Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I like Barack Obama, but...

By DeWayne Wickham

This is not an easy column for me to write.

It’s never easy to tell someone you like that they’re a disappointment. I like Barack Obama. I liked him the first time we met back in 2006 when I took a small group of journalism students to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with the then-freshly-minted U.S. senator.

I liked Obama even more when an aide to his presidential campaign invited me to a July 2007 speech he gave laying out his commitment to improve life for people in urban America – which for most politicians is a euphemism for black America.

“Today’s economy has made it easier to fall into poverty…Every American is vulnerable to the insecurities and anxieties of this new economy. And that’s why the single most important focus of my economic agenda as President will be to pursue policies that create jobs and make work pay,” Obama said that day to his mostly-black audience.

At that time the nation’s overall unemployment rate was 4.7 percent. Whites had a jobless rate of 4.2 percent while the black unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent. Today the black rate is 15.5 percent, nearly double that of white job seekers.

I don’t blame Obama for the economic conditions that are responsible for so many blacks being out of work. The seeds of this problem were planted long before he moved into the Oval Office. But I do fault him for not doing more to fix this problem.

The poor in urban America, he said in that 2007 speech, “suffer most from a politics that has been tipped in favor of those with the most money, and influence, and power.” And then he asked rhetorically: “How can a country like this allow it.” To which he answered: “We can’t.”

But so far, under his leadership, it has allowed it.

Finding work for the jobless is the best anti-poverty program this nation can mount. But while the Obama administration spends $2 billion dollars a week fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan; and spent $608 million during the first 17 days of its involvement in Libya’s civil war; it can muster neither the money nor the will to combat black unemployment.

The president’s failure to fight this problem as vigorously as he wages war abroad gets a pass from black leaders, many of whom complain to me privately, but remain silent in public. They’re reluctant to challenge Obama the way Martin Luther King, Jr., did Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

America “would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor” so long as it was involved in the Vietnam War, King said in a speech in which he called for an end to that bloody conflict.

Last month, as the Obama administration applauded the creation of 216,000 new jobs and a slight dip in the overall unemployment rate, the gap between whites and blacks without work widened as the black unemployment rate inched up.

Back in December 2009, when the black unemployment rate was just 64 percent higher than the national rate, Obama told USA TODAY he didn’t think he needed to do anything special to close this gap. Now that it is 75 percent higher, black leaders should demand that the president target as much attention on this problem as he has on ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and in pushing for immigration reform.

They should demand an end to the wasteful spending on wars that can’t be won and use of the resulting peace dividend to finance the urban policy Obama once promised would be the focus of his economic agenda.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Civil War anniversary evokes personal journey down memory lane

By DeWayne Wickham

For much of the next four years this nation will relive the Civil War. It was 150 years ago this month that rebel gunners opened fire on U.S. military garrison at Ft. Sumter, S.C. That brief fight launched America’s bloodiest conflict, a war that raged from 1861 to 1865.

Historians usually talk about the Civil War in broad terms. They view it as a fight that pitted this country’s industrial North against its agrarian South; a clash between free and slave-holding states, or a war fought by the proponents of a strong central government and the advocates of states’ rights.

I see it in a far more personal way.

While I’m convinced the underlying cause of the Civil War was the South’s determination to perpetuate slavery, in a narrower sense it is, for me, a family matter in which the central figure was my grandfather, Trevillian Wickham. He didn’t fight in the Civil War, though nearly 200,000 blacks served in the Union Army. He wasn’t born until 1890.

The son of a slave named Casius Wickham, who was born in 1847 in Hanover County, Va., my grandfather is my most enduring history lesson on the Civil War. He was named Trevillian after a train depot not far from the plantation where his father once lived. Called Trevilian Station (the spelling was changed to Trevilians or Trevillians after the war); it was the scene of a major cavalry battle in 1864.

Among the Union generals in that fight was George Armstrong Custer, whose Michigan cavalry unit clashed with Virginia cavalry troops commanded by Gen. Williams Carter Wickham. The Confederate general was the patriarch of Hickory Hill, a 3,200 acre planation in Hanover County, a short distance from the Louisa County battleground. At its peak the plantation had 275 slaves. One of them is believed to have been my great-grandfather, Casius Wickham.

Knowing all of this connects me – and my family – to the Civil War in ways that are far more personal than the view many historians have of this great conflict. It also helps me make sense of my grandfather’s fascination with Camden Station, a railroad hub in Baltimore where he worked as a porter when I was a young boy.

Once, when my grandfather took me there I heard him and some of the other black men who worked menial jobs at the station talk about how “Abraham Lincoln used to come through here.” It was for them a matter of great pride that the president who set off a series of events that ended slavery had been in the same space that they occupied.

While my grandfather talked about how his work at Camden Station connected him to Lincoln, he never mentioned his linkage to the Wickhams of Hanover County, or his connection to the Battle of Trevilian Station, which Union troops lost. And he never said anything to me about another chapter of the Baltimore station’s history that unfolded shortly after Lincoln was sworn in as president.

On April 19, 1861 a mob of Southern sympathizers attacked federal troops marching through Baltimore. They were on their way to Camden Station to take a train to Washington, D.C. to reinforce the capital. The first casualty of this clash – and the Civil War – was Nicholas Biddle, a black man who was the personal aide of the unit’s commander.

Maybe my grandfather didn’t know this bit of history. But his connection to the place where it happened – and my family’s connection to one of the South’s wartime commanders – makes the memory of the Civil War more of a personal reflection than a sterile journey down history’s lane.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Donald Trump, not President Obama's birth certificate, is a scam

By DeWayne Wickham

Donald Trump isn’t a birther, he’s just pimping off of them.

