Let's not celebrate more ordinary speeches
- JUAN WILLIAMS
With the noon sun high over the U.S. Capitol, Barack Obama yesterday took the oath of office to become president of the United States. On one level, it was a simple matter of political process -- the symbolic transfer of power. Yet words alone cannot convey its meaning.
The calloused hands of slaves, the voices of abolitionists, the hearts of generations who trusted in the naïve promise that any child can become president, will find some reward in a moment that was hard to imagine last year, much less 50 years ago. Our history, so marred by the sin of slavery, has come to the day when a man that an old segregationist would have described as "tea-colored" -- the child of a white woman and an African immigrant, who identifies as a member of the long oppressed and despised black minority -- was chosen by a mostly white nation as the personification of America's best sense of self as a nation of power and virtue.
At the end of the 1965 march calling for passage of the Voting Rights Act, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said politics held the potential to reflect the brilliance of the American creed of justice for all, and a "society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience." Years of hard work lay ahead to shift racist attitudes born of political power being limited to white Americans, he said, then added that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. How long? Not long. Because mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
It is neither overweening emotion nor partisanship to see King's moral universe bending toward justice in the act of the first non-white man taking the oath of the presidency. But now that this moment has arrived, there is a question: How shall we judge our new leader?
If his presidency is to represent the full power of the idea that black Americans are just like everyone else -- fully human and fully capable of intellect, courage and patriotism -- then Barack Obama has to be subject to the same rough and tumble of political criticism experienced by his predecessors. To treat the first black president as if he is a fragile flower is certain to hobble him. It is also to waste a tremendous opportunity for improving race relations by doing away with stereotypes and seeing the potential in all Americans.
Yet there is fear, especially among black people, that criticism of him or any of his failures might be twisted into evidence that people of color cannot effectively lead. That amounts to wasting time and energy reacting to hateful stereotypes. It also leads to treating all criticism of Mr. Obama, whether legitimate, wrong-headed or even mean-spirited, as racist.
This is patronizing. Worse, it carries an implicit presumption of inferiority. Every American president must be held to the highest standard. No president of any color should be given a free pass for screw-ups, lies or failure to keep a promise.
During the Democrats' primaries and caucuses, candidate Obama often got affectionate if not fawning treatment from the American media. Editors, news anchors, columnists and commentators, both white and black but especially those on the political left, too often acted as if they were in a hurry to claim their role in history as supporters of the first black president.
For example, Mr. Obama was forced to give a speech on race as a result of revelations that he'd long attended a church led by a demagogue. It was an ordinary speech. At best it was successful at minimizing a political problem. Yet some in the media equated it to the Gettysburg Address.
The importance of a proud, adversarial press speaking truth about a powerful politician and offering impartial accounts of his actions was frequently and embarrassingly lost. When Mr. Obama's opponents, such as the Clintons, challenged his lack of experience, or pointed out that he was not in the U.S. Senate when he expressed early opposition to the war in Iraq, they were depicted as petty.
Bill Clinton got hit hard when he called Mr. Obama's claims to be a long-standing opponent of the Iraq war "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." The former president accurately said that there was no difference in actual Senate votes on the war between his wife and Mr. Obama. But his comments were not treated by the press as legitimate, hard-ball political fighting. They were cast as possibly racist.
This led to Saturday Night Live's mocking skit -- where the debate moderator was busy hammering the other Democratic nominees with tough questions while inquiring if Mr. Obama was comfortable and needed more water.
When fellow Democrats contending for the nomination rightly pointed to Mr. Obama's thin proposals for dealing with terrorism and extricating the U.S. from Iraq, they were drowned out by loud if often vacuous shouts for change. Yet in the general election campaign and during the transition period, Mr. Obama steadily moved to his former opponents' positions. In fact, he approached Bush-Cheney stands on immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperate in warrantless surveillance.
There is a dangerous trap being set here. The same media people invested in boosting a black man to the White House as a matter of history have set very high expectations for him. When he disappoints, as presidents and other human beings inevitably do, the backlash may be extreme.
Several seasons ago, when Philadelphia Eagle's black quarterback Donovan McNabb was struggling, radio commentator Rush Limbaugh said the media wanted a black quarterback to do well and gave Mr. McNabb "a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve." Mr. Limbaugh's sin was saying out loud what others had said privately.
There is a lot more at stake now, and to allow criticism of Mr. Obama only behind closed doors does no honor to the dreams and prayers of generations past: that race be put aside, and all people be judged honestly, openly, and on the basis of their performance.
President Obama deserves no less.
Mr. Williams, a political analyst for National Public Radio and Fox News, is the author of several books, including "Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965" (Penguin, 1988), and "Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America -- and What We Can Do About It" (Crown, 2006).