Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Exchange of the Day (Rickey Hendon and Barack Obama, on the Ethnicity of the Latter’s Surname)

ILLINOIS STATE SENATOR RICKEY “HOLLYWOOD” HENDON: “Senator, could you correctly pronounce your name for me? I’m having a little trouble with it.”
HENDON: “Is that Irish?”
OBAMA: “It will be when I run countywide.”—March 13, 1997, quoted in Ryan Lizza, “The Political Scene: Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, July 21, 2008

I only got around to reading Lizza’s long but (for a Presidential junkie like myself) compelling article a few weeks ago, even though it was published during the summer, as the candidate pondered his vice-presidential choice.

I can imagine the editors’ primary intention in assigning this—i.e., to chronicle Obama’s rise up the greasy pole of Chicago politics. But it also implicitly highlights Obama’s similarities to Jack Kennedy as simultaneously a transitional and transformational candidate and President.

The above exchange is a good place to start seeing what I mean. Rickey Hendon’s question was scornful rather than informational, because he knew all too well the pronunciation and derivation of Obama’s last name. What the African-American politician (now Assistant Majority Leader of the state general assembly) was about to do was to rough up Illinois’ new state senator—a guy who had come out of nowhere, at least as far as Chicago politics was concerned, and beat out Hendon’s colleague Alice Palmer for the State Senate seat.

Obama’s response to the question about whether the name is Irish—witty and whip-smart—recalls the JFK who charmed the nation in his thousand-day administration. (One of the latter’s better lines, upon being told that the Republican National Committee had adopted a resolution stating that he was “pretty much a failure,” was: “I assume it passed unanimously.”)

Wit has not always been so prominent in Obama’s political skills set, but many other aspects of his personality and ascent parallel JFK’s. There was, crucially, the question of a style and background that seemed a step removed from the urban group he represented.

JFK won his first Congressional election in the twilight of an era when Irish-American voters in Boston still resented slights they’d received since the emigration resulting from the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. His wife Jackie would later be surprised in his Presidential race that so many would hold her husband’s Catholicism against him—he was simply not serious about his faith in the same way that his brother Bobby was. (The one-liner that aptly sums up the two brothers’ attitudes: Jack was the first Irish Brahmin, while Bobby was the last Irish Puritan.)

As the son of an African father and a white mother, Obama seemed at times alien to a civil-rights establishment that had arisen in reaction to white dominance of city politics. His defeat of Alice Palmer was avenged in his unsuccessful Congressional race of 1999, when he lost to Congressman Bobby Rush by an embarrassingly high margin.

In addition, the attempt to find a sense of place figured prominently in both men’s lives. Recall New York Times columnist David Brooks’s famous description of Obama -- a man who, before he won the Presidency, was as restless in jobs as he was in places--as a “sojourner.”

It might surprise people who recall the Kennedys in Massachusetts, but so was JFK. Before his decision to run for Congress in 1946, JFK had been in all kinds of places—London (where his father had served ingloriously as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain), New York (where Joseph Kennedy transplanted the family out of disgust with the Protestant establishment in Massachusetts), Los Angeles (where Joe Kennedy's brief ambition to become a movie mogul furnished his son with plenty of subsequent opportunities to date starlets), not to mention the South Pacific (his WWII service).

Key to both men extending their reach beyond their original audience were their successful overtures to the academic community. JFK did some intense courting of academics in the run-up for the Presidency; Obama, by reaching out to upper-middle-class, often white voters in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Senator O’Bama!

No comments: