Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Bravo pour les Americains!

Greetings from the city of light where the Eiffel Tower is lit up in blue! No, France is not the 51st (blue) state but it currently holds the presidency of the European Union.

Upon departure, I was shocked to see so many French people in line for the airplane wearing Obama buttons. Upon arrival, I have seen Obama buttons, stickers, and t-shirts in store fronts. I gave a friend's children Obama buttons (because they are half-American) and as we walked through the city, some teens spotted it and said, "Allez Obama! Allez Obama!"

I had a long conversation with a cab driver last night. He was from Antibes and we discussed the positive impact an Obama presidency will have on the world. I have been so used to America being hated (having lived overseas while Reagan was president) or derided for its political hypocrisy and puritanical obssession with sex and politicians (having lived overseas while Clinton was president).  From an intellectual perspective, it was clear having a new president would have a positive impact on the rest of the world. But here in Paris, I felt the difference from an emotional perspective. A young, intellectual biracial President with an incredible rise and a Muslim middle name speaks volumes about the diversity of America and our potential for living the values of tolerance and justice that are laid out in our Constitution.

It is truly an amazing to witness such symbolic change. And it's so refreshing to put aside the cynicism and doubts of "politics" and celebrate the moment.

I told my cab driver about an interesting article in New York magazine that talked about how children under 10 today would only remember America having a black President and a black First Family and what an enormous impact that would be. He agreed and told me how when his kids were young they had friends of all races and ethnicities - and they were so open they didn't even realize they were black and they had friends who were not. He ended by telling me something I've never heard in France before, "Bravo pour les Americains! Bravo!"
There are many Obama parties in Paris tonight but most are sold out or trop cher. I will be watching coverage from a friend's house. I imagine horns honking all over America when the final tally is in! More later.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Vote

In a blog post in September 2004, I wrote, "I'm audacious enough to imagine a Clinton-Obama 2008 bumper sticker." And two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a post, entitled, Barack Now that explained the reasons I thought he should and would be President. I included these lines, "I think he's going to run and I think he's going to win."

Friday, I submitted an absentee ballot in my eighth presidential election with my vote for Obama-Biden. The more disillusioned I have become about politics, the more emotional I am about having the right to vote. And so I cried, like I do every time I vote.

When I filled in that little circle with my black pen, I thought of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Medger Evers, Emmett Till, Harriet Tubman, and so many other black Americans who gave their lives for such a moment. It is powerful and yes, hopeful, to see not only a man of color's name at the top of the ticket but such a colorful name it is - a name that represents the very idea of America.

I have been asked many times in the last few months, if I have become a Republican because I have questioned the authenticity of Obama's platform of change, because I have refused to make cruel jokes about Sarah Palin and her family, and because I haven't judged John McCain's personal life nor do I believe he is evil.

My answer is no, I have actually become more liberal.

And yes, I am fully aware that if either of the Obama girls were teens and pregnant, the Republican Right would be relentless in their assessment of Barack's and Michelle's parenting. I know that if Michelle had been pregnant when she married Barack, the Republican Right would say she was unfit to be First Lady. I know that if Barack had gone to six colleges and earned mediocre grades, he would not have gotten this far in the race.

But I thought - and believed Obama thought the same - that we Democrats respected all Americans -whether they were Red State or Blue State. That Democrats didn't need to be negative because our ideas were better and because we hold ourselves to a higher standard. That's why I stood for Obama when so many people said I was naive and didn't understand how politics work in this country.

What this campaign has revealed to me is the growing hypocrisy of the Democratic party. What I continue to find is that Democrats (including our nominees) can be just as manipulative, phony, greedy, and politically expedient as Republicans. And sometimes, more. Democrats wallow in Wall Street money (more, in fact, than McCain) and lobbyist money and make deals with those who help get them elected.

That is our system, everyone says. You have to play the game to get elected.

But when a candidate says they are running on a platform of change, he or she is asking to be held to a different, higher standard. And when that very stance is the one that has inspired millions of new voters, young and old, to get involved, it says something else. It says, maybe you don't have to play every single game to get elected.

So yes, I am going to hold you to a higher standard.

