Many different kinds of people listen to Barack Obama and get a little weak in the knees. Young people are enraptured by him, political independents are attracted to him, African-Americans are proud of him, progressives are inspired by him. But the praise is also coming from one corner one would least expect: conservatives.
David Brooks, house conservative of the New York Times op-ed page, practically wept with joy at Obama's Iowa victory. "You'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel moved by this," he wrote the next day. "Whatever their political affiliations, Americans are going to feel good about the Obama victory … Obama is changing the tone of American liberalism, and maybe American politics, too." Rick Brookheiser of the National Review -- yes, that National Review -- wrote on the night of the caucus, "One of our great national sins is being obliterated, as the years pass, by the virtues of our national system. I don't agree with Obama and I don't particularly like him, but I am proud of this moment."
It was left to culture war general William Bennett to lay the conservative affection for Obama bare. With all the self-awareness and racial sensitivity for which he has become known, Bennett enthused that Obama "never brings race into it. He never plays the race card. Talk about the black community -- he has taught the black community you don't have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don't have to act like Al Sharpton. You can talk about the issues."
This is the heart of the newfound conservative affection for Barack Obama. He "never brings race into it," by which they mean that he declines to make them feel guilty about race -- about their party's current and past history, about the role of white privilege (that most radioactive of ideas, since it implicates even the well-intentioned), or about the persistence of discrimination. It is Bennett's fervent hope that Obama will have "taught the black community" how to behave -- in other words, how to stop making Bill Bennett feel bad. Barack Obama is the conservatives' New Black Friend. Throw an arm around him and smile for the camera, and you can show people how open-minded you are.
It isn't easy to separate self-congratulation from a genuine desire for the country to progress on its long and tortured road to racial reconciliation. But the game is given up when Obama is so pointedly contrasted with Jackson and Sharpton. We've seen a lot of this in recent months, from Joe Biden calling Obama "clean and articulate" to Bill O'Reilly complimenting the patrons of Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem for their table manners. You won't catch Barack Obama yelling, in O'Reilly's words, "M-F-er, I want more iced tea!"
Without saying anything about any particular individual's feelings about race, one can acknowledge that Obama is the kind of black person who makes white people comfortable. And nobody understands this better than Obama himself. One of the most important things to grasp about Obama is that he has spent a long, long time thinking about the operation of race in American politics and how his own identity would be understood and received. He knows that the rules and expectations differ for those who would be president. That isn't to say he secretly wishes to talk about racial issues in a different way than he does now. But he knows exactly what he's doing.
When Obama talks about racism, it is more often a piece of history than an open wound demanding immediate attention in our political triage -- one that occurred not too long ago, and one that speaks to the present, to be sure -- but history nonetheless. Here's how he put it after winning the Iowa caucus:
Hope is what led a band of colonists to rise up against an empire. What led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. What led young women and young men to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through Selma and Montgomery for freedom's cause. Hope -- hope is what led me here today. With a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.
Obama invokes the civil rights movement as one of the core events in our national history, and essential to understanding American ideals – but note that the conflicts he cites are settled. We no longer argue about who was right and who was wrong in Selma and Montgomery. It's a story of hope and triumph. When it comes to race, Obama plants his feet on the firm and steady ground of consensus.
So he has been careful to present his own identity as a key part of his larger message of transcendence and unification. He is both white and black, Kansas and Kenya, the racial synthesis through which the clash of thesis and antithesis is resolved. If anyone expects him to present his race as an instrument of grievance or anger, they'll be waiting a long time. Obama offers his identity as the vehicle of our redemption, as individuals and as a nation. It bathes us in the warmth of forgiveness and hope. His supporters can celebrate their own support of him, and his rising fortunes, as evidence that the nation's racial scars can be healed and the country brought to the realization of its ideals. No matter where you stand politically, you can find in Obama's race something to make you feel good.
As for the conservatives, one can't help but suspect that if Obama becomes his party's nominee, they'll get over their affection for him in short order. The conservative animus toward Democratic candidates is like a scab that they can't wait to pick, to jab with their fingernails until the blood of hatred flows yet again. Don't forget that at this time four years ago, conservatives didn't dislike John Kerry all that much. I even wrote a column in June of 2004, asking why the Right hadn't really gone after Kerry yet. But it came, with a fury.
So we should understand this momentary lapse of partisan fervor as temporary. Before you know it, they'll come to view Obama with that combination of contempt and fear with which they approached Kerry, and Al Gore before him, and Bill Clinton before him. They were revving up the engines of anger to explode at Hillary Clinton. If Obama is the Democratic candidate, all those ill feelings will be trained on him -- no matter what anyone thinks about his race.