Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama: Ready for his date with history

By DeWayne Wickham

BALTIMORE - On his way to this historic “Day One,” Barack Obama stopped his train here and spoke to a crowd about “restoring hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both.”

My hometown has seen better days, and the 40,000 people who greeted Obama on Saturday seemed as expectant as the rest of the nation about the swearing-in of this 44th U.S. president.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve taken my measure of the words and deeds of this man in up-close interviews, from a reporter’s perch in front of his podium and by watching him race around the stump locked in fierce battle with determined rivals over whom he prevailed.

Through all this, I have come to believe that Obama is ready for the awesome responsibility he assumes the moment he lowers his hand from the Bible used to swear in Abraham Lincoln.
Obama impressed me when we first met on the campaign trail in July 2007. Back then, when his desire to be president seemed to far outdistance the possibility of his election, I listened to him forge a new strategy for attacking the problems of the urban poor and marveled at how he craftily linked that effort to the anxieties of others.

In a speech that day, he called for spending billions of dollars a year to combat urban poverty. Moments later, he told me he would connect his war on poverty with the desire of middle-class Americans for greater financial security.

“You can t solve the problems of poverty if you’re not speaking to the larger anxieties that working people and middle-class families feel. The more we can say we’re going to fight on behalf of all working Americans and we’re (also) going to do extra stuff for those who need the most help, that s an argument we can win,” Obama said.

Last week, he impressed me and other members of a small group of liberal columnists with the way he handled questions for nearly two hours in an off-the-record session at his transition headquarters. Whether the questions were drawn from the front pages of newspapers or tested his broader knowledge of the world, Obama demonstrated a reassuring understanding of the issues. His answers were crisp, forthright and clear, not laden with the doublespeak that has marked the discourse of more than a few past presidents.

There was no insipid, mind-numbing talk of being “misunderestimated” or a dodging allusion to “what the meaning of the word is is.” Obama gave straight answers to tough questions - the kind of frankness and transparency that will bring a much needed change to the White House.

He also seemed genuinely willing to give people outside his inner circle, and beyond his political party, a chance to help chart this nation s path out of troubled waters.

It’s this willingness to not only try something new but also to take political risks that makes his talk of change ring true. And it is his will to change that offers us the real possibility that President Obama will usher in a new political era.

For Obama, change is not just a catchy buzzword; it seems to be a moral imperative.

“I believed that our future is our choice, and that if we could just recognize ourselves in one another and bring everyone together - Democrats, Republicans and independents; North, South, East and West; black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American; gay and straight; disabled and not then not only would we restore hope and opportunity in places that yearned for both, but maybe, just maybe, we might perfect our union in the process,” Obama said during the Baltimore stop of his symbolic train ride from Philadelphia to Washington.

The train trip was meant to be reminiscent of the one Lincoln took on his way to his 1861 inauguration. But in truth, Lincoln stole into the capital, using disguises and altered train schedules to elude a threatened assassination on the eve of the Civil War.

Obama’s trip was a triumphant ride to his date with history - and to a leadership challenge for which he is as prepared as anyone can be.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama is not the only sign of change

By DeWayne Wickham

The call came just as I was walking to the first tee at the Innisbrook Golf Club, part of a Florida resort that was recently purchased by Sheila Johnson, a co-founder of the BET cable television network and America's first black female billionaire.

The voice on the other end of the line was a senior member of Barack Obama's transition team who invited me to join a small group of "progressive" columnists and commentators for a meeting with the president-elect, seven days before being sworn in as this nation's first black president.

Standing near me when I got the call was Rodney Green, a black PGA professional Johnson hired to run the four golf courses at her fashionable resort, which caters to well-to-do tourists from around the world and Americans who can afford to spend their winters in the warm embrace of Florida's perpetual sunshine.
He, too, is a pioneer — perhaps the first black to run the golf operations at a major resort in the U.S.

Days later, I thought about Johnson and Green as I sat at a conference table for the off-the-record conversation with Obama in his Washington transition headquarters.

Like the president-elect, Johnson and Green are relatively new to the public arena. Johnson earned her wealth in the shadow of Bob Johnson, her former husband, who was the public face of BET for many years. Green was a little-noticed, top executive at Disney World's golf courses for nearly 12 years before moving to Innisbrook in December.

All three are trailblazers.

Of course, the attention of much of the world will be on Obama when he stands on the steps of the Capitol to take the oath of office Tuesday.

His inauguration is expected to bring millions of people to Washington for a celebration that rivals the one that greeted the 1829 swearing-in of Andrew Jackson, the first president drawn from the ranks of "ordinary" Americans.

Obama is this nation's first chief executive who shares a common heritage with the people this country once enslaved.

In my lifetime, nothing has signaled change more than the interracial, multiethnic, multigenerational coalition that swept Obama to a landslide victory in the presidential election.
His election excited people all around the world who look to the United States for moral and political leadership.

While Obama's election represents an important change, the great promise of America is the success of people like Green and Johnson.

As Obama has repeatedly said since Nov. 4, this nation has just one president at a time.
But last year, Forbes magazine reported that there are at least 400 Americans with a net worth of $1 billion or more. There are also hundreds of PGA professionals.

And while you can count the number of black billionaires on one hand and might need only two hands to count the number of black golf pros, it is the progress that America makes in areas likes these — more than the presence of a black man in the White House — that will help this nation realize its great promise.

Obama understands this.

"I'm running because I believe that together, we can change history's course," he said during a September 2007 campaign speech at Howard University.

As much as he hopes his administration will put America on a new course, Obama envisions a country that is changing for the better at every level. Not just in the Oval Office, but in its boardrooms and playing fields, too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Post racial era, not yet

By DeWayne Wickham

That Oscar Grant didn’t live long enough to see Barack Obama sworn in as this nation’s first black president is proof that the post-racial era that Obama’s election was supposed to usher in has not arrived.

Grant, a 22-year-old black man, was killed on New Year’s Day. He was shot in the back as he laid face down on a subway platform in Oakland. His killer was a white transit cop — one of several officers who detained Grant and several other young men for questioning in connection with a fight that occurred on a subway train.

The shooting was captured on cell phone video cameras by several onlookers. One of them shows officers forcing Grant to the ground before one of the cops stands up, pulls his gun and fires a single shot into the young man’s back. Shortly before he was supposed to be interviewed by investigators, Johannes Mehserle — the cop who shot Grant — resigned.

That same day, a demonstration in Oakland over the fatal shooting turned violent. Store windows were smashed, police cars were vandalized and some vehicles were set on fire. More than 100 demonstrators were arrested. But so far, no charges have been brought against Mehserle — and that’s not surprising.

The wheels of justice have always turned slowly — if at all — in cases in which cops have used deadly force against unarmed blacks. Nothing symbolizes America’s long-running era of racial conflict more than these kinds of killings, and the failure of the criminal justice system to do something about them.

In 1966, a Los Angeles cop shot to death Leonard Deadwyler, a black man who was rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital. The officer, who stopped Deadwyler for speeding, leaned inside the car window with his gun drawn and shot him. A coroner’s jury ruled to killing accidental.

In 1979, white off-duty policeman Larry Shockley shot 21-year-old Randy Heath in the back of his neck outside a Miami warehouse. The cop first said he caught Heath attempting to burglarize the building and shot the unarmed man after a short struggle. He later admitted there was no struggle and claimed his gun discharged accidentally. Heath’s sister said her brother had stopped at the building to urinate. A grand jury refused to indict Shockley.

And then there were the cases of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, two unarmed black men who were killed in New York City in separate police shootings. Diallo, an African immigrant, was struck by 19 bullets fired by four white cops in 1999 while standing in the vestibule of his apartment building. The officers said they mistook a wallet in his hand for a gun. A jury acquitted them of any wrongdoing.

The unarmed Bell was killed in 2006, just hours before his wedding, when three plainclothes cops fired 50 shots at him as he tried to drive away from his bachelor’s party at a New York strip club. The cops said they thought an occupant in Bell’s car had a gun. None was found. A judge acquitted the cops of the charges brought against them.

When it comes to police shootings of unarmed black men, these are hardly isolated cases. They are core causes of the racial discontent that made the closing decades of the 20th century the best of time and the worst of times for many blacks.

Obama’s election is a major transition in the life of this country. But the police killing of Grant just three weeks before Obama takes office suggests that the intersection of unarmed black men and armed cops is still this nation’s most explosive racial problems — one that delays arrival of the post-racial era.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Burris has history on his side

By DeWayne Wickham

Someone should introduce Harry Reid to William Marbury.

Reid, the Senate majority leader, has blocked Roland Burris' appointment to that body, saying his paperwork is not in order. This is the best argument Reid has been able to come up with to keep embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich from filling the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama.

Federal prosecutors have accused Blagojevich of attempting to sell the Senate seat, though Burris isn't connected in any way to this alleged criminal act. By all accounts, the former Illinois attorney general is an upstanding guy. Still, Reid believes that Blagojevich, who has neither been convicted of a crime nor impeached, should not be allowed to exercise his legal right to fill the vacancy.

While his objection to Blagojevich's appointment of Burris might be a good politics, Reid stands on really thin legal ice - because of Marbury.

Back in 1801, Marbury was appointed justice of the peace in the District of Columbia by outgoing president John Adams. But Thomas Jefferson, who replaced Adams in the White House, ordered his secretary of State not to execute the paperwork needed to confirm Marbury's appointment.

Two years later, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that seems to shatter the legal basis for Reid's action on Burris' appointment.

