Obama's gang is more rooted in the black establishment than we thought. They will transform the culture in Washingtonby Martin Walker / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
To understand how the culture of Washington is about to change, consider the conference call Obama held on the day before the election. He spoke with some of those African-Americans closest to him. House majority whip Jim Clyburn, a veteran politician from South Carolina, might have been predicted, as would political adviser Donna Brazile, who had run Al Gore’s campaign eight years ago. But there too were the 88-year old Reverend Joseph Lowery, dean of the old civil rights movement, and Obama’s first celebrity supporter, Oprah Winfrey. And the final man on the call was Sean “Diddy” Combs, a rapper-turned-clothing entrepreneur. Diddy had just come from telling Vote Obama rallies in Florida “we have to do it for the people that died for us to have the right to vote.” Remember that on Obama’s first date with his wife Michelle, he took her to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. And the time he says he got angriest in politics was when his black senate election opponent Alan Keyes claimed that Obama’s African-born father meant he had not shared the African-American heritage of slavery in what became known as the “not-black-enough” debate. Obama is sometimes seen as “post-racial,” a mixed race man mainly raised by whites who has avoided the conventional routes for a black politician. But blacks formed the core of his first support group in Washington. His first Washington fundraiser was hosted by veteran black super-lawyer (and Bill Clinton’s golfing chum) Vernon Jordan. Other fundraisers included Eric Holder, deputy attorney-general in Clinton’s administration, Larry Duncan, a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin and Mike Williams, vice president for legislative affairs (which means lobbyist) at the Bond Market Association. These guys are the black community’s movers and shakers. Obama may symbolise a post-racial America, but he knows how much he owes to black support. This is going to change the social culture of Washington, America’s only majority black city. The traditional liberal quarters of Georgetown will no longer be the epicentre. House prices are set to fall even further in right-wing areas like Maclean, across the river in Virginia, as disconsolate Republicans lose their plum lobbying jobs. For an up-and-coming area, look to the Gold Coast, the mansion-lined stretch of upper 16th Street, home to the black bourgeoisie. Forget about St John’s Episcopal, the so-called church of the president, located opposite the White House. Instead, watch the battle between the Foundry United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion on 16th street and the First Baptist Church of Washington as they vie for the new First Worshipper. And forget about traditional DC watering-holes Equinox and the Oval Room; the hot new restaurant will be Art and Soul, just opened by Chicago-based Art Smith, who used to be Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef. No tourist trip to the city will henceforth be complete without a call at the venerable Ben’s Chili Bowl on the old black Broadway of U Street, where Martin Luther King, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Miles Davis all ate. The “in” sport will be basketball, with Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan as a top OB (Obama Buddy, which is how the internal travel schedules list VIPs), and pick up games in the West Wing parking lot. The reporter to watch will be the Chicago Tribune’s Clarence Page, not because he’s black and not just because he is good, but because Obama respects him. (Page was one of the first to note that Obama “is in many ways a cultural conservative.”) In the think tank world, old conservative haunts like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are likely to lose prominence. There are three places to watch: the Center for American Progress, run by Clinton’s old chief of staff John Podesta; the venerable Brookings Institution, with its tax reform and budget expertise, and then the sprightly “radical centre” newcomer, the New America Foundation, with some of best health reform ideas, where Sherle Schwenninger owns the franchise on infrastructure investment planning, and whence Steve Clemons runs the best-informed blog in town, TheWashingtonnote.com. On television, the liberal-slanted cable news channel MSNBC will be the must-watch. Fox News will become the home of the anti-Obama liberation front, where ambitious Republicans will scrap to become Sarah Palin’s policy guru. A key job will be the White House congressional liaison, because the Democrats (not just Hillary) will be a pain in the neck. British, French and German ambassadors will fight like junkyard dogs to get the first White House invitation for their boss, even though Obama’s first trip will likely be to Asia and Africa, saving Europe for the Nato anniversary summit in April 2009. And what of Obama himself? In the senate he spent only three nights a week in Washington, keeping his family in Chicago. He lunched and dined at policy events, avoiding the city’s social circuit. But under the old mafia rule about keeping your friends close but your enemies closer, one northwest Washington address where he will be seen is the Clinton home on Whitehaven Street. After all, it was there that Hillary threw one of his first fundraisers back in 2003. Read more… Michael Lind’s post-election cover story on what Obama means for American liberalism, plus a Prospect symposium on the future of America with contributions from Thomas Wright, Jonathan Derbyshire and James Crabtree. Also, exclusively online, ABC’s foreign correspondent Jim Sciutto argues that Obama will struggle to make friends in the middle east, Erik Tarloff dissects the Republican’s Palin problem, and Stephen Boyle explains why the Democrats might turn out to be Obama’s worst enemy.