Change agents, by definition, rarely come from inside. What makes them so threatening to the establishment is as much, who they are, as what they say. When they emerge from the once disenfranchised, they can be particularly suspect. To those who came before, they’re perceived as not having paid their dues, not have had to “walk–the-walk”. Understanding that, explains in part the now more organized resistance of insiders to Barack Obama’s candidacy. In some ways, this Democratic primary process is all about entitlement, and in that Hillary Clinton is as much a token, as she is the presumptive heir.
Nowhere was this brought home more than in watching interviews with Charlie Rangel and then John Lewis. Perhaps Bill Clinton has shown signs of exasperation about the challenge to his dynasty. These two seemed truly angry. Congressman Rangel went further than most in using the race card against this African American upstart. Congressman Lewis kept on referring to him as “Mr. Obama, not Senator. Rangel came up through the streets of New York fighting his way through its complicated precincts of political power. When his turn came, he assumed the seat once held by the legendary Adam Clayton Powell. He worked his way methodically from the backbench to the chairmanship of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. John Lewis was bloodied on the bridge at Selma. He protested his way through the terrain of a hostile South, eventually claiming a House Seat from George, a still highly conservative State. They may have started out as young Turks, but both (Rangel at 77, Lewis at 67) have become elder statesman. No longer outsiders, they are leaders within the establishment. It’s been a long journey, and it has not been easy.
Enter a (relatively) young Harvard educated man, an African American whose father really came out of Africa, but a beneficiary of, rather than a participant in, the “movement”. So who is this Obama guy, who anointed him to break this important ground for African Americans? We, one can hear them saying, were neither asked nor did we give our blessing. Who indeed is this guy who has taken it upon himself to represent us? Where is his respect for what we have done? That was the implied message I heard, as these two seasoned and exemplary men spoke in support of Hillary before the New Hampshire primary. Obama has hit a nerve. Admit it or not, it was a painful admission that the warhorses of revolution, the outsiders, the “we”, had become the established “them” and it was unsettling. Like Hillary, they feel a sense of entitlement and, in some significant way, have a greater claim on it than does she.
To be sure, Senator Obama, may well have failed to pay due deference to the old guard. As a result, his candidacy may have come off as presumptuous. But in all honesty, would they have done it any differently? Wait your turn, meld yourself into the past, is simply incompatible with change making. Insiders don’t call upon the revolutionary to usurp their crown. Of all people, these two men know that better than most. So, their reaction, however understandable, is emotional not rational. Perhaps their hurt is compounded by the fact that Obama has claimed to be Joshua, the role they saw for themselves when their Moses, whose life we celebrate this weekend, was prevented from entering the Promised Land. It is sad, but a fact, that the land was not ready then. Now, their Joshua years, if not passed, are passing. It is hard to say whether the country is ready for Joshua even now, but let’s not punish the next generation for pushing the envelope further than we were able.
Obama, no question, has hit another rough spot. Whether it is too late for him, we don’t yet know. I personally hope not. If change, if an outsider, was ever needed, it is now. That those who once were outspoken standard bearers of change now resist it, only makes the argument. We’ve had the torch passed from one family member to another. Without comparing the talented and thoughtful Senator from New York with the vapid zealot in the White House, doing so again is as her husband might say, “a throw of the dice”. I for one would rather take a chance at change, for making a u-turn and heading us in a vastly different direction, audacious as that may be. But I also recognize where we are and why.
In the end, the country will have to decide who comes first in making that inevitable and essential breakthrough. Given our history, and our nation’s shameful start in condoning slavery, it’s easy to argue that breaking the color barrier has precedence. Understanding that women, regardless of color, have been humanity’s effectual underclass since the dawn of time, may tip the scales in the other direction. It’s no wonder that Black voters overwhelmingly were for Obama in Nevada, while Clinton captured the lion’s share of women. So the decision could ultimately come down to a numbers game – which group has more votes. That would be understandable, yet unfortunate. As, I’ve said often before, it’s a wrenching choice for many of us, and perhaps in the context of breakthrough ultimately a no-lose one. Will issues, and our eagerness to change win out? Only the next weeks will tell. They will no doubt be exciting and may leave both winners and losers somewhat torn and perplexed.