As he has grown weary of Washington, President Obama has shed parts of his presidency, like drying petals falling off a rose.
He left the explaining and selling of his signature healthcare legislation to Bill Clinton. He outsourced Congress to Rahm Emanuel in the first term, and now doesn’t bother to source it at all. He left schmoozing, as well as a spiraling Iraq, to Joe Biden. Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, comes across as more than a messagemeister. As the president floats in the empyrean, Rhodes seems to make foreign policy even as he’s spinning it.
But the one thing it was impossible to imagine, back in the giddy days of the 2009 inauguration, as Americans basked in their open-mindedness and pluralism, was that the first African-American president would outsource race.
He saved his candidacy in 2008 after the “pastor disaster” with Jeremiah Wright by giving a daring speech asserting that racial reconciliation could never be achieved until racial anger, on both sides, was acknowledged. Half black, half white, a son of Kansas and Africa, he searchingly and sensitively explored America’s ebony-ivory divide.
He dealt boldly and candidly with race in his memoirs, Dreams From My Father. “In many parts of the South,” he wrote, “my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated of Northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mother’s predicament into a back-alley abortion — or at the very least to a distant convent that could arrange for adoption. Their very image together would have been considered lurid and perverse.”
Now the professor in the Oval Office has spurned a crucial teachable moment.
He dispatched Eric Holder to Ferguson, and deputized Al Sharpton, detaching himself at the very moment when he could have helped move the country forward on an issue close to his heart. It’s another perverse reflection of his ambivalent relationship to power.
He was willing to lasso the moon when his candidacy was on the line, so why not do the same at a pivotal moment for his presidency and race relations? Instead, he anoints a self-promoting TV pundit with an incendiary record as “the White House’s civil-rights leader of choice,” as The New York Times put it, vaulting Sharpton into “the country’s most prominent voice on race relations.” It seems oddly retrogressive to make Sharpton the official go-between with Ferguson’s black community, given that his history has been one of fomenting racial divides, while Obama’s has been one of soothing them.
The MSNBC host has gone from The Bonfire of the Vanities to White House Super Bowl parties. As a White House official told Politico’s Glenn Thrush, who wrote on the 59-year-old provocateur’s consultation with Valerie Jarrett on Ferguson: “There’s a trust factor with The Rev from the Oval Office on down. He gets it, and he’s got credibility in the community that nobody else has got.”
Sharpton has also been such a force with New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, in the furor over the chokehold death of a black Staten Island man that The New York Post declared The Rev the de facto police commissioner.
The White House and City Hall do not seem concerned about his $4.7 million in outstanding debt and liens in federal and state tax records, reported by The Post.
Once civil-rights leaders drew their power from their unimpeachable moral authority. Now, being a civil-rights leader can be just another career move.
Thrush noted that Sharpton — “once such a pariah that Clinton administration officials rushed through their ribbon-cuttings in Harlem for fear he’d show up and force them to, gasp, shake his hand” — has evolved from agitator to insider since his demagoguing days when he falsely accused a white New York prosecutor and others of gang-raping a black teenager, Tawana Brawley, and sponsored protests against a clothing store owned by a white man in Harlem, after a black subtenant who sold records was threatened with eviction. A deranged gunman burned down the store, leaving eight people dead.
Sharpton also whipped up anti-Semitic feelings during the Crown Heights riots in 1991, denouncing Jewish “diamond dealers” importing gems from South Africa after a Hasidic Jew ran a red light and killed a 7-year-old black child. Amid rioting, with some young black men shouting “Heil Hitler,” a 29-year-old Hasidic Jew from Australia was stabbed to death by a black teenager.
Now, Sharpton tells Thrush: “I’ve grown to appreciate different roles and different people, and I weigh words a little more now. I’ve learned how to measure what I say.”
Obama has muzzled himself on race and made Sharpton his chosen instrument — two men joined in pragmatism at a moment when idealism is needed.
We can’t expect the president to do everything. But we can expect him to do something.