By DeWayne Wickham
What should be clear to the whole world watching the debt-ceiling battle is that the Republicans are far more intent on taking the president's scalp than balancing the nation's books. They had ample opportunities to do the latter during the eight years of George W. Bush.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader with the greatest cunning and sharpest knife, signaled his party's true purpose last year when he proclaimed: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." It was not to undo the health care legislation Obama signed into law, or to block another debt limit increase. Even then, two years out from the next presidential election, the Alabama-born senator said the top goal of GOP lawmakers to oust Obama.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has been especially relentless in the debt-ceiling fight. He attacked this first African-American president with a palpable disrespect not only for Obama personally, but also for his esteemed office.
Following what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Cantor's "childish" display during a meeting with Obama, the House majority leader complained that the president had cut short the meeting and stormed out of the room. "He shoved back and said, 'I'll see you tomorrow' and walked out," Cantor snidely told reporters— as though the president needs his permission to end a White House gathering.
That encounter might have reminded Obama of the open letter Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave and abolitionist who became one of this nation's first black diplomats, wrote to his slave master.
It would be "a privilege" to show you "how mankind ought to treat each other," Douglass told the man who had badly mistreated him. "I am your fellow man, but not your slave."
Douglass' words might have prompted another reflection when, during a critical point in the debt negotiations, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, contemptuously waited more than half a day to return a call from the president.
Or, Obama might have heard Douglass' words ringing in his ears after acting House Speaker Steve LaTourette of Ohio had to warn his GOP colleagues during a heated debt-reduction debate on the House floor to stop making disparaging remarks about Obama.
This total lack of respect is downright contemptible — if not unpatriotic. Such contempt, I'm convinced, is rooted in something other than political differences. In their actions you might not see the overt actions of 1960s racist southern governors Ross Barnett or George Wallace. But the presence of Jim Crow, Jr. — a more subtle form of racism — is there.
Douglass viewed such behavior as "an outrage upon the soul." In this present case it is the soul of our nation, which still struggles to get beyond the awful ripple effects of its haunting history of human bondage.
McConnell, Boehner and Cantor are the vanguard of a political force of a dying era — one that looks more like the nation's past than its future.
Obama is the second president of this millennium, but the first chief executive of the America of new possibilities — a multiracial, multicultural nation whose emergence the old order is working mightily to forestall in its desperate attack on his presidency.