When the No. 1 Archie Bunker in my apartment building told me a number of months ago that Colin Powell was his No. 1 choice for President, I started daydreaming that maybe the U.S. might elect its first black chief of state by acclamation. This was at the end of the summer, long before the ex-general announced he didn't have the fire in the belly or the patriotism in his heart necessary to go for it. And also that he was a black Republican not about to bite the hands that fed him. With millions in the bank from his book sales, he apparently felt flush enough to be a member of the party of the rich, of the powerful, of the special interests, of America's Ebeneezer Scrooges and to hell with what can I do for my country? Zap ! All of a sudden, Colin Powell aint news no more. And, as we all know, old news goes into the trash heap.
In my daydream, President Clinton decides he can best serve America by delaying his run for a second term until 2004. Instead he personally nominates General Powell for the Presidency on the Democratic ticket in 1996 and accepts the vice-Presidential nomination for himself. At the same time, at the 1996 Republican Convention, Senator Dole also decides he can best serve America likewise by nominating Powell as the GOP candidate and also accepting the second spot on the ticket. Clinton's strategy would be to use General Powell's halo as a tool to reinvigorate and rebuild a moribund Democratic Party, once the party of the poor but now a party letting itself get eaten away by corruption. After a term as President and then two terms as Vice President under President Powell, Clinton possibly could have been be in a much stronger position to win a second term in 2004 than he'll be in 1996, if he played his cards right. Or left. I've always favored the left. What idiot branded "liberal" a dirty word, anyway? Only the fossilized or the ignorant believe that it is.
Not since everybody liked Ike did the American public experience such a groundswell of opinion and express such a landslide of approval for a man to lead this country. But this is a person who not only is, like Ike, a military man and thus a non-politician, but who is, unlike in any previous instance of a possible presidential contender riding such a tidal wave, a person of color. Was that an indication that America is undergoing social progress despite its historically bigoted self? Or just an indication that America is so fed up with politicians we'd even prefer putting in the White House a man about whom the No. 1 Archie Bunker in my building wouldn't hesitate to use the "N" word?
For too long, the U.S. has kept trying to cure its No. 1 problem by pretending the problem doesn't exist. The problem, of course, is the race problem, the still unhealed running sores left by slavery's shackles. America's dangerously widening racial divide remains painfully, tragically and excruciatingly unbridged. This is a truth all too dramatically and all too recently evinced by the sharp polarizations of white and black reactions to the OJ verdict and by arch-separatist Louis Farrakhan's successful Million-Man March in D.C. If you want to know how separatism can tear a country apart, you don't have to look as far away as Yugoslavia. You need only glance to the north at our neighbor, Canada, where French tribalists keep trying to rip the guts out of one of the world's greatest democracies.
To me, tribalism is another word for divisiveness, for hatred and for tyranny. What rewards did tribalism win for Nazi Germany other than death, destruction and defeat? For Rwanda, other than double-edged genocide? And look at the fruits of tribalism in Yugoslavia without the iron fist of its late Marshall Tito. Isn't it obvious that tribalism is not an answer? Hasn't history already taught us that tribalism never invites anything but disaster? Look again at the gulf between black and white opinion over guilt in the OJ trial. America's racial divide keeps getting deeper as it widens. More and more, African-Americans are responding to the fact that there are too many Mark Fuhrmans on too many American police forces and that the American justice system sees the color of crime as black only. African-Americans are so fed up with America's whites that they're saying forget about integration. More and more, they're ready to dump what Martin Luther King marched for to seek their own segregation. In other words, their own form of tribalism.
Tribalism is not only black in this country. Tribalism takes on all kinds of shapes, colors, sizes and disguises. Tribalism of all types has resulted in America becoming infested with antis, anti-this and anti-that and anti-everything. Look how violent the anti-abortionists have become, killing doctors, burning clinics, all under the pretext of religious piousness. What kind of piousness condones or advocates killing doctors and burning clinics? Like religious extremists everywhere, they say, "God told me to do it" in the same way they might have told their school teachers, "The dog ate my homework."
All these different tribes, usually coalescing around the espousal of single issues, often can't help stepping on one another's toes. One group wants more money spent on cancer research, another group wants more money spent on AIDS. Every group wants to impose its beliefs on every other group and, like the anti-abortionists, they all have the capacity of getting violent about it. Do we want this kind of bloodshed? Do we want this country to turn into another Yugoslavia? We've already had one Civil War. Today, there's big profit in preaching divisiveness, and so the hate-mongers in our own country have turned divisiveness into an industry that's manufacturing Oklahoma City bombings and maybe Arizona train wrecks. Not that Colin Powell could have solved any of these problems but, at this point in our history, I thought that, symbolically, America sure could use a black President as some kind of antidote to black tribalism.
It didn't matter to me if Powell turned out to be just as lame a chief executive as too many of his long line of predecessors. What would have been more important to me was the symbolism of his election, because symbolism sends messages which often count for as good as, if not better than, the real thing. Probably the first and most important message would have been to ourselves, black and white, as well as to the rest of the world, that the earth's first and greatest experiment in multiracial democracy can and does and will really work. Maybe even despite ourselves.
To the blacks of America and especially to the youths of the inner city ghettos, the message would ring like a bell echoing at long last at least symbolic delivery of what the Emancipation Proclamation promised a long time ago. Yes, everybody says Lincoln freed the slaves, but African-Americans have instead been enslaved by America's own style of apartheid, which has replaced the shackles of slavery with the invisible chains keeping most of black America tethered in the underclass. Lincoln warned that "this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free," but can blacks chained to the hopelessness of the poverty and ignorance of the underclass be described as anything but half slave and half free?
I grew up in that part of Roselle, N.J., which some people called "Nigjew Town." My classes at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School were totally integrated and yet Jim Crow still ruled at the local movie theater, the St. George Playhouse, where blacks were forced to sit in the balcony. There were still lynchings in the South in those days, but from then until now, when a black man can be seriously considered for President, I see evolution and progress. But to kids doomed to the ghettos, that kind of progress is not fast enough. While those in power keep passing laws to insure that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the kids of the ghetto, impatient as are kids everywhere, favor revolution over evolution. Haven't they already shown that in so many different violent ways?
Even ultra-respected New York Times columnist Russell Baker has joked that it's time to give class warfare a chance. Railing against "outrageously overpaid" rock stars, industrial tycoons, jockstraps. Hollywood's egomaniacal boy-millionaire executives, investment bankers, Wall Street lawyers and "gazillionaires for whom the abovementioned overpaid flunkeys toil so that great companies may be successfully merged, acquired and ruined," he asked:
"Is the guillotine the proper weapon for dealing with this new aristocracy? Or is it time for the ultimate weapon---a new obscene-income tax?"
Meanwhile, I recently heard self-proclaimed black revolutionary Ras Baraka tell an audience during his Newark, N.J., mayoral campaign that black inner-city kids should throw rocks at the cops in the same way that Palestinian kids threw rocks at Israeli occupation troops during the Intifada. And Ras wasn't joking.
Back when I had my daydream, I thought America to be a land truly blessed by the heavens to have Colin Powell not only available but also so decidedly electable at a time when we so sorely could use a black man as President. It was a nice daydream while it lasted, but Colin Powell, now a member of the upper classes, preferred becoming yesterday's news. ##
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