Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


© 2009, UrbisMedia

© 2009, UrbisMedia

It’s probably the equivalent of fighting words to suggest that President Obama might be something as antebellum South as a “houseboy,” but I am disappointed enough with him to take the chance that he will show up in my hood and call me out. Given the style of his politics he is more likely to either have the CIA take me out in a drive-by, or invite me to a “beer summit.”

But Barack Obama, the guy we thought really stood for change, is, regrettably, turning out to be the equivalent of a political “houseboy” for the status quo—hell, in a number of respects for the status Bush. Before we go too much further perhaps a reference to “house-boy” to get us on the same visual image is in order. In the 1967 Best Picture, In the Heat of the Night, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) a Philadelphia, PA detective who reluctantly ends up investigating a murder in Sparta, Mississippi questions the White owner of a cotton plantation as to his whereabouts at the time of the murder. The plantation owner immediately slaps Tibbs across the face. And then, to the astonishment of the local policeman (played by Rod Steiger) and an elderly Black “houseboy” shakily holding a tray of glasses of lemonade, and maybe even some 1967 viewing audiences, Tibbs backhands a slap across the owner’s face. The owner expresses his regret that the day has passed when he could have had Tibbs whipped for such insolence.

Barack Obama may be President of the United States, but he is no Virgil Tibbs. And just so that the reference does not slip by, he’s no Jack Kennedy, either. Kennedy was ready to pull America’s sixteen thousand troops out of Vietnam in defiance of the military when (and allege why) he was assassinated. My worry is that Obama just might be America’s “houseboy,” a servant of the establishment interests on Wall Street, K Street, the Pentagon who talks like Virgil Tibbs, but walks like that quivering houseboy in the movie. Obama’s important historical moment has come, and he has shown that he has neither the courage nor the vision to say that this mission was and is unwinnable, that the Afghanis will not abide an occupying army or be made to change their ways by force, that Pakistan and Iraq will not be changed by bribery or military presence—and that all of this failed U.S. policy has just a great, if not greater, a chance of resulting in more aggression against our country as just getting the hell out of there!

Mr. Obama’s style appears to be one of appeasement. He might call it “bi-partisanship,” but he plays straight into the logic of the opposition, whether it is health care (he took “single-payer off he table before the discussion ever got started), gay marriage and gays in the military, ignoring the crimes of his predecessors, the Wall Street boys getting their bonuses, or the conduct of national defense. When it comes to confronting these establishment interests, Mr. Obama is not Virgil Tibbs, he is the compliant houseboy who dares change nothing. Tibbs had “big ones,” Obama appears to have none at all.

The speech was what we have come to recognize by now as vintage Obama: the head movements from teleprompter to teleprompter, the pauses for emphasis and effect, the cadence and clipped endings. But it now seems to have a bit too much affect, and at a time when his quotient of trustworthiness is slipping, that is not good. In fact, although I once thoroughly enjoyed his oratory, I now have to force myself to watch and listen. That also seemed to be the problem for a lot of the plebs in the audience; they looked bored or tired from end of term stress and there was not much apparent awe at the CIF. And the timing was vintage Bush: waiting until the biggest shopping weekend of the year to begin leaking his decision.

What rankled was that it was an address that slickly left out certain details, never defined what “success” would be (victory is no longer a operational term). Strategically this is an operation maze where we are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan because they backed Al Qaeda, which is mostly these days in Pakistan where we cannot fight with our military, but with the CIA. All the while trying to build an army in a corrupt government that must be protected by American drunken frat-boy security guards. In effect, its is as though we were trying to destroy the MAFIA by first destroying Opus Dei in the Roman Catholic Church and, at the same time, trying to build an Italian government than can last more than a year. Anybody with half a brain knows that this part of the world—and that means both Iraq and Afghanistan—is going to revert to its customs and internal wars the minute we leave. So Mr. Obama has signed on for killing a few thousand Americans and maiming several thousand more, all at a cost of $1million per combat soldier per year, so you can play “war president” for two or three years.

The speech did begin with establishing that the Afghan war was botched badly by the Bush administration. But tonight Mr. Obama officially made it his war. He founded his surge on the same flawed logic as Bush. Just like he took ownership of the economic meltdown by bringing on Geithner, Summers and Bernake, he has bought Bush’s Middle East fiasco. He made it sound like he was speaking from strength, but it is his fundamental weakness that shows through. His inclusion of a deadline (to a war that has no definitive objective) is also a sign of weakness, a sign that he is playing politics with people’s lives. It’s a sop to those who would oppose this decision, but it will be small consolation to the last soldier to have his body parts blown off (and his family), just before Mr. O says, “OK, we’re done here.”

The irony of Mr. Obama’s position is that he can fail to keep his promises (and his “promise”) with some political impunity because his political opposition is in such disarray. We are left to wonder is he faced any incipient threat to a second term would he be less, or likely more, of an appeaser than he has already shown himself to be. But it will be a mistake to think he can roll over on the people who elected just because we supposedly have no where else to go.

Mr. Obama ran his presidential campaign on the theme of “change.” In our desperation we were just happy to have a change from the hellish years of Bush-Cheney. We did not care to inspect the messenger very closely. We now know that Mr. Obama appears quite satisfied to have as his legacy that he changed the color of the occupant of the White House, but little more. His presidency seems destined to be a Potemkin presidency—all grandiloquence and pose—and no “big ones.” He seems destined to take care of our White House, like a good houseboy.
© 2009, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.2.2009)