I used to wonder as a young man what the world would have been like if Martin Luther King Jr. had not been struck down by an assassin’s bullet–if he had been able to continue as the face of the Civil Rights Movement and extend the campaign against poverty that took him to Memphis that fateful April day.
Would King, so visible a symbol of progress in America, have had a chance to become the country’s first African-American president? If so, what kind of president would he have been? We cannot know, obviously, but we can certainly say that he would have been unlike any politician we have seen since. So possessed by compassion for the downtrodden, what might his term have been like?
Last night, President Obama–America’s actual first African-American president–made remarks about Nelson Mandela’s passing and the example of the South African revolutionary’s leadership after his long imprisonment. I often think that King and Mandela were cut from the same cloth. I hear a resonant synchronicity when Mandela tells us that, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart,” and when King agrees that, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Obama spoke, with his usual eloquence, about the impact of Mandela’s life on the world, and on his journey. I wonder about the American president in the wake of the passing of the South African leader because, while I have supported President Obama by and large, he is not the president I hoped for in 2008. I wonder now what might have been if Obama had truly modeled his presidency upon Mandela’s example.
What if he had visited Tea Party rallies to placate the fearful, paranoid right-wingers so terrified by his ascension to the Oval Office? What if he had approached the intransigent and entrenched Republicans in Congress with the determination to break through with constant negotiations like those that made Lyndon Johnson the master of the Senate–dealing and wheeling and talking and talking more, until his opponents just couldn’t stand to disagree with him anymore.
What if he was the revolutionary? An iconoclast constantly fighting against the money in politics? Against the inequality that plagues our society? For love, instead of power?
But it was not meant to be. Instead we got a carefully calculated pageant of political showmanship essentially defending the status-quo. No bold new direction. A slight course correction at best.
Upon Mandela’s passing, the Onion lambasted our popular view of politicians, eulogizing the South African as the “first politician to be missed.” It was a misnomer, though. Mandela was no politician. He was a visionary, a paragon.
Obama on the other hand, is a politician. A politician who, in maintaining his predecessor’s declared war against an emotional state, has dropped drone-carried bombs on Pakistan, not to keep America safe–if anything, our drone war in Asia prolongs the struggle with Al Quaeda–but to preserve political capital, to deny Republicans their common line of attack against Democrats, that they are weak on foreign policy.
Taking human lives as part of a political calculation, Obama has to show he’s strong and has balls enough to kill people thousands of miles away.
But he should have turned to Mandela’s example, who showed the world he was strong by reaching out his arm to his enemy, to the very people who had oppressed him, who had locked him away for demanding that his own government respect his inalienable rights.
That was strength.
Obama has pledged to think about Mandela’s example every day.
Well, sir, I have to say you’ve got a lot of thinking to do on that score.