Of all things during this last pre-election week, I’m in the utter chaos of moving into a new apartment, unpacking boxes filled with material elements of life while watching the increasingly frenzied campaign coverage on CNN. As though we’d picked up conversations from decades of working together, an e-mail from Mark Salo popped up on my Blackberry. Mark retired a few years ago after 35 years with Planned Parenthood, most as CEO of one of its largest affiliates. A former marine, wise leader, and tough political fighter, Mark sent me (in addition to the photo of himself with his new granddaughter—see below) his take on the meaning of Obama’s quest for the presidency, melding historical context with current political events. I was so moved by it that I asked his permission to guest post it here at Heartfeldt. This is a longer than usual post, but so beautifully written that I didn’t want to cut a word. Read on, and let us know what you think.
It is October 18, 2008. With his back to the Mississippi River, United States Senator Barack Obama of Illinois stands beneath the great St Louis Arch and speaks to one hundred thousand people who come to hear his vision for change in America.
Much was written on that day about the fact that this was the largest crowd that a candidate for President has ever addressed during a presidential campaign. The very fact that a black man of mixed race was the presidential nominee of a major political party was historic. It was also written that the gathering was biggest of its kind in the history of this middle state.
I use the phrase “middle state” because Missouri has been the state where the tectonic plates of American politics have, more than any other place, pushed against each other.
While not in the exact geographic center of the United States, Missouri is surely the place where the country has collided with, and blended itself into, uneasy consensus.
St Louis was the place where east met west…the great water highways of the Missouri and the Mississippi Rivers meet here. In 1800 the areas east of St Louis were the United States and its territories. To the west was uncharted wilderness. It was here where the Lewis and Clark expedition embarked upon the endeavor that would ultimately create a bi-coastal nation. St Louis has never been completely east or west. It is both and it is neither.
Missouri too stands between north and south and was the place where a divided nation squabbled most bitterly with itself over slavery. Missouri squabbled because she, like the nation, was divided against herself. The metaphor for this division was certainly the Missouri Compromise. The very title of that agreement speaks of the dualities of the place. She was neither north nor south and she was both.
Even after the sullen peace that fell on the nation after Appomattox, some Missourians remained restless. Quantrill’s raiders spawned the James Brothers and other men who refused to make peace after the war and turned their guerrilla fighting skills to robbery. Missouri’s history makes her the perennial battleground state. She is the conflicted center of us…
Just a few weeks ago, Missouri was considered a safe Republican state. The Republican candidate, John McCain, held a comfortable lead there. For many months, the Obama campaign quietly and competently registered voters and built a formidable political campaign there…a campaign that astonished everyone who thought that the effort was futile. A tangible result of that campaign was the hundred thousand people who gathered at the Arch. Obama now leads in the polls in Missouri.
The Obama presidential campaign has been a phenomenon that has baffled and amazed the country. Missouri is no exception. The conservative columnist, David Brooks, noted that while other political leaders woo the crowds, the crowds woo Obama. I think it is because he has a calm grace and a diffidence about him that hesitates to overstate or over emote. The result is a political figure that has strengthened his hold on the affections of the country through a reticence…holding something back.
Barack Obama has managed this in a nation where the legacy of racism has afflicted the fulfillment of the promise of its Bill of Rights. This has been made troublingly worse by the wedges of resentment and difference articulated by the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign. The ensuing public discourse has, as a result, become more nakedly racist. I have watched with thoughtful respect as the candidate Obama has revealed no hint of malice or resentment as he calls Americans to unity.
Obama has observed that he is a “Blank slate” on to which people project themselves.
Unlike most political figures who write biographies as a prerequisite for running for office, Obama has written his books himself. It is rare for a public office holder to be literate and an excellent writer. Obama is both and writes with an honestly and self-knowledge that is rare in any discipline. In his book, “Dreams Of My Father” he navigates us though his own journey of identity as a man whose father was African, his mother, a white woman from Kansas. He identifies with sisters and brothers who run the racial gamut. Obama’s writing does not show the subliminal anger that one would expect, and often sees, from those who live between different racial worlds. It seems that he has absorbed them and integrated them into his character.
Perhaps this explains Obama’s “Blank slate” nature.
There was another historic dimension worth noting of Obama’s speech on that day. It was hiding in plain sight. None of the news articles I read reporting on the event mentioned it. I saw it because my private passion has been history…most particularly, the history of the American Civil War.
The first thing I noticed in the photograph of the multitudes gathered before the Arch was the building in the background. I recognized the structure immediately because I spent hours inside of it reading what is to me was the most infamous ruling in the history of the United States Supreme Court. A decision that some historians believe made the Civil War inevitable.
That bright white courthouse in the background of the photograph of the Obama event is the place where the Missouri Supreme Court deliberated the “Dred Scott” case in 1850. It was in that case where, seven years later, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Roger B Taney, upheld the decision and further polarized the country on slavery.
It is the last sentence of his statement that became famous. A more careful reading shows a different context but combined with the ruling that sent Dred Scott back to slavery in Missouri, Taney’s words inflamed the passions of an already divided nation. The statement follows:
It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.
When he looked up from the podium and over the crowds in St Louis, Obama looked directly at that old courthouse. As a former professor of constitutional law, Obama certainly knows the history of that place. I wonder if in the rush of a frenetic campaign schedule he had the time to think about the significance of a hundred thousand people of all races roaring his name? People who were bridging a 159-year historical gap between this man in front of them who might be president and the courthouse behind them where a black man “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”.
Obama has confounded many supporters by not being dependably liberal in all of his views. He has shown support for funding faith-based programs provided they keep religion separate from funded programs. He has sought some middle ground on abortion and, while opposing the Iraq war, has shown a willingness to use military force where diplomacy fails.
It is my observation that Obama, despite the scurrilous accusations of radicalism by his political opponents, is temperamentally and politically a centrist.
He is neither black nor white. He is neither liberal nor conservative. He is none of those things…and he is all of them…kind of like Missouri.
Of course, there are differences between countries, states and individuals. Still, all of this has got me to thinking about Mohandas Gandhi and what is perhaps his most famous quote; “We must become the change we want to see in the world”.
I look at Barack Obama who appears to have taken all of the disparate pieces of his history/heritage and integrated them into a man who is confident, kind, well balanced, tough, competent, intelligent and effective.
I believe that the attraction of Barack Obama to the country and to those one hundred thousand people converged in St Louis; Missouri is the promise that as a people, we might possibly do the same.
E-mail Mark Salo here, where he’s busy enjoying his three-week-old granddaughter.