The Obama Watch

The Governor, the President, and the Race Card

Smirking seems to be Barack Obama's default response to criticism.

By 5.14.10

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Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona has people talking about racism. An imaginary conversation that I've had with one progressive friend inevitably starts with "Racism? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Arizona Senate Bill 1070, set to take effect July 29, genuinely scares this man. "Next time I'm in Phoenix on business, will I be handcuffed and thrown in jail without any recourse, for six months, because I am dark-skinned?" he asked, before concluding that this was "a very distinct possibility."

That's foolishness. "Distinct" is not the adjective wanted here, because the possibility of my friend's being arrested for "walking while brown" in Phoenix is more theoretical than "distinct." He is, after all, a law-abiding citizen. Moreover, the bill in question explicitly forbids racial profiling, choosing instead to place emphasis where it should be, on criminal profiling.

But paranoia strikes deep, and Governor Brewer continues to show either political courage or obliviousness to "white privilege," depending on your point of view. On May 11, she signed a bill targeting an ethnic studies program that preaches ethnic solidarity and promotes racial strife. The governor had no intention of carpet-bombing all ethnic studies programs, but every intention of firing a shot across the bow of a school district in Tucson that has carried more water for ideologues in MEChA ("Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán") than Gunga Din ever hauled across the Khyber Pass. Brewer apparently signed the bill because she disagrees with incendiary progressive definitions of "empowerment."

"The governor believes that public school students should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals," her spokesman explained, rather than being "taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people."

That reasoning makes sense to me, and presumably also to my Uncle Baudilio and my late grandfather Clemente, whom I like to think plays pinochle in heaven with San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa de Avila, but it will not earn Brewer any kudos from people with investments in racial animosity.

Unfortunately, more than a few progressives are learning to fear whatever the president decides to smirk about, and smirking seems to be Barack Obama's default response to criticism. His monologue at the White House Correspondents' Dinner had at least one fellow Democrat describing the president's humor as "a work in progress." Not content to threaten a popular 'tween singing group with a missile strike from a Predator drone, the president also offered a zinger for Governor Brewer: "We all know what happens in Arizona when you don't have I.D.," he said in his sonorous schoolmarm tone: "Adiós, amigos!"

Laugh riot, that guy. Too bad he did not read the 16-page text of the state legislation he was trying to lampoon. And would it be churlish to observe that President Obama did not peruse the 2,600-page health care reform bill that he supported, either? Somebody in the White House must work hard at writing hermetically-sealed legislative summaries in terms that appeal exclusively to Huffington Post columnists.

The people who actually read Arizona's controversial legislation tend to be more sanguine about it than those who don't or won't, as witness the elegant and sensible Gabriela Salcedo, whose impassioned defense of SB 1070 during the public comment section of a city council meeting in Tucson became a YouTube sensation for all the right reasons.

The problem that progressives have is that they're all alone at the end of the evening, when the bright lights have faded to blue. Their standard-bearer isn't the leading man they thought he was going to be. Sure, Barack Obama can tilt a fedora rakishly over one eye for a dinner theater production of Guys and Dolls, but when somebody like Governor Brewer starts stealing their scenes together, he either crumbles or glares.

Whether the president's limited range is product of upbringing or ideology would be hard to say, but it means that even B-list politicians eat his lunch. They -- and we -- deserve better.

The point is made vividly clear in cinematic terms. Think of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn goading each other to greatness in The African Queen. Closer to our time, Michael Mann's 1999 movie about what it took to blow the whistle on Big Tobacco provides another sterling example of teamwork in acting. There were big names (Crowe, Pacino, Plummer) in The Insider, but the most memorable scene in a movie full of them may have been Bruce McGill's turn as lawyer Ron Motley at the moment when Motley refuses to let his star witness be bullied into silence by opposing counsel.

You may remember that a corporate lawyer threatens a former tobacco executive during a deposition: "Dr. Wigand, I am instructing you not to answer that question in accordance to the terms of the contractual obligations undertaken by you not to disclose any information about your work at the Brown and Williamson tobacco company, and in accordance with the force and effect of the temporary restraining order that has been entered against you by the court in the state of Kentucky. That means you don't talk!"

Up to that point, all we have heard is a mailed fist of coercion wrapped in the velvet glove of legal jargon. But the same lawyer then makes the mistake of saying "Mr. Motley, we have rights here," and it's all the opening Motley needs to administer a whipping for the ages. "Boy," he explodes, "You got rights... and lefts. Ups and downs and middles. So what? You don't get to instruct anything around here! This is not North Carolina, not South Carolina, nor Kentucky! This is the sovereign state of Mississippi's proceedings. Wipe that smirk off your face! Dr. Wigand's deposition will be part of this record! And I'm gonna take my witness's testimony whether the hell you like it or not!"

Note, please, that there is nothing pedantic in that script. Characters spar with each other rather than with straw men, and while there is bad faith enough to go around, nobody imputes racism, blows smoke by saying "let me be clear," or sugarcoats his own rage by suggesting from behind the Presidential Seal that arguments other than his own "don't always rank all that high on the truth meter." There are lessons there for politicians who want to learn them, and they're part of a class that Jan Brewer has already passed.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.