Sunday, November 30, 2008

Behind the Screwy Obama Birth Certificate Controversy

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

At first glance it defied credulity that the staid, respected Chicago Tribune would do something as screwball as giving any credence to the issue of whether President-elect Barack Obama is really a U.S. citizen or not. But the Tribune will run not one but two big splashy ads paid for by a quasi libertarian outfit named based in Queensbury, New York. The group demands that Obama produce his original birth certificate with all the official markings and proper affixed signatures on it. The one that the Hawaii Department of Health officials made public last June was an electronic copy of the certificate.
Unfortunately, Hawaii officials left just enough room for the Obama birth certificate hounders to wiggle through when they correctly noted that privacy laws forbade them from releasing original documents without the authorization of the individual for which the documents are requested; in this case that individual being Obama.
Obama at the time and since then has also correctly declined to give any more ammunition to the birth certificate hounders. His campaign simply issued a statement that the document released by Hawaii officials is authentic. But that just emboldened the Obama hounders even more. Nearly a million have taken a gander at a You Tube clip on the controversy, dozens of websites fuel the rumor mill about his certificate, and a pile of articles have rehashed the issue of whether the birth certificate that Hawaii produced is legit. Nearly two dozen lawsuits or petitions have been filed in various state courts contesting Obama’s U.S. citizenship (one of them was filed by political gadfly Alan Keyes).
The Tribune ads won’t help matters. But it probably wouldn’t have made much difference if the paper had refused the ad. The online mill would still crank away about the certificate. Wagging tongues fan a controversy and that’s always good for website looks and business. As for We the People, it has used the controversy as a fund raising chip (gimmick).
But that’s less important for some than finding any issue no matter how farfetched to further stoke the paranoid suspicions of more than a few about Obama. Those suspicions were deeply implanted the moment that he declared his presidential candidacy in 2007. They rumbled above and underneath the surface throughout the campaign, and never stopped when he won.
He was not black enough. He was too black. He was not patriotic enough. He was too liberal, too effete, too untested. He was a Muslim, terrorist fellow traveler, and a closet black radical. The shock of an Obama in the White House is simply too much for many to bear. Obama defies the stereotypical textbook look and definition of what an American president is supposed to look like, and be like; namely a wooden image middle-aged, or older, white male.
Obama said as much during a campaign stop in late July when he quipped that he did not look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills. Obama got torched for saying the obvious and that is that his candidacy was different. Obama later admitted that it was a racial reference. The off the cuff remark simply reinforced the point that he and his candidacy marked a turning point in U.S. presidential politics and by extension race relations.
The Obama birth certificate hounders have kept the issue alive with some mainstream papers by crudely cloaking their motives. They depict themselves as public spirited citizens and legal experts with no personal, political, let alone racial, ax to grind. Their sole goal is to insure electoral truth and accuracy, to make sure that all the legal requirements for holding a presidential office are met, and to head off a constitutional crisis. They claim they want to put the matter to rest for good before his January 20 inauguration.
Their fantasy is that the U.S. Supreme Court will help them out and demand that Obama produce his supposed “real” birth certificate and if not declare the election null and void. The Supreme Court hasn’t made any demand on Obama to pony up his birth certificate, and likely won’t. Even if a justice or two had a stray thought about taking a peek at the issue, the memory of the fury over the court’s meddle in the 2000 election that ultimately tipped the White House to Bush is still too fresh in their and the public’s mind to butt in on such a wacky issue.
The bad thing about the controversy over Obama’s birth certificate is not that some print publications have dignified the issue by running paid hit ads on it, but that the ads were even conjured up in the first place. And even worse that so many millions are still willing to believe that it’s an issue at all.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).

