In later years, or minutes, we may look back with the advantage of hindsight at the 2012 presidential election and decide that the release of secret video tapes at a Florida fundraiser for Mitt Romney may have been, in the world of Camus’ Merseault, a series of loud raps at the door of his undoing.
Filmed from a cell phone and released in serial fashion and shot from side and back angles, the tapes are accompanied by Romney’s words to his self-described “intimate” group of well-heeled supporters, each of whom allegedly paid $50,000 for the privilege of listening to their presumptive nominee.
The contents are stunning.
While Romney’s victims comments have elicited the sharpest reaction—he describes them as entitled, shiftless-the entire picture that emerges throughout the conversation is of a plutocrat who effortlessly writes off nearly half of the country he is aspiring to represent.
Some like veteran and former Clinton strategist Dick Morris said that Romney is being held unfairly to account for being honest in his political assessment.
In a strict strategic sense, Romney’s larger point about our polarized electorate with a small but critical slice of voters in play is true. But that assessment is encased in an elitist casing that effortlessly writes off nearly half of the country he aspires to represent.
President Barack Obama wasted little time in responding and appeared on the David Letterman Show to do so.
As Letterman’s band played a breezy version of Hail to the Chief, the studio audience gave a rousing standing ovation to a still lean but greyer Obama than the one who had appeared nearly three years earlier on the same show.
The moment was a prelude to Letterman’s conversation with Obama-after exchanging pleasantries about how well they each looked, Obama asserted that his job was to represent all of the people, not just some of them, and went on to say that he did not see many people who considered themselves victims in the country-and was also significant in its own right as the audience appeared from my view to be predominantly white.
The unabashed embrace of a black man is now comparatively ordinary, as Obama shattered so many of those barriers during his historic run for the presidency four years ago.
And yet it gave me a moment to pause in light of just having finished dear friend Steve Kantrowitz’s scintillating new book, More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889.
The book is noteworthy in a number of dimensions that go beyond me bursting buttons at the very fact of the publication of a major historical work by a mainstream press.
To begin, Steve turns his gaze from the South, traditionally the site of slavery-era scholarship and the site of Steve’s first book, an award-winning biography of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, to the North.
It looks at both the pre- and post-Civil War periods, insisting that one cannot be understood fully without the other.
It pushes against the historical characterization of black abolitionists.
It excavates and brings to life not only seminal and well-known characters like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, but other, more obscure people like Lewis Hayden and William Nell. Steve grounds his detailing of these people’s lives and works in engaging prose and in an analysis that is at once consummately local yet simultaneously national in scope.
The last part is no mean achievement.
It took me years of studying history to understand not only that things were happening at the same time in different parts of the country and/or the world, but, beyond that, that they might actually have some impact on each other.
This of course may same something about the heavily numbers-oriented approach I brought to my burgeoning historical understanding-part of the reason why the field appealed to me was its similarity to the sports pages I fought for with my brothers and whose contents I loved to absorb-and, I would also suggest, with the teaching of history.
Steve repeatedly takes major national events from throughout the six decades he covers-the Fugitive Slave Act and John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry are just two examples-and weaves the connections between them and what was happening in Boston at that same moment.
As we would say at a Passover seder, if this were all that Steve had done, it would have been enough (Let me clear here. I’m duly impressed with Steve’s work, but am not elevating him to deity status.).
In some ways for me the most revelatory part of his work was his writing about how the self-described “colored citizens,” living in the same city where Romney governed during the early part of last decade, sought a “citizenship of the heart.”
This is not to say that black activists did not seek total legal equality, but rather that they also aspired to a kind of open and fully given acceptance based in a mutual desire for a reciprocal and intimate connectedness and solidarity.
Unsurprisingly, both ambitions have proven difficult to realize.
Steve breaks down in often painful detail the very real limits to both types of equality black Bostonians experienced in the pre- and post-Civil War eras.
Which brings us back to the talk show host and the president.
Steve addresses Obama’s extraordinary rise and presence in his book’s final chapter, and Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken on the subject of the president’s actions and statements about race before and after his election in his provocative Atlantic Monthly essay, “Fear of a Black President.”
Without going into too much detail, it is safe to say that one should not read too much into a largely white studio audience’s standing to applaud their black commander-in-chief, both for the reasons Steve and Coates identify as well as for the additional point that the citizenship of the heart Nell, Hayden and others envisioned was a more personal and less adulatory interaction.
It seems hard to believe that those in the audience were not just cheering for Obama, but that the awareness of Romney’s elitist remarks lent an extra zest and urgency to their cheers and clapping. In that sense, then, there was not just an acceptance of the man’s office, but also the ideals on which he has oriented his political rhetoric, and, to some degree, his actions.
The audience’s cheers certainly do not signal the complete realization of what Nell, Hayden and other sought so fervently to bring into the world.
But they do mark the continuation of a shift and some level of progress on one on the nation’s most enduring, entrenched and persistent problems.
Those who want to hear Steve talk about his book can go to the African Meeting House in Boston tomorrow evening at 6:00 p.m.