An Appeal to Barack Obama
“The Democrats have been stuck in the arguments of
Barack, I thought Hillary Clinton was known as the Great Triangulator, but you are learning well. The problem with setting up false polarities to position yourself in the “center”, however, is that it’s unproductive both politically and intellectually.
Politically, it is a mistake because there last time I looked there were a whole lot more “Tom Hayden Democrats” voting in the
More disturbing is what happens to the mind by setting up these polarities. To take a “centrist” position, one calculates the equal distance between two “extremes.” It doesn’t matter if one “extreme” is closer to the truth. All that matters is achieving the equidistance. This means the presumably “extreme” view is prevented from having a fair hearing, which would require abandoning the imaginary center. And it invites the “extreme” to become more “extreme” in order to pull the candidate’s thinking in a more progressive direction. The process of substantive thinking is corroded by the priority of political positioning.
I have been enthused by the crowds you draw, by the excitement you instill in my son and daughter-in-law, by the seeds of inspiration you plant in our seven-year old [biracial] kid. I love the alternative American narrative you weave on the stump, one in which once-radical social movements ultimately create a better
But as the months wear on, I see a problem of the potential being squandered. Hillary Clinton already occupies the political center. John Edwards holds the populist labor/left. And that leaves you with a transcendent vision in search of a constituency.
Your opposition to the Iraq War could have distinguished you, but it became more parsed than pronounced. All the nuance might please the New York Times’ Michael Gordon, who helped get us into this madness in the first place, but the slivers of difference appear too narrow for many voters to notice.
This caution has a history:
- you were against the war in 2002 because it was a “dumb war”, but you had to point out that you were not against all wars, without exactly saying what wars you favored;
- then you visited Iraq for 36 hours and “could only marvel at the ability of our government to essentially erect entire cities within hostile territory”;
- then as the quagmire deepened, you cloaked yourself in the bipartisan mantle of the Baker-Hamilton Study Group, which advocated leaving thousands of American troops in Iraq to fight terrorism, train the Iraqis until they “stand up”, and sundry other tasks of occupation;
Perhaps your national security advisers are getting to you when it should be the other way around. Their expertise is not in the politics of primaries. If anything, they reject the of populist peace pressure influencing elite national security decisions. The result is a frustration towards all the Democratic candidates for what the Center for American Progress has recently called “strategic drift.” The political result is the danger of returning to John Kerry’s muffled message in 2004. The policy result may be a total security disaster for our country, draining our young soldiers’ blood and everyone’s taxes on the continuing degradation of our national honor in a war which cannot be won.
Just for the record, let me tell you my position on
Your problem, if I may say so out loud, and with all respect, is that the deepest rationale for your running for president is the one that you dare not mention very much, which is that you are an African-American with the possibility of becoming president. The quiet implication of your centrism is that all races can live beyond the present divisions, in the higher reality above the dualities. You may be right. You see the problems Hillary Clinton encounters every time she implies that she wants to shatter all those glass ceilings and empower a woman, a product of the feminist movement, to be president? Same problem. So here’s my question: how can you say let’s “turn the page” and leave all those Sixties’ quarrels behind us if we dare not talk freely in public places about a black man or a woman being president? Doesn’t that reveal that on some very deep level that we are not yet ready to “turn the page”?
When you think about it, these should be wonderful choices, not forbidden topics. John Edwards can’t be left out either, for his dramatic and, once again, unstated role as yet another reformed white male southerner seeking America’s acceptance, like Carter, Clinton and Gore before him. Or Bill Richardson trying to surface the long-neglected national issues of Latinos. I think these all these underlying narratives, of blacks, women, white southerners and la raza – excuse me, Hispanic-Americans - are far more moving, engaging and electorally-important than the dry details of policy.
What I cannot understand is your apparent attempt to sever, or at least distance yourself, from the Sixties generation, though we remain your single greatest supporting constituency. I can understand, I suppose, your need to define yourself as a American rather than a black American, as if some people need to be reassured over and over. I don’t know if those people will vote for you.
You were ten years old when the Sixties ended, so it is the formative story of your childhood. The polarizations that you want to transcend today began with life-and-death issues that were imposed on us. No one chose to be “extreme” or “militant” as a lifestyle preference. It was an extreme situation that produced us. On one side were armed segregationists, on the other peaceful black youth. On one side were the destroyers of
I can understand, in my old age, someone wanting to dissociate from the extremes to which some of us were driven by the times. That seems to be the ticket to legitimacy in the theater of the media and cultural gatekeepers. That appears to be what happened to John Kerry when he tried to erase his heroic past as a
This brings me back to why you want to stand in the presumed center against the “Tom Hayden Democrats.” Are you are equally distant from the “George McGovern Democrats.”, and the “Jesse Jackson Democrats”? How about the “Martin Luther King Democrats”, the “Cesar Chavez Democrats”, the “Gloria Steinem Democrats”? Where does it end?
What about the “Bobby Kennedy Democrats”? I sat listening to you last year at an RFK human rights event in our capital. I was sitting behind Ethel Kennedy and several of her children, all of whom take more progressive stands than anyone currently leading the national Democratic Party. They were applauding you, supporting your candidacy, and trying to persuade me that you were not just another charismatic candidate but the one we have been waiting for.
Will you live up to the standard set by Bobby Kennedy in 1968? He who sat with Cesar Chavez at the breaking of the fast, he who enlisted civil rights and women activists in his crusade, who questioned the Gross National Product as immoral, who dialogued with people like myself about ending the war and poverty? Yes, Bobby appealed to cops and priests and Richard Daley too, but in 1968 he never distanced himself from the dispossessed, the farmworkers, the folksingers, the war resisters, nor the poets of the powerless. He walked among us.
The greatest gift you have been given by history is that as the elected tribune of a revived democracy, you could change
What is the risk, after all? If “think globally, act locally” ever made any sense, this is the time, and you are the prophet. If you want to be mainstream, look to the forgotten mainstream. You don’t even have to leave the Democratic Party. It’s time to renew the best legacy of the Good Neighbor policy of Roosevelt before it dissolved into the Cold War, the Strangelove priesthood, the CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala, the sordid Bay of Pigs, the open graves of Vietnam. It’s time to renew the best legacy of the New Deal before it became Neo-Liberalism, and finally achieve the 1948 Democratic vision of national health care.
May you – and Hillary too - live up to the potential, the gift of the past, prepared for you in the dreams not only of our fathers, but of all those generations with hopes of not being forgotten. #
TOM HAYDEN is the author of Writings for a Democratic Society, The Tom Hayden Reader, forthcoming from City Lights Books. He has not endorsed any candidate for president.
 New York Times Magazine, Nov. 4, 2007