Thursday, November 27, 2008

More Than a Sentence for O.J. Simpson

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The instant O.J. Simpson was found guilty of robbery, kidnapping and weapons charges in a Las Vegas court, a lusty on line debate ensued between legal experts and bloggers over whether the judge would or should throw the book at Simpson at his sentencing on December 5. The debate was tinged with more personal feeling, rage, and loathing about and toward Simpson than about the court’s legal options. Judges, of course, can slap sentence enhancements on a convicted felon based on their prior record, and in some cases their bad behavior. But Simpson has not been convicted of any crimes prior to his Las Vegas conviction. His behavior may have been boorish and repellant but that’s hardly legal grounds for doubling down on his sentence. Nevada legal experts say that the judge could hit Simpson with a maximum sentence of twenty-five to thirty years. If so, he would be eligible for parole in 8 years.
The sentence will satisfy the court of law. It won’t totally satisfy many in the court of public opinion. The reason is simple. Simpson’s acquittal on double murder charges thirteen years ago still sticks in the craw of much of America. The bloggers and legal pundits who furiously debated Simpson’s pending sentence needle was stuck hard on that point. They reflect the feeling of millions more. If Simpson served every day of a lengthy sentence with even the faint possibility of walking free that will not be good enough for many.

From the day that he beat the double murder rap and walked out of a Los Angeles court, he has gone wherever he pleased and done what he pleased. He's been trailed by a pack of doting former fans, and celebrity gawkers. There was no hint that police in any of these cities ever routinely subjected him to a special get Simpson profile. Yet, Simpson's ill gained notoriety and perverse celebrity virtually guaranteed that the legal hammer would drop especially hard on him at the first whiff of criminal wrongdoing. There was no chance that given the savage public mood toward him and with the one person truth squad of Fred Goldman continually wagging the guilt finger at him that Simpson would get the benefit of the doubt on any future charges against him. He, of all people, should’ve known that.
A poll taken after Simpson’s Las Vegas bust found that a majority of the public still seethed that he was a murderer who skipped away scot-free, and that his trial and acquittal was a blatant travesty of justice. Even many of Simpson’s one time black supporters who passionately screamed that he was the victim of a biased criminal justice system in the L.A. murder trial cut and run after the Las Vegas verdict. There was not even a bare peep from them that the conviction had any racial taint to it. Simpson and his attorney’s complaint that prosecutors massaged and twisted jury selection to insure a non-black jury drew barely a yawn in press and legal circles.
Simpson didn't invent or originate the oftimes ugly divide in public opinion about celebrity guilt. It has always lurked just beneath the surface. But his case propelled it to the front of public debate and anger. The horde of Simpson media commentators, legal experts and politicians who branded the legal system corrupt and compromised also fueled public belief that justice is for sale. Simpson's acquittal seemed to confirm that the rich, famous and powerful have the deep pockets to hire a small army of high priced, high profile attorneys, expert witnesses, experts, and investigators who routinely mangle the legal system to stall, delay, and drag out their cases, and eventually allow their well-heeled clients to weasel out of punishment.
Even when prosecutors manage to win convictions of or guilty pleas from celebrities, their money, fame, power, and legal twisting often guarantee that they will get a hand slap jail sentence, if that. The hung jury after months of legal finagling and manuevering in the Los Angeles murder trial of one time record kingmaker Phil Spector drew the same public tongue wagging about how a washed up celebrity with a few bucks can play the system.
Whether Las Vegas prosecutors did indeed as Simpson claimed grossly overcharge him, it didn’t stop the chatter that a killer was finally getting at least some of his due. Few others rushed to his defense and blamed the steep charges on a vindictive and unforgiving criminal justice system. In any case, Simpson did his best to try to convince a hostile and doubting public and jury that he was a victim. It worked once, but not a second time. With Simpson it was always more than just a mundane criminal case, and so is his sentence.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Holder Could Be GOP Target

