Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Obama's honeymoon ends in Cambridge

It's all a bit weird really. It is a gaffe from which Barack Obama is using his considerable reserves of "cool" ("Fancy a beer with Bazza, Sergeant?") to extract himself. But gaffe it, undeniably, is. And end of the 44th Presidential honeymoon it should be, but it's not as simple as that. Which makes it all the more fascinating. In fact, there are a number of fascinating aspects to this...and ironies (but perhaps not in the strictest sense - my offspring asked me what irony is the other day and I had to finally admit (after several attempts) that I really don't have a clue).

First, what on earth am I on about? - asks half of my reader.

Well, on July 16th a Harvard professor was coming home, in Cambridge Massachusetts, a stone's throw from Harvard square. His driver dropped him in front of his house and then assisted him in trying to get into his house because there was a problem with the door opening. A lady saw this and was alarmed. She called 911 for the police. A policeman arrived. Versions differ, but suffice it to say that it appears that said professor kicked up a bit of a fuss about being challenged for trying to enter his own home. Race was mentioned. Reports of the extent of that fuss vary (but, let's face it, professors generally are very good at kicking up fusses - particularly, I should imagine, Harvard ones - oops - sorry, prejudice and surmisal coming out there) but the policeman decided it was necessary to arrest the professor. Charges were later dropped.

(The incident is reported by the BBC here and Colin Powell reflects very sanely on it, from the point of view of a black man, here.)

The chain of command of the police in the USA is a bit different from the UK. After all, they fought and won a war to kick us out - so they're entitled to do things differently over there. However, it appears that police in Cambridge, Massachusetts come under the command of Comissioner Robert C Haas. He's a man with a very distinguished record of public service, who has been in post since April 2007. He's the man who should tackle any reports of misperformance by the police. Indeed, he has been so doing in this case.

My knowledge of US structures is a bit hazy after that. But I assume that the state police of Massachusetts comes under the control, eventually, of the Governor. Here's the first irony. Well actually it's probably not a true irony, but it is a little twist. The Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, is black. Indeed, he is one of the only four black Governors there have been in the history of the USA (New York Governor Patterson is one of the others, and he's also the second legally blind Governor in the US). There is nothing greatly significant there. It is just interesting that this episode has been ignited in a state with a Black governor and a country which now has its first Black President. I just mention it en passant.

So Deval Patrick is entitled to make some comment on this situation, I suppose. I am not quite sure why. These sorts of incidents happen all the time. Danders rise, charges are dropped, dogs bark and the caravan moves on.

So why on earth did President Obama get involved? It's a fascinating question. What he did was to say that police "acted stupidly". Why? I mean, why did he even comment on a very minor alleged neighbourhood infraction of the law?
A minor fracas, indeed. I realise the irony of me jumping to conclusions here, but Obama himself has now admitted that the professor may have over-reacted. Well, in an amateur photo (right) of the incident he has his mouth wide open and looks to be in the throes of a full-on diva strop - but that was after he was handcuffed - allegedly (and I hastily mention that, of course, having a diva strop, full-on or otherwise, is not necessarily against the law, nor should it be. And if you are arrested for entering your own home, it is fair to say that it is justifiable to throw a diva strop.). But, as I say, I am jumping to conclusions just like B. Obama, who I am criticising for that very reason - but then I am just a one-handed blogger, while he is the most powerful man in the world.

Here's another irony or twist (choose your own degree of lexicographic pedantry there) - Obama was editor of the Harvard Law Review. Wouldn't holding that post entail him taking a cautious approach to local incidents? Allowing due process and all that? Isn't that what they teach you at the most minor college in America, let alone Harvard, Alma Mater of virtually the entire senior legal profession in the USA?

And, my goodness me, I am pinching myself here, but can anyone remember....I can hardly write this....George Bush (there I wrote it) piling in on a minuscule neighbourhood incident like this? I can't. ...And I tend to remember anything George Bush did which I can hold against him. What I do remember is that Bush hated getting involved in any legal cases and restricted his pardons to a very small number. The mere fact that I am harking back to George Bush's presidency with something approaching a favourable tinge, is testament, if any is needed, that this Cambridge incident really is a serious one for Obama. The gilt has been well and truly knocked off his gingerbread.

And here's another twist/irony. WTF is Obama doing making a comment without an autocue? Remember, this is Mr Cool. This is Mr Autocue. He doesn't do unprepared comments much. Even his off-the-cuff remarks are scripted. So what the heck is he doing making any unprepared statements? And on Race?! It beats me.

And having said all that, I should say that the police did seem to overact here. Prof Gates provided his university ID card and his drivers licence but, even then, the police still handcuffed him - on his own front porch!

But anyway, Obama has belatedly switched on the cool override. He appeared unannounced at a press briefing and said he'd spoken to police officer involved and invited him and the professor (Professor Henry Gates, by the way, who is a personal friend of Obama - which partly explains the President's involvement - as does the involvement of Governor Patrick) for a beer at the White House at 6pm EST on Thursday. Discussions are currently taking place as to whether the event will be marked by one of those uber-cool Presidential behind-the-scenes still photos or whether there will be the full "Press Spray".

Which brings us to the nub of this. A few silly commentators in the UK (mainly) questioned whether Obama is the first black President of the US. 'He's mixed race" they said. Yes, they are right. In the UK we call someone with mixed race parents "mixed race". Obama's mother was white. Fine. But hang on. Those silly commentators were ignoring a massive Elephant sitting in the corner of US History (probably somewhere in Virginia). It's called the "one drop rule". Even if your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was black and the rest of your ancestors were white, you are "black" under the "one drop rule". (One drop of blood, that is). So OK, Obama could have gone round constantly telling people he was "mixed race" - just like Lewis Hamilton and Theo Walcott. But, spine chillingly, the "one drop rule" in the US means and meant that he is black.

So why did Obama comment on Prof Gates and his encounter with Sgt Crowley? I still don't know. Sorry. But it does confirm that those silly commentators were wrong. Obama is black. He knows, from experience, what it is like to attract undue suspicion and hostility just because of the colour of your skin. All of us who have built up Obama into a great calculating cool machine have had one thing confirmed. Barack Obama is human. He has passion. And good for him. On this occasion his passion is genuine and, on a general level, absolutely right. (There is ample evidence to suggest that black men tend to be disproportionately given the attention of the police in the USA.) It's just that he needs to remember he is President a bit more.

(And having said all that, I have a sneaking suspicion that Obama, apparently clumsily, may have done a bit of good. Should anyone be arrested on the basis of allegedly attempting to break into their own home, even after they provide ample evidence of their identity? If they kick up a bit of a fuss, is it really necessary to cart them off to the local nick, stick them in orange overalls and mug shot them? Are over-dramatic Harvard professors a threat to US peace and security? Shouldn't police officers in Cambridge, Massachusetts be ready to encounter the odd adacemic diva? Do real-life Inspector Morses in Oxford go about arresting professors who start spurting Latin at them in a bit of a strop?)

So, goodbye honeymoon. It was unrealistic to expect it to continue, anyway. For goodness sake, Obama is fighting the worst recession which any incoming US President has faced since FDR. He is currently trying to untangle the gordian knot of US Health Care. That, we should remember, is a task which completely, and dramatically defeated Bill Clinton, the biggest policy wonk and behind-the-scenes schmoozer ever to enter the White House. Our man Obama's ratings are going to travel south. That's inevitable. There was only one FDR.

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