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The Haloed One

By Bill Maxwell, Times Columnist
Published February 24, 2008


The halo above Barack Obama's head is dangerous. It is causing a lot of trouble for a lot of people, forcing them into silence. But that halo will tarnish if the young senator is elected president.

There are those who suggest, only half-jokingly, that Obamamania has become something of a cult. Of course it is a cult, manifesting what writer James Wolcott refers to as "salvational fervor" and "pure euphoria."

Listen to what the Anointed One said in South Carolina at one of his rallies, which he alludes to as tent revivals: "At some point in the evening, a light is going to shine down and you will have an epiphany and you'll say, 'I have to vote for Barack!'"

Something insidious is happening beneath this rapture. Because of the halo effect, too many people are afraid to sincerely criticize Obama for fear of being attacked and otherwise humiliated.

Many white Democrats who do not support Obama are keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. They do not want to be denounced as racists for preferring Hillary Clinton for reasons that have nothing to do with race.

Most of our acerbic political cartoonists who have no trouble portraying Hillary Clinton as a gargoyle have sheathed their rapiers for Obama, opting to handle the Anointed One with kid gloves or not draw him at all. Pat Oliphant is a notable exception.

Even the networks' late-night talk show hosts and MSNBC's prime-time troika of Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Dan Abrams are swooning for Obama.

Predictably, the people most negatively affected by Obamamania are blacks who have resisted the new, emerging black monolith by supporting Clinton. These poor souls are being excoriated by other blacks and sometimes labeled as self-loathing Uncle Toms.

The irony is that at the beginning of the campaign, conventional wisdom held that Obama was "not black enough." He had to prove his black bona fides. After all, his mother was a white Kansan, his father a Kenyan. He was born too late for the civil rights movement - not getting his head bloodied on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, never going to jail for staring down one of Bull Connor's storm troopers.

Now the tables have turned. Obama is on top, with the overwhelming majority of blacks zealously supporting him. That support is the new litmus test for being "authentically" black.

One young man, clad in hip-hop duds, offered this insight to a black magazine: "Backing or not backing Barack shows how developed your racial consciousness is. You ain't black if you don't support Barack."

During the 1960s, blacks used the expression "blacker than thou" to refer to the chosen few who set the standard for blackness. Those who did not measure up were dissed for not thinking "black enough." The other expression during the 1960s was "black three-hundred-and-sixty degrees," meaning you were profoundly black in a psychological sense.

These expressions have returned in subtle ways. Those who support Barack are now "blacker than thou" and "black three-hundred-and-sixty degrees."

The attacks against ordinary blacks who do not support the Haloed One are nasty enough, but they pale in comparison to abuse being absorbed by famous blacks, especially members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Many decent, hard-working blacks who have done exemplary public work for a generation are portrayed as villains.

A young Chicago blogger said this of New York Rep. Charles Rangel and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young for supporting Clinton: "Support who you wish in this election, but why resort to the very politics that you fought against decades ago in an effort to please Ol' Massa and da Mistress, Bill and Hillary Clinton. Someone please tell Rangel and our dear brother Andrew Young that the Civil War ended slavery and they are free to leave the plantation."

During a recent interview with National Public Radio's Melissa Block, Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he and some other members are being pressured and threatened by their constituents to vote for Obama. He said that Georgia Rep. John Lewis, an early Clinton supporter who has worked tirelessly for black causes since assuming office in 1987, had become the victim of "robo-calls" and that some of the callers said "very, very derogatory things about him."

Besides marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis was a Freedom Rider and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He withstood vicious beatings in Selma and elsewhere to achieve rights for blacks.

Cleaver said: "I had a person in my district send out a newsletter, for which he didn't pay, distributed primarily in the African-American community, in which he suggested that I had been paid by Sen. Clinton to support her. I don't know if there's anyone who (is African-American) who hasn't taken some grief for supporting Sen. Clinton."

Television host, radio personality and author Tavis Smiley told the Washington Post that he has received death threats for his criticism of Obama. Smiley uses his wealth to improve black life. In just one example of his altruism, he gave historically black Texas Southern University $1-million in 2004 to help establish a center for media studies. This was the largest-ever donation to the university from an individual.

Here is why I said Obama's halo will tarnish if the Illinois senator is elected president: It will give him an indefinite honeymoon. We will be reluctant to challenge him, fearing that the albatross of racism and its attendant pathology, the blame and counterblame and old hatreds, will come crashing down on us.

I fear we are about to elect an untouchable president, just as George W. Bush was until his incompetence and mendacity snatched us back into reality.