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Before nominating Eric Holder to be his attorney general, President Elect Barack Obama quietly asked key Senate Republicans if there would be any potential confirmation problems with Holder’s nomination. Holder is his first cabinet pick and Obama wants to make sure that the pick will be hailed as a good one. The last thing he needs is a bitter, partisan, and contentious scuffle over Holder.
Holder’s legal credentials, administrative experience, and accomplishments are impeccable. As Clinton’s Deputy Attorney General, he got high marks for initiating community outreach programs to address domestic violence, hate crimes and child abuse, devising standards for criminal prosecution of corporations, and handling civil health care matters. He’s also touted for encouraging greater diversity and more pro bono work by attorneys. Holder drew loud cheers from civil libertarians when he told the American Constitutional Society in a speech earlier this year that he would restore the “rule of law” to the Justice Department; meaning that he’d reverse the worst civil liberties abuses by Bush’s Justice Department in the terrorism war.
Yet Holder’s sterling credentials are one thing, but politics is another. A political appointment to a top spot is generally a pro forma affair; it may be anything but that with Holder.
The immediate cause for some worry is Holder’s role in Clinton’s pardon of outlaw financier Mark Rich in 2001. Holder reportedly green lighted the pardon, but soon regretted it. He says he never would have said anything favorable about Rich if he had known the full details of the case. Prosecutors, the GOP and even Democrats pounded Clinton for the pardon. But Holder’s input on Rich was only one factor in Clinton’s decision to pardon Rich, and it was ultimately Clinton’s call.
That probably alone won’t assure a smooth sail for Holder through the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Holder nomination gives a badly mauled GOP a chance to show that it still has some fight in it and that it will not simply be a rubber stamp for Obama. Some conservatives indeed have said that picking a fight over some of Obama’s top picks might be a good way to show the troops that the party can regain some of its political footing.
The Rich issue is not the only skeleton that the GOP could attempt to rattle in Holder’s closet to get that footing. One is the claim that Holder routinely cleared Clinton’s brother Roger of any wrongdoing when he lobbied brother Bill to grant pardons for a drug trafficker and other high level crime figures. This charge will also go nowhere. Clinton did not grant the pardons. And Holder did not solely make the call absolving Roger Clinton of wrongdoing in the pardon cases. Top FBI officials and then independent Counsel Robert Ray also said that Clinton did not do anything illegal.
Another possible hit point is Holder’s lobbying on behalf of telecom giant Global Crossing after the company went belly up in 2002. Global Crossing incurred millions in debt. Back in June, the Republican National Committee first brought this up and claimed it would push to make it a campaign issue. The RNC didn’t say just what the issue was. It didn’t matter. The charge also went nowhere.
Then there is the Elian Gonzalez case. In 1999 Cuban leaders in Florida were furious at Clinton Attorney General Janet Reno for enforcing a court order requiring that the six year-old Gonzalez be removed from his relatives' home in Miami's Little Havana and returned to Cuba. As Deputy Attorney General, Holder took some heat for enforcing the court order.
The same year Holder drew more fire for his role in approving the clemency request for 16 members of the radical Puerto Rican independence group FALN convicted of a string of terrorist bombings and murders. The FBI, Bureau of Prisons and U.S. state attorneys opposed clemency for the 16. Holder refused to comment on what part he played in the clemency action.
Silence on the part of government officials is always taken as a sign by politically driven inquistors that an official has something to hide or is trying to dodge culpability for their actions when things go wrong. The FALN clemency issue could prove to be even more an irritant for Holder than the Rich case. In June, the RNC tried to stir up the pot on the FALN issue when it issued a press release urging the FALN clemency be made a campaign issue. There were no bites and the issue quickly died.
Then Holder was not an elected official, held no government office, and was only one of several top advisors to Obama. The talk of him being Obama’s pick as attorney general was just that, talk. However, he now is Obama’s pick and a GOP thirsting for anyone to target to make trouble for Obama may just see Holder as that target.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press January 2009)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Obama’s Racial Balancing Act