Recently the surreality show host and billionaire blowhard has been making the rounds of TV talk shows parroting the long ago debunked assertion that President Obama was born in the African nation of Kenya — not the state of Hawaii.

If true, which it isn’t, that would make Obama ineligible to be president. To give this stale “odor of mendacity” a fresh whiff, Trump announced with a straight face on NBC’s “Today” that he’s dispatched his own investigators to Hawaii to ferret out his version of the truth about Obama’s birthplace.

“I have people that actually have been studying it and they cannot believe what they are finding,” he said about the birth records Hawaii officials have for Obama. Trump, who hosts Celebrity Apprentice — the Peacock network’s top rated show — got away with that conspiracy theorist tease during an interview with NBC’s Today show host Meredith Vieira without being asked what his sleuths found.

Nevermind that both Hawaii’s current governor, Democrat Neil Abercrombie, and his predecessor, Republican Linda Lingle, have said state records show Obama was born in Hawaii. Trump persists in demanding that the president personally satisfy him that he was born in America.

“If he weren’t lying why wouldn’t he just solve it?” Trump said on the Today show. “I would like to have him show his birth certificate.”

Why Trump is doing this is unclear. He wraps his questions about the authenticity of Obama’s official birth record with chest-thumping talk of how he might run for president to save us from Obama’s mismanagement of the nation’s affairs. But that decision won’t come before this season’s final episode of his TV show airs in late May. To enter the race sooner wouldn’t be fair to NBC, which has to take his TV show off the air once he becomes a presidential candidate. Now that’s a guy who has his priorities in the right order. Right?

Of course, the other possibility is that by fanning the flames of the birther movement, Trump is using this issue to build an even larger audience for his NBC show with appearances on other broadcast and cable networks that are being duped into treating what he says as something that is newsworthy.

It isn’t.

However, Trump’s harangue about Obama’s birth record appears to have made him the darling of a sizeable chunk of would-be Republican Party primary voters. He’s tied for second place (17%) with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey of GOP voters who were asked who they favored for the party’s presidential nomination. Mitt Romney, the ex-Massachusetts governor, finished first with the support of 21% of the respondents.

I suspect Trump is, at heart, neither a Republican nor a birther. He’s a mountebank — a flamboyant and deceptive hawker of his own interests. He’s a guy who has managed to amass enormous wealth while attaching his name to multimillion dollar real estate deals that went bad and billion-dollar casinos that ended up in bankruptcy.

In a recent letter to The New York Times, Trump accused the media of shielding Obama from the charge that he is not an American citizen. “What they don’t realize is that if he was not born in the United States ,” he said, “they would have uncovered the greatest ‘scam’ in the history of our country.”

But, in truth, the great scam journalists and others in the media have yet to uncover is the one that keeps Donald Trump in the national spotlight.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Exile may not be a good option for Moammar Ghadafi; just ask Charles Taylor

By DeWayne Wickham

Now that the U.S.-led air war has failed to produce a quick collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s government, and his forces are beating back the advances of Libya’s feckless rebels, the word “exile” is being bandied about as something Gadhafi is seriously considering.

Uganda says it will give him exile. Italy is contemplating it, too, for Gadhafi and his family. Even Hillary Clinton, secretary of State, and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have said allowing Gadhafi to go off into exile might be necessary to stop the bloodshed.

But nobody is saying exile will guarantee Gadhafi immunity from prosecution. And without an assurance that he won’t end up like former Liberian president Charles Taylor, whose three-year war crimes trial just ended, it’s a good bet Gadhafi will fight on until the bitter end. Taylor went into exile in 2003 as part of a deal to end Liberia’s 14-year-old civil war.

But three years later, he was handed over to a special international court for prosecution for his support of the bloody civil war in Sierra Leone, which borders Liberia. Taylor faces the possibility of life in prison, a fate he didn’t contemplate when he agreed to go into exile in Nigeria.

Gadhafi, who many people think is delusional, would have to be out of his mind to accept an exile offer that leaves open the possibility that he, too, will be hauled before an international tribunal. But that’s exactly what the U.S. seems to want in the not-so-small print of any exile deal.

“Exile may be an option that he looks at, and obviously that’s not one t hat we would rule out,” Rice told CBS News last month. “But very importantly, from the point of view of the United States and the international community, is accountability and justice for the crimes he and those closest to him have committed,” she quickly added.

If that doublespeak is meant to lure Gadhafi out of Libya and into the docket of an international court, it probably won’t work with the Libyan leader. And worse, it will make many of the world’s other dictators work harder to suppress dissent, rather than give in to it.

Nobody knows this better than Charles Stith, the former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, who now heads the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University, which studies democracy movements in Africa.

“One of the difficulties in negotiating any settlement to get (Gadhafi) to leave voluntarily has to be viewed against the backdrop of what happened to Charles Taylor,” Stith told me. “Unless these guys have a way to transition out that doesn’t amount to suicide, you don’t have a way to talk them into giving up power without a struggle.”

Put another way, the international community has to decide whether holding out for an exile agreement that gives it the chance to eventually lock up Gadhafi for the rest of his life is worth it while the fighting — and dying — continues in Libya. It has to determine whether demanding that Gadhafi succumb to such a deal will make it easier, or harder, for it to dislodge despots in other countries where the humanitarian crisis is greater than what the people of Libya face.

Short of a decision — which the U.S. and its allies have disavowed — to try to kill Gadhafi, something must be done quickly to end the carnage in Libya. And as hard as it is for many to swallow, an offer of exile that includes immunity from prosecution for Gadhafi could be what it takes.