Some enchanted evening, let us hope, on November 4, 2008 to be precise, an exotic charmer from the South Sea isles will complete his long planned seduction of the American people, and sweep at least 270 electors off their collective feet, and . . . let’s end this metaphor here, though let me point out that “yes we can” is perhaps not all that different from “yes I said yes I will yes.”
This comparison of Barack Obama to Ezio Pinza was prompted “When Love Meets Racism” an op-ed in the Washington Post by Harold Meyerson, who is not only one of the finest political journalists in the business, but a connoisseur of what they call the “Great American Songbook,” and is the co-author of an excellent biography of leftist and lyricist Yip Harburg. Anyway , Meyerson argues that the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” currently enjoyed a much Tony-ied revival on Broadway, is the musical equivalent of the Obama campaign, a tuneful call to Americans to rediscover the better angels of their natures. Its heroine, Nelly Forbush “as corny as Kansas in August” is a “cockeyed optimist” who comes to believe, by the final curtain, that if racial prejudice could be learned, it could be unlearned and overcome. (Nelly does not, like Obama’s mom, another corny girl from Kansas, marry someone of another race, but does becomes the stepmother of interracial European and Polynesian children.)
Oscar Hammerstein II was America’s poet laureate of the stupidity and evil of racial prejudice, from “Showboat” and “The King and I” to his last works, such as “Flower Drum Song” and “The Sound of Music,” and nowhere more than in “South Pacific.” Meyerson argues that what Hammerstein and Obama share is a cockeyed optimism that America’s social problems can be solved. This is a major change from recent campaigns, in which Democrats of the Clintonian vein speak of, at best, of ameliorating and not eliminating serious problems, and Republicans tend to deny that problems exist, or that great progress has been made towards solving them or that if left alone the problems will sorta kinda solve themselves.
In some ways, Obama's campaign is a return to the optimistic racial liberalism of the 1940s and the post war era. It is a quality that has been missing from Democratic politics since the deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. The harsh racial realities of the 1960s made Hammerstein’s musicals seem as outdated and sentimental. During that decade, we both overturned Jim Crow, and decided that other racial problems, such as tacit segregation in housing and education, were essentially insoluble. And this has been the racial stalemate we have lived with ever since; widely touted “progress” in some areas, that now has culminated in an African American major party candidate for president, and widely ignored lack of progress in other areas, which, when attention is paid, usually ends up blaming the victim.
Let us hope that Obama succeeds, and his optimism will bring more positive fruit than that of our last optimist in chief, Ronald Reagan. I guess I supported Hillary this year—there is, after all, nothing like a dame--because I am skeptical of the pomposity and grandiosity of optimism, which all too often proves to be nothing more than rhetoric. All I wanted was a president who was better than Bush, and a chance to wash that man right outta my hair. But I am not sorry to see Obama the candidate. In the end, without a sense of real and powerful optimism that positive change on a major scale is possible, nothing will be accomplished. This is the promise of Obama, and if he comes close to fulfulling his expectations, I will be chirping like a lark that is learning to pray.
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