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

President elect Barack Obama’s close and long time confidant Valerie Jarrett was emphatic when she told a group of black journalists that Obama would not waver one bit in his commitment to diversity in his administration. The journalists were nervous at the paucity of African-American names that have been repeatedly tossed around as likely Obama staff and cabinet picks. The list is top heavy with moderate to conservative Wall Street bank and corporate officials, ex-Clinton White House staffers, officials and advisors, and Democratic governors and senators. Though Obama has made no actual decisions whether any of them will make the final team cut, it was still cause for worry. The names prominently mentioned are hardly anyone’s definition of diversity. The political logic is that with the colossal problems of the war and the economy, an inexperienced and untested president who’s already under an intense microscope, virtually dictate that Obama can’t hit the ground running without the old, experienced corporate and Democratric insider hands on his team.

This will do nothing to ease the worry that blacks could be left out. And that’s a legitimate worry. The hard political reality is that black voters gave Obama more votes than any other Democratic candidate in presidential history. He could not have won solely with their record turnout and vote. But without those record votes he would almost certainly have lost. As in politics, there’s always a price or at least an expectation from an interest group that gives a candidate near universal backing. In this case, the implicit expectation is that an Obama White House will fight hard for civil rights, health, education, and job creation programs, and criminal justice reform. In fact, Obama hadn’t even warmed the president elect seat when Al Sharpton urged him to have his Attorney General revisit the Sean Bell case. The next day a coalition of national Latino legal and civil rights groups demanded that Obama appoint more Latinos to key posts in the cabinet, staff, and in the judiciary. More groups will almost certainly follow suit with their interest demands.

But even if Obama were not faced with towering crisises that have nothing to do with race, ethnicity and special interest demands, he still would hew tightly to a moderate centrist path in his staff and cabinet picks. The tipoff of that was his campaign. There was, and could not have been, the slightest racial or confrontational edge to it. That was absolutely crucial to win over doubting centrist, and conservative independents. In the early stages of the campaign they leaned tenuously to McCain. But Obama’s pitch that he’d put priority emphasis on tax and economic aid to the middle-class proved decisive in tipping the vote scale in his favor.

This was no accident. Though Obama publicly distanced himself from Bill Clinton's conservative Democratic Leadership Council. He still hewed closely to the template that Clinton and the DLC laid out for Democrats to win elections.

That is talk of strong defense, the war against terrorism, a vague plan for winding down the Iraq War, tax reform, a tame plan for affordable health care and the sub-prime lending crisis, and the economic resuscitation of mid-America. This non-racial, centrist pitch does not threaten or alienate the white middle-class. Meanwhile, Obama was virtually silent on issues such as racial profiling, affirmative action, housing and job discrimination, the racial disparities in prison sentencing, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, failing inner city schools, ending the racially-marred drug sentencing policy, and his Supreme Court appointments.

There were two other reasons for this formula approach apart from the heavy risk that making these centerpiece issues in the general election could have been the political kiss of death for him. One, is that his two Democratic presidential predecessors Al Gore and John Kerry also avoided talk of these issues during most of their campaigns. They, like Obama, are moderate, centrist Democrats. They were deeply fearful that a too heavy emphasis on civil rights and social programs would have left them wide open to assault from Bush and the GOP independent committees as too liberal Democrats, who were tax and spend, and soft on welfare and crime. That’s the standard tag, or better yet smear, plastered on Democrats. It’s their curse. Though both Gore and Kerry lost to Bush. They didn’t lose by much. In fact Gore won the popular vote. The lesson was that even in a loss, steering a center course was the prudent way for Democrats to keep the race close enough to have a shot at winning.

Obama even more than Kerry and Gore could not depart from the Clinton formula. Race made sure of that. From day one of his campaign he was and would be the most watched and scrutinized, and at times assailed, presidential candidate in modern times.