What this campaign has revealed to me is the utter state of mediocrity of the media and their push to divide instead of fairly and accurately presenting the facts. They have been relentless in trying to surface examples of racism. Didn't they learn anything from the Iowa primary? Americans are, in fact, ready and willing to vote for a black man for President! They present poll figures that "indicate racism" when in fact, no Democratic nominee has gotten more than 50% of the vote since FDR, with the exception of LBJ, 11 months after JFK died.

Keith Olberman, Chris Matthews, and Maureen Dowd, among the self-identified liberal press, proved they could be just as petty, stupid, self-righteous, egotistical, and hateful as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

They write stories with a decidely sexist angle without shame. Consider the male who lost the Democratic nomination in 1980. He gave no speech, attended no event, and offered not a single appearance for the winning nominee. The winning nominee's eventual loss ushered in the Reagan Revolution which was devastating to the very people this losing nominee said he stood for. But this same man is now so highly regarded in the Democratic party that he was granted the power to "pass the torch" to a new generation of male leaders during an excessive and overwrought Democratic convention. Yet, a female in the same position in 2008, who gave a stirring speech, along with her husband, in support of the winning nominee and who makes weekly appearances for the candidate, is presented as "not doing enough," "only stoking her ambitions for four years later," and "not authentic or effusive enough in her praise."

Yes, it's true some women were angry when she lost. Much like Michelle Obama's honest admission of hesitation, in the heat of the campaign, when asked if she would support Hillary if Barack lost. Hillary supporters felt the exact same way when Hillary lost. They also felt the exact same way Michelle did when moments later she said that she would, of course, work so that the party won.

Women aren't that stupid to vote for a ticket that doesn't support women. It is after all women who elect the leaders of this country. We vote in greater numbers and with more consistency than men. And yes, have no fear, we still we continue to vote for men instead of women because our standard for women is much higher than for men. But that's another post.

And yes, racism does exist in this country. But I always find it intriguing when it's blamed on poor, white women. Last time I checked, the majority of government, corporate, religious, and academic institutions and organizations are being run by white men.

With the exception of Obama, I'm not sure that's going to change anytime soon. A recent article in The New York Times relayed that transition teams for both parties are hard at work getting potential Cabinet members and appointees in place. And I equally noted neither side mentioned a single woman's name. All white men.

Yes, change we can believe in.

This campaign also revealed to me my own immaturity in thinking that Barack Obama can or is even responsible for making America live up to its potential. And the more I sought to understand why my disappointment in him was so deep, the more I realized how little Americans, me included, actually do for their country.

And then I understood the reason Bush's junta succeeded in subverting the constitution, why our economic system is on the brink of failure, how two wars we started are spiraling out of control in violence and cost, how we can ignore a crumbling infrastructure, how we can tolerate an unmanageable and inefficient health care system, how we can accept embarrassing infant mortality rates, and how we do nothing about a public education system that allows children to graduate without being able to read or write.

The reason is because Americans are lazy, apathetic, ignorant about their own history, and only really care about issues when it affects them personally. We (and the Democrats) are the reason Bush, Cheney, and that whole lot of men have been able to run this country into the ground.

Yes, we are the ones we have been waiting for - and none of us showed up to make a difference because we were too busy watching cable TV, working overtime, filling our SUVs with gas, shopping online and at the mall, reading celebrity gossip, going out to dinner, bitching about evil Republicans, and isolating ourselves from the fact that our country is falling apart.

But at other times in this country's history, regular citizens standing up did make a difference. When did we stop having the courage to make a difference?

If we want this country to be different we have to stand up and fight for it. We have to do more than vote. We have to work to find new solutions and not just because someone with charisma and a talent for speech making tells us to. We have to do it because it's the right thing to do. John Edwards, even though he is being vilified for behavior that is quite common -especially among politicians and government officials -still had the best line in the campaign, "It is time to become patriotic about something other than war."

Patriotic means learning about your country's history, reading the constitution, holding your representatives accountable, criticizing them when you feel they are wrong, participating in your community's growth and success. It means not accepting racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other intolerance of people who are different than you. It means fighting just as hard for peace as we do for war (when we aren't ignoring it.). It means being more responsible with energy and finding ways to reduce consumption. It means we have to stop being a victim and stop demonizing the other side.