The court's Marbury v. Madison ruling is best known for establishing the principle of judicial review, but the high court also ruled in the case that the secretary of State's failure to perform a "ministerial act" did not negate Marbury's appointment.

"The appointment, being the sole act of the president, must be completely evidenced when it is shown that he has done everything to be performed by him," Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in that historic ruling.

In other words, the absence of some paperwork did not negate the president's authority to name Marbury a justice of the peace.

Like Adams, Blagojevich was exercising his exclusive authority to fill a federal vacancy. Blagojevich did this on December 30 when he issued a written announcement of Burris' appointment. The following day, the senior legal adviser to Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White sent a letter to Burris' lawyer acknowledging the governor's action.

"This letter is to inform you that the Office of the Secretary of State... has made a register of the appointment of Roland Burris to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy left by President-Elect Barack Obama, specifying the person appointed, the office conferred, and the date of the appointment," Nathan Maddox wrote.

But White refused to sign the certificate of appointment making Blagojevich's selection of Burris official.

Under the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for the direct election of U.S. senators, state legislators can give governors the power "to make temporary appointments" to fill a Senate vacancy until the next election. And that's just what they did in Illinois.

Signing a certificate of appointment is a ministerial act, not an executive function. Unlike Blagojevich, Illinois' secretary of state can't fill a Senate vacancy. He's not required to pass judgment on the appointment, but simply to acknowledge it has occurred.

White's refusal to sign the certificate, he now admits, should not be allowed to keep Burris from taking his seat in the Senate.

Like it or not, Burris is the junior senator from Illinois. Reid's refusal to accept this fact and White's refusal to acknowledge it do not invalidate his appointment. Having been officially named Obama's successor, Burris will retain this Senate seat until his term expires - or until he succumbs to the pressure and resigns.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Harry Reid's folly

By DeWayne Wickham

You have to wonder if the Senate Democrats that Harry Reid herded to the edge of a political cliff will follow him in leaping off that precipice.

Reid, the leader of the U.S. Senate’s Democratic majority, is trying mightily to keep Roland Burris from assuming the Senate seat he was appointed to by embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. His selection of Burris, a former attorney general and the first black to win statewide election in the Prairie State, may be a cynical act. But it baits a trap that Reid has fallen into.

“We say this without prejudice toward Roland Burris’s ability, and we respect his years of public service. But this is not about Burris; it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat. Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus,” Reid said in a statement.

But Blagojevich, who has neither been convicted of a crime nor impeached, had the legal right to appoint Burris. And Senate Democrats have no constitutional authority to reject Burris because of the legal problems that now engulf Blagojevich, who federal prosecutors accuse of political corruption, including allegedly scheming to personally benefit from naming someone to replace Obama.

As far as we know, Burris was not a party to that scandalous talk, which was captured on wiretaps by federal prosecutors. In fact, Reid said Sunday on Meet the Press, “I don’t know a thing wrong with Burris.” Later he added: “I think that everyone I’ve talked to says that Burris is a good guy.”

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Reid called Blagojevich shortly before his arrest and urged the governor not to appoint Illinois Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis, or state Senate president Emil Jones — all of them black. Instead, he wanted Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan or Tammy Duckworth, the state’s chief of Veterans Affairs, named to the post. Neither woman is black.

Reid denies this account of his conversation with Blagojevich. Among others, Reid cited his support of the appointment of black Nevada attorney Johnnie Rawlinson to a federal judgeship as proof that he’s not a closet racist.

Ironically, President Clinton nominated Rawlinson to the federal bench while he was the target of a federal investigation that resulted in the House approving three articles of impeachment against him. Had Republicans adopted Reid’s argument that the Senate can stop a duly elected official from carrying out his authorized duties, they could have refused to approve Rawlinson’s nomination.

As it stands now, Reid has gotten Senate Democrats to band together in opposing Burris. Their sheep-like allegiance to the Senate majority leader could be a gift to Republicans, hurting Democrats in the next election cycle.Reid and his followers are wrong to believe that what they are doing to Burris won’t produce a black backlash. It will. They hope that Obama’s support of their position will give them cover. It won’t.

No matter his motivation, Reid’s opposition to Burris will leave the Senate a lily-white body as this nation enters the new era in American politics that was ushered in by Obama’s election as this nation’s first black president.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Are you planning to attend Obama's inaugural?

If so, this is must reading: http://inaugural.senate.gov/2009/.

Also, Destination DC, the official tourism office of the nation's capital has a treasure trove of information about things that are happening in the District of Columbia in the days leading up to the January 20th swearing in of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States.

It seems that everybody has gotten into the act. There will be an Aloha Ball, a Green Inaugural Ball, The People's Inaugural Ball (tickets are just $75), a "2 Degrees of Separation" Champagne Brunch and much more. See the link below: http://www.washington.org/visiting/experience-dc/presidential-inauguration/balls-and-events.