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What a Difference Four Decades Make

Frank Rich:

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: I watched a movie I hadn’t seen since it came out when I was a teenager in 1967. Back then “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was Hollywood’s idea of a stirring call for racial justice. The premise: A young white woman falls madly in love with a black man while visiting the University of Hawaii.... Though the film was a box-office smash and received 10 Oscar nominations, even four decades ago it was widely ridiculed as dated by liberal critics. The hero, played by the first black Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, was seen as too perfect and too “white” — an impossibly handsome doctor with Johns Hopkins and Yale on his résumé and a Nobel-worthy career fighting tropical diseases in Africa for the World Health Organization. What couple would not want him as a son-in-law? “He’s so calm and sure of everything,” says his fiancée. “He doesn’t have any tensions in him.” She is confident that every single one of their biracial children will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”

What a strange movie to confront in 2008. As the world knows, Barack Obama’s own white mother and African father met at the University of Hawaii. In “Dreams From My Father,” he even imagines the awkward dinner where his mother introduced her liberal-ish parents to her intended in 1959. But what’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears “so calm” and without “tensions” — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves....

Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.

There were countless ruminations.... “Is He Black Enough?” and “Is He Tough Enough?” The implied answer to both was usually, “No.” The brown-skinned child of biracial parents wasn’t really “black.”.... And as a former constitutional law professor, Obama was undoubtedly too lofty an intellectual to be a political street fighter....

Once Obama wrested the nomination from Clinton by surpassing her in organization, cash and black votes, he was still often seen as too wimpy to take on the Republicans. This prognosis was codified by Karl Rove, whose punditry for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek has been second only to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as a reliable source of laughs this year. Rove called Obama “lazy,” and over the summer he predicted that his fund-raising had peaked in February and that he’d have a “serious problem” winning over Hispanics.... But certainly the single most revelatory moment of the campaign — about the political establishment, not Obama — arrived in June when he reversed his position on taking public financing. This was a huge flip-flop (if no bigger than McCain’s on the Bush tax cuts). But the reaction was priceless. Suddenly the political world discovered that far from being some exotic hothouse flower, Obama was a pol from Chicago....

Early in the campaign, the black commentator Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat when he questioned all the rhetoric, much of it from white liberals, about Obama being “post-racial.” Smiley pointed out that there is “no such thing in America as race transcendence.”...

As Mark Harris reminds us in his recent book about late 1960s Hollywood, “Pictures at a Revolution,” it was not until the year of the movie’s release that the Warren Court handed down the Loving decision overturning laws that forbade interracial marriage in 16 states.... In that same year of 1967, L.B.J.’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, offered his resignation when his daughter, a Stanford student, announced her engagement to a black Georgetown grad working at NASA. (Johnson didn’t accept it.)...

[S]hould Obama be elected, America will not be cleansed of its racial history or conflicts. It will still have a virtually all-white party as one of its two most powerful political organizations. There will still be white liberals who look at Obama and can’t quite figure out what to make of his complex mixture of idealism and hard-knuckled political cunning.... Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday....

But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.

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