I know the media likes us to believe old lies like "war and poverty will always be with this" or "those groups have been killing each other for years" but until we change our thinking about what is possible we will have the same corrupt political system.

And so I voted for Barack Obama because when he gave that speech in July 2004, he inspired me to believe again in the potential of America not as the "best country in the world" but as a place where liberty, tolerance, and innovation flourishes, where women and men who think differently, believe differently, and live differently can still be respected and treated with dignity.

I voted for Barack Obama because I am as committed to my country as I am to the world. I am willing to pay more taxes to make better all that we need to make better - to bring our troops home and to care for them when they get here, to support diplomatic efforts, to provide health care for every single American, to reaffirm the values and morality of the Constitution, to clean up the corruption in corporations and Wall Street and in government, and to listen again -without judgment -to those who think there is a different way to get there.

I voted for Barack Obama because even though his actions to date have not yet reflected the change he offers in his speeches, he does represent a symbolic shift in what is possible to achieve in this country. That alone is reason to be proud and joyful.

Most important, I voted for Barack Obama because if we all accept our role to participate fully in creating, supporting, and accepting the changes that are necessary, then yes we can change the world.

MLW will be reporting the European perspective live from Paris, France, on Election Day 2008.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


History teaches us that iconic figures and events often make deep impressions that stretch beyond the individual and the circumstance to capture our own personal disappointments and sorrow.

And with Bobby Kennedy, it has always been very personal to me.

Today’s post begins with family lore. The year was 1964; the place, the Municipal Airport in Kansas City, Missouri. Both my parents seemed in awe of Jack but in love with Bobby. My father guessed that Bobby would be coming through a different and less crowded entrance. As he did, I imagine all 10 of us were thrilled to discover he was right! But no one more so than my brother Frank, 5, who was crushed that the moment passed and he had missed shaking Bobby’s hand. Whether it was for the love for a child or the adulation of someone who represented hope, my mother propelled herself and Frank forward, (along with my 9-month old sister, Lorraine, in her arms) rushing after Bobby. His security pushed her aside but Bobby stopped and walked along with my mother asking about all the kids he had just met, comparing to how many he had at the time. And then he leaned over to shake Frank’s hand and tousle his hair. It is one of life’s ironies that Frank is the only member in my family to become a Republican but he still has deep admiration for Bobby. And my mother says to this day, she has never seen eyes more blue or a face more full of sadness.

I was six years old when he was murdered four years later. Eight weeks before, I had been pulled from my First Grade class mid-day and sent home with my brothers and sisters. Martin Luther King had been killed and there was fear of rioting. I had seen National Guard tanks drive down our street the summer before during the riots. I remember feeling sadness for Mrs. Renaud, the only African-American teacher at my elementary school and her daughter, Nikki, who was in my class. It seemed to me as if Dr. King was a member of their family in that small way in which children view the world.

My father cried. My mother ripped from a wall in our TV room, a popular poster of the era of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as “Bonnie and Clyde.” I remember hearing through her anguished tears, “I am so sick of violence in this country.” I daydreamed I was a famous doctor who could save him so everyone could be happy again. We went to Mass. Later that evening I went to a family friend’s house for dinner. There was no conversation about Bobby, no sorrow, no tears. I was stunned that this family was not at all touched by the death of someone I assumed everyone loved. I wanted to go home. Like the Renauds and Dr. King, it seemed that Bobby was a part of my family.

As I grew up, I read everything I could about him. And deepening the connection, I remember, “Robert F. Kennedy and His Times” was the last book my father read.

There is no question that Kennedy was a flawed man. He supported one of the most hated senators in American history, Joseph McCarthy. He was obsessed with Jimmy Hoffa (perhaps their propensity for revenge was a mirror). He was famous for saying “Don’t get mad, get even.” He was considered ruthless, vindictive, and a person who would do anything to win. He was slight, barely 5’9”, introverted, a stumbling and uncomfortable speaker. There are shadows in many other places that may never be uncovered.