Jarrett’s emphastic assurance that diversity will be the watchword in an Obama House was honest and heartfelt. But politics being politics, diversity will be more a balancing act than the watchword on Obama’s watch.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press January 2009)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Not Black President Obama, Just President Obama

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The instant that Barack Obama tossed his hat in the presidential rink nearly two years ago the twin mantra was that he could be the first black to be president and if that happened America had finally kicked its race syndrome. The twin mantra has been repeated ad infinitum, and it’s dead wrong about Obama and the presidency. The early hint that race was overblown and over obsessed came from Obama. He didn’t talk about it. For good reason, he was not running as a black presidential aspirant. He was running as a presidential aspirant. He had to make that crucial distinction for personal and political purposes.

The ritual preface of the word “black” in front of any and every achievement or breakthrough that an African-American makes is insulting, condescending and minimizes their achievement. It maintains and reinforces the very racial separation that much of America claims it is trying to get past. Dumping the historic burden of race on blacks measures an individual’s success or failure by a group standard. That’s a burden whites don’t have. They succeed or fail solely as individuals.

Obama’s personal history--his bi-racial parents, his upbringing, his education, and his relative youth-- defies racial pigeonholing. He was influenced by but not shaped by the rigid race grounded civil rights struggles of the 1960s as older whites and blacks were.

The institution of the presidency, and what it takes to get it, demands that racial typecasting be scrapped anyway. Obama would have had no hope of bagging the presidency if there had been the slightest hint that he embraced the race tinged politics of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. His campaign would have been marginalized and compartmentalized as merely the politics of racial symbolism.

He could not have raised record amounts of campaign cash. He would not have been fawned over by legions of Hollywood celebrities, corporate and union leaders. He would not have netted the endorsements of Colin Powell and packs of former Reagan and Bush Sr. administration stalwarts, and prepped by W. Bush political guru Karl Rove on how to beat Hillary Clinton. The media would never have given him the top heavy favorable coverage, endorsements, nor relentlessly hammered Republican rival John McCain. If the media had so chosen, it could have torpedoed Obama’s campaign by playing up his connection with his race focused former pastor Jeremiah Wright. It bought his protest of racial bewilderment at the Wright race revelations, and dropped the matter.

Obama had to cling closely to the centrist blueprint Bill Clinton laid out for Democrats to win elections, and to govern after he won.

It meant during the campaign and will mean at least in the early days of his presidency emphasis on strong defense, the war against terrorism, a vague plan for winding down the Iraq War, mild tax reform for the middle-class, a cautious plan for affordable health care and for dealing with the sub-prime lending crisis, and a gentile reproach of Wall Street.

The old axiom that you can tell a president-elect by his staff and cabinet picks will very much apply to Obama. A cast of governors, senators and ex senators, former Clinton and Democratic party operatives, and even a few token Republican mavericks have been floated for Obama’s staff and cabinet picks such as Al Gore, Tom Dachle, Tim Kaine, John Kerry, Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Paul Volcker, Chuck Hagel, Robert F, Kennedy, Tom Vilsack, and yes Arnold Schwarzenegger. The list reads like a who’s who of the Beltway and Heartland America establishment.

Obama’s cautious, center-governing non-racial, likely staff and cabinet cast and policies is plainly designed to blunt the standard Republican rap that Democrats, especially one branded a liberal Democrat, inherently pander to special interests, i.e. minorities, are pro expansive government, and anti-business. They will be watching hawk like for any sign of that from Obama.

As president Obama will be pulled and tugged at by corporate and defense industry lobbyists, the oil and nuclear power industry, government regulators, environmental watchdog groups, conservative family values groups, moderate and conservative GOP senators and house members, foreign diplomats and leaders. They all have their priorities and agendas and all will vie to get White House support for their pet legislation, or to kill or cripple legislation that threatens their interests.

An Obama White House will of course be a historic and symbolic first. However, it will be a White House that keeps a firm, cautious and conciliatory eye on mid-America public opinion, and corporate and defense industry interests in making policy decisions and determining priorities. All other occupants of the White House have done that. Obama would and could not have attained the White House if he didn’t do the same. This has nothing to do with race, or the nonsense of being tagged a black president, first or not. It has everything to do with the requirement of White House governance.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).