Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Audacity of Swope

No. 44

So Barack Obama is now our President. Number 44. That was Hank Aaron’s number. Another good, calm, steady man, Aaron did some terrific things with a baseball bat, including break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. Let's all hope Obama has as good a run for the next eight years.

I had a dream—not a momentous dream, but a silly one—that Obama took the oath of office and then pulled a Putney Swope. For those of you who have never seen this movie (Putney Swope, The Truth and Soul Movie.), a black man is accidentally elected chairman of a major Madison Avenue ad agency. There’s a black humor opening, where the former chairman dies of a heart attack in the middle of a speech. With the corpse still sprawled on the table, the members of the agency’s executive committee cast their votes on who will succeed him. They all want the job, of course, but they are prevented from voting for themselves. So they all vote for the guy they figure is least likely to receive votes, the one token black on the committee, Putney Swope.

Dressed about as conservatively as possible, the Uncle Tomish Swope takes his place at the head of the table and says, “Gentlemen, I don’t want to rock the boat…” The camera pans to the table surrounded by white faces, then cuts back to Swope, who is now wearing a dashiki and has an Afro. He continues, “I want to sink the boat!” The camera pans back to the table, where the faces are all black except for one token white guy.

Maybe it was the cover from The New Yorker with Barack and Michelle dapping that led to this dream. Maybe it’s also the aggressive marketing of Obama merchandise and souvenirs and all those countless e-mails I continue to receive from groups associated with Obama, all asking for more money, that led to the ad agency connection.

Of course, Obama said nothing radical in his inaugural address and no one expected it. If anything, many people on the left have been fearing a reverse-Swope, wherein this young black man changes into a conservative Republican. After all, his transition has drawn more praise from people like David Brooks and George Will than from people like Paul Krugman. He kept Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense and has appointed some other conservatives in national security posts. He also appointed Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, two guys who helped create the economic mess we are in today.

Nevertheless, Obama’s address got him off to a good start. It was blunt rather than eloquent and that’s just what we needed. Arianna Huffington nailed it in her recap (Obama’s Somber Sermon on the Steps). She wrote:

For me, the most compelling moment of the speech came when he quoted the Bible. While we remain a young nation, he said, “the time has come to set aside childish things.”

There was something very powerful about watching this relatively young man, one of the youngest to ever hold the highest office in the land, telling the American people to grow up.

Like about three-quarters of the American public, according to the polls, I am just relieved that the dark era of Bush/Cheney is over and we now have a rational, intelligent president who can talk in full sentences using real words and who believes in science. As for the rest of his program, a lot of it is fuzzy. It’s going to be up to all of us, as he has repeatedly declared, to help him bring clarity to his vision.

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