By now you must have seen the enchanting video of that darling dynamo, 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin, swaying in the White House to which she was invited in honor of Black History Month. And how genuinely delighted both Barack and Michelle Obama were with their special guest. “You’ve made our day,” the First Lady said, and who could disagree.
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The video comes on the heels of the #Obamawithkids hashtag initiated in recent days by businessman/activist Michael Skolnik, which has brought forth a treasure of charming pictures of Obama with kids, many of them taken by that essential White House photographer, Pete Souza. Even the most skillful politician or consummate actor could not feign the patent pleasure that Obama takes from talking to the children, or simply touching them, and the joy that he derives when they communicate back, in one way or another.
Obama’s grace and charm in these most basic of human interactions are no reason for anyone to agree with his policies, of course. You can believe with all your heart that the Affordable Care Act is an unmitigated disaster and still smile at President’s antics with babies. You can argue that Obama’s foreign policy has been nothing less than terrible and still acknowledge his compassion and decency. You can abhor Obama’s efforts to tighten gun control and still recognize the genuine anguish he feels after each and every mass killing, rather than automatically deem it a calculated posture. And you can claim that Obama is hurting American families and nonetheless give a nod to his love for his family and his admirable better half.
For all I care, you can even decide that Obama’s personality, appealing or not, is completely irrelevant to the great harm that you think he is inflicting on America, so you really can’t be bothered.
What I find hard to fathom, however, is the degree of harsh, personal hatred that has been directed at Obama from the day he took office, and even before, the depth of hostility that he has endured in Congress and on the campaign trail, the poisonous venom that is hurled at him day in and day out in conservative talks shows and social media. Ignoring for a moment the right wing lunatic fringe, which has admittedly been growing exponentially in recent years, it’s hard to comprehend how Obama’s devotion to America, his dedication to his office, his avoidance of any hint of corruption or financial scandal and, yes, his elegant personal polish, are either overlooked by so many of his detractors or are genuinely invisible to them, and how they persist in seeing malevolence alone.
On a personal level, this irrational hostility towards Obama has become one of my early warning systems about people that I prefer to stay away from. We all have these early signs, of course, ranging from the trivial to the truly outrageous: some people are repelled by others who pick their noses, or eat with an open mouth, or put too much gel in their hair or badmouth cats or speak ill of Adele or hint that Jews are shifty. I seriously don’t mind people blasting Obama’s policies to kingdom come – I will probably reject most of their points but will certainly concede at least a part of them. But when they go from there to tirades about Obama’s sinister efforts to harm America or his malicious wishes to destroy Israel, my internal red lights start flashing. And when they move on to his suspicious family, his Muslim beliefs or his questionable birthplace, the bells, whistles and wailing sirens all go off full blast as well.
Throughout the past few years, I have encountered such people in the most unexpected of places: at cocktail parties, gala dinners, boardrooms, bar mitzvahs, weddings and even one bris. “It’s true, you know,” one well-groomed businessman in good standing with the Jewish community told me over lunch at a posh restaurant in Manhattan; “he really is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood.” I choked, but quickly recovered: “You’re joking, of course”, I said, but was then aghast to see the astonishment on his face. Obviously, both of our early warning systems had been triggered: mine for his ridiculous allegations, his for my obvious disbelief. Disturbingly, mine was the not the reaction he was used to getting.
Of course, Obama is not the only target of crazed hatred these days. Hillary Clinton is right up there, as Bernie Sanders may very well be soon enough, if he does better than expected in the upcoming primaries. And even though the left has its own fair share of blind haters – George Bush may have been the victim of some of it - in both Israel and the United States, at least, it is the right that has converted hatred into its favorite currency, its preferred vehicle for stirring up the masses and securing their vote.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The hatred towards Obama is special. The invective that is used against him is in a class of its own. The delegitimization of the presidency during his term in office has been unique. The refusal of Republican Congressional leaders to collaborate with him, to seek common ground or to even acknowledge the authority of his office is without precedent. If these same patriots ever heard anyone talking about a U.S. president the way they talk about Obama, they themselves would deem it un-American. And yes, even a part of the animosity that many Israelis harbor towards Obama, though arguably much smaller, derives from the same source.
There is only one reason for this fundamental, qualitative difference between the generally deteriorating political discourse and the exceptionally venomous abuse to which Obama has been subjected. Many will deny it, some even sincerely, but I know what it is, you know what it is, and deep down, even the deniers know what it is. Their hate stems from the same place as the joy expressed by McLaurin, in this touching Washington Post follow-up.
She came to the White House to see the “black president” and it had been “the joy of her entire life”, she said. “I can die smiling now,” she said, and a part of America smiled with her, perhaps even wiping a tear, while the other part turned away in disgust.
“As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” These words were true then, when the recently deceased Harper Lee gave them to Atticus Finch, and they are even truer today, when the prejudice may be submerged but remains so very close to the surface nonetheless.