By DeWayne Wickham
ORLANDO — By the time Newt Gingrich claimed victory in the South Carolina primary, I was in a crowded theater watching the movie about a kind of untold “American exceptionalism” that the Republican candidate seems to dismiss, if not disdain.
The newly released Red Tails tells the story of the black pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, who before facing Hitler’s Luftwaffe had to overcome their countrymen’s implacable and groundless belief that they lacked the intelligence and courage to be fighter pilots during World War II. Overcoming an obstacle no white trainee faced, the pilots of the 332nd dealt the Luftwaffe a blow that once again underscored the vital contributions of blacks to America ’s greatness.
This is not what Gingrich “the historian” seems to have in mind when he speaks of “returning to the America we love.” If you listen to the former Georgia congressman’s campaign rhetoric, he makes subtle but unmistakable references to race, whether labeling the nation’s first black president a “food-stamp president” or insinuating that African Americans don’t have a work ethic. His solution? Let urban school children be in-house janitors. But of course.
Ahhh, the good ol’ days, when whites had job security and white picket fences and couldn’t be bossed around by uppity blacks, and African-Americans had to suffer gross indignities in order to put their lives on the line to defend their country. Gingrich doesn’t say this, but he doesn’t have to. A not-too-distant history, as seen in Red Tails, takes us back to that time. We don’t need Gingrich’s help.
The film documents the Tuskegee Airmen, Army aviators who were part of a U.S. government experiment to train black combat pilots in the 1940s. They were initially forced to fly second-hand planes and then derided by white superiors who thought blacks were unfit for duty. Eventually the airmen were allowed to fly better fighters and given critical missions.
Red Tails is a fictional account of this unit that gives moviegoers a basic lesson in the courage and heroism of these young black pilots. Heroically, several Tuskegee Airmen who stayed in the military after the war rose to the rank of general, including Daniel “Chappie” James, who became this nation’s first black four-star general — the kind of “exceptionalism” few of any race who serve in the U.S. military ever achieve.
In his effort to replace Obama as president, Gingrich pledges to his right-wing backers that, if elected, he will “rebuild the America we love.” He paints Obama as an enemy of “the classical America ” from which he draws his understanding of what it is to be an American. Think Leave It To Beaver.
As movies go, Red Tails, which Obama recently viewed at the White House along with some of the film’s cast, is an enthralling look at a history many Americans would rather forget. But we can’t and shouldn’t. The thing that is truly exceptional about America is not its democratic idealism, but the willingness of those who have been denied its promise to still believe in the vision of the “more perfect union” enshrined in the Constitution’s preamble, if not in the actual text.
What is truly exceptional about this country is that just two generations after many questioned the ability of blacks to come to the nation’s defense, Americans elected a black man to lead them.
That’s a history lesson Gingrich seems determined to undo at any cost.