But the tragedy of his brother’s death changed him in a noble and lasting way. It is in this transformation that his largeness can be found. His sister-in-law, Jackie, was responsible for much of his adult education, introducing him to Greek mythology and French existentialism. He seemed to absorb these different perspectives of life as a salve against the pain in ways the faith of his childhood could not offer.

And in this sorrow, came the compassion and authenticity that reached across the divides of America that no politician since has been able to recreate. Bobby didn’t look like the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the oppressed, the poor, the hated, and the ignored –nor did he in his abundant wealth and extreme sports - live like them. He was, however, the first white male leader who noticed them; noticed them as human beings and not simply a demographic providing the Democratic Party with a voting advantage.

As he transformed, he became a more courageous politician. His face bore a vivid and ravaged map which spoke of what it meant to be human – to know both the best and worst of times; to know profound joy and deep loss; to know supreme accomplishment and bitter regret. And so, he entered places in which the forgotten of America and outside of America persevered, their hope stowed away in place of the grit needed to survive: the burnt-out streets of Watts, the forgotten black hills of Appalachia, the ignored farmlands of California, the entrenched poverty of Bedford-Stuyvesant. He flew to California to support the migrant worker’s strike and was humbled by the dedication of their leader, Cesar Chavez. Ascending from a horrendous coal mine in Lota, Chile, his comment to a reporter was, “If I had to work in that mine, I’d be Communist, too.” He challenged South Africans, still under apartheid rule, to imagine God as black.

He wasn’t afraid – although he was shocked –to listen in silence to the anger of blacks who were fed up with the slow pace of civil rights progression. Although their lack of patriotism was abhorrent to him (much like those who were naively shocked by Michelle Obama’s uncensored outburst of pride when her husband won the Iowa primary), he sought to understand their anger.

When I see photos of him cradling the face of a poor child in his very privileged hands – it is clear it wasn’t for his own personal glory but for the photo opportunity that would allow that child’s agony to be known to a wider audience. Over and over, published articles and books tell of his weeping after witnessing scenes of poverty and despair. It is no wonder, yet still astonishing, that he routinely used the words love and compassion in political speeches.

His words on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s death is one of these speeches and it is the best ever given by an American politician. He spoke in a poor, black, neighborhood in which the police refused to protect him. He asked the crowd to put down their signs of support for him and then he told them the news. He used no notes. He quoted the Greek poet, Aeschylus, in a voice –halting and full of sorrow- without arrogance, without exclusion, without expediency - because it was what had comforted his own soul and his own heart; and perhaps, theirs as well. Indianapolis –unlike many other American cities that night- was quiet.

His other nod to the Greeks, the phrase, “let us dedicate ourselves to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world” is what I wrote on my team’s white board when I returned to work after 9/11. It was one of the first things I thought of on that awful day because it captured the essential human condition – how to make sense of that which has no explanation?

Putting the romanticism aside, here’s the truth. He was not the favored candidate. He did not have the support of the Democratic Party. He was not the front-runner. He was not the candidate of intellectual liberals. He waited much too long to speak out against Vietnam and because of it, he did not –contrary to current media lore– have the student vote. His supporters were not the union heads but the union rank and file.

What he had was the poor –and he had them whether they were white, black, Latino, or Asian. In the Indiana primary, he won 85% of the black vote, and also won seven counties which had voted for George Wallace in the previous election.

What he had was the ability to transcend the boundaries of his upbringing - to demonstrate respect for those who were not respected, to share life’s pain in a way that did not demand pity but challenged us to be more compassionate, more loving, more honest, more soul-searching, and yes, more full of hope. Because this was the way he was living his own life.

For me, Bobby’s life is one of deep spiritual pain; pain that asks, “Why?” And when finding no answer, making the choice to keep being human, keep finding truth in compassion, and keep seeking salvation in empathy; redemption in action.

Maybe for those of us who admire him, we see our own potential for salvation, recognize our own pain of exclusion, our own chance for redemption. Maybe in his life’s example, we too, may choose a different and better way to live as individuals and as a country. We too, may, seek a newer world.