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Gerald Caplan
Gerald Caplan

We will miss the Obamas when they're gone Add to ...

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC’s Power & Politics.

Along with countless others around the world, I wept when his victory was announced eight years ago, when he and his wife and the two girls walked out on that huge Chicago stage before hundreds of thousands of boisterous, ecstatic Americans.

But we too easily ignored what the results told us about his country. Despite being 72 years old with health issues and with the oblivious Sarah Palin as his running mate, Republican John McCain swept the white vote 55 to 43 per cent.

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The core history of the United States is the history of white racism. It’s not just one theme among many; it’s the defining one and always has been. The country was founded on it, and it was included in the Constitution of 1787. States would have representation in Congress based on their population. But an enslaved black was worth three-fifths of a white inhabitant.

Slaves from Africa were the source of much of the country’s prosperity. Many leading American statesmen owned slaves. The terrible Civil War was fought because the southern states refused to give up slavery. The war was followed by the long era of violence-backed segregation, based on “Jim Crow” laws that legalized separate – and invariably unequal – treatment for blacks in every aspect of life.

It is impossible even today to imagine the United States without a race “problem.” It’s said that until 2008, each black man eventually had to face this truth: While any white boy could conceivably grow up to become president, no black ever could. As for black women, they had forever to accept that they were seen as either maids or prey. This was not a quirk of American life. This was the heart of the matter, the central truth of the American experience, and had always been so.

And then came Barack Obama. President Obama! It was impossible, but it happened before our eyes.

He was not only President. Whatever his policies, he and his family emerged as the role models for every sensible person in the world. At a pre-inauguration concert on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., he and Michelle sang along with the Boss and Pete Seeger. They belted out This Land is My Land – a left-wing protest song and always a lie until that very moment. She as elegant and splendid as he; the kids as shy and awkward as any would have been.

Nobody had ever seen as many black people in a D.C. crowd unless they were part of a bitter protest march. Now they were there because their guy had become the guy, and they couldn’t pinch themselves too many times.

Oh, they were special all right, this couple, much more even than we had witnessed in his thrilling campaign. On Inauguration Day itself, the TV cameras caught him as he walked alone to the swearing-in platform. Anyone else, with the entire world watching, might have exhibited some nervousness, self-consciousness. Or its opposite – swagger, bluster. President Barack Hussein Obama – as he insisted he be formally addressed on that day – demonstrated neither. He was perfectly comfortable in his own skin. Grace under pressure. You could see it. He had inner reserves of character no one had dreamed possible.

“Yes, we can,” he had promised in his campaign. But no, he never could, no president ever could. Hillary Clinton certainly never will. But whatever his policies – and some were deplorable, others at the least disappointing – he set a tone of civility, calm, thoughtfulness and, together with Michelle, of dignity and poise. To speak frankly, these were the very opposite of the feckless characteristics the legion of American racists believed black people possessed. He was no-drama Obama, because he listened carefully before acting, and the country needs nothing less.

And funny. Sure, there are umpteen very funny black Americans. But who knew the President, a serious thinker with the woes of the world on his shoulders, was one of them? Well, anyone who watched him perform at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinners. He wowed with his impeccable sense of timing, his chuckling at his own wisecracks, his sense of fun, his razor-sharp delivery. It was not just comic genius, it was genius plain and simple.

But there was a worm in that apple too. An enormous worm. Okay, a snake. So exquisitely did the President carve up Donald Trump at last year’s dinner that many believe it was the moment a humiliated Mr. Trump decided to run for president.

As for Michelle, given her qualifications and qualities, she could just as easily have been the political half of their partnership as he. But she graciously accepted being demoted to first lady and chose a useful background role and helped to raise the two girls as apparently exemplary yet normal young women, and in a home, as she never forgot, built by slaves, like her own ancestors.

Until this campaign, she remained in the background. Until Mr. Trump. Then the public Michelle, the outraged Michelle, re-emerged. She expected, she demanded, decency in public life. Her speech at the Democratic National Convention, her various speeches recently for Hillary Clinton, were oratorical/ethical moments to cherish forever.

Of course, even now, vast numbers of their fellow Americans will never forgive either of them for being black – will not, in truth, even accept them as full fellow Americans. For them, Donald Trump is their revenge for the past eight years.

But at least our generation had the unique thrill of sharing their unprecedented saga. We witnessed much thrilling history being made. God willing, we will again on Tuesday.

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