coming as it did slightly more than two weeks before Election Day.

I don't think so.

The die is cast in this contest. While the outcome might not appear certain, I suspect that the vast majority of Americans — even those who claim to remain uncommitted — have decided how they'll vote Nov. 4.

If we can believe what people are telling pollsters, Obama already enjoys the backing of nearly every black voter, and he has a 14 percentage point lead over McCain among women and a 5 point edge with men. He also leads McCain among voters of every age category and education level, according a recent Gallup Poll. McCain has a 4 point lead over Obama with white voters but trails Obama by 10 points among independents.

By endorsing Obama at this late point in the campaign, Powell has just thrown some red meat to the news media's chattering class — too many of whom cover the presidential race like the hapless band of newsmen who reported on an African war in Scoop, Evelyn Waugh's satirical novel about the journalism profession. For them, Powell's endorsement is a big story, but in truth it will have more historical importance than political impact.

From a political perspective, the Obama train had already left the station and was hurtling toward the finish line when Powell got onboard. But as a matter of history, his decision to back Obama could make the second Powell doctrine as an important a prescription as the first.