Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Of, by and for 26 percent of the people

   Shades of 1965: white fright on a Southern roadside.

   I wonder how many Texans drive by the billboard along Interstate 35 and remember another billboard long ago targeting Martin Luther King Jr.

   The one that stands these days just south of Waco bears a menacing black-and-white photo of Barack Obama, and the words, "Socialist by conduct."

   It brings to mind billboards I saw at various locations in Texas back in '65, each with a grainy black-and-white photo showing: "Martin Luther King at communist training school."

    In either case, we were to believe that because someone with the means to say it said it, it was so.

    Behold in Obama — as with King — the most dangerous man in America.

    It's a hairy enough claim to make a wart jump to a toad.

    If Obama is a socialist, John Boehner can stifle a tear. Yes, in one of the most ambitious political initiatives in generations, Obama engineered reforms to address the nation's abominable numbers of uninsured Americans. So doing, he infuriated voices on the left, just as he inflamed the so-flammable right.

    As with Bill Clinton, Obama sought a mid-point between a single-payer approach and the status quo. Socialist? No, capitalist— and in ways that bother people like me who don't think corporate middlemen are entitled to a cut regarding the basic right to health care.

    Now we have seen the U.S. House, with 100 percent Republican approval, vote to abolish the Affordable Care Act. Republicans say they are responding to the electorate as expressed in November. But if polls in January are any indication, the mood has already swung. Americans have lingering questions about this landmark legislation, but as it has been rolled out, acceptance has grown. Now, says an Associated Press poll, only 26 percent of Americans want to scrub the entire thing.

   "In other words," writes Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, the House vote may be "the will of the Tea Party, but it's not 'the will of the people.'"

    Nothing new about that. For for decades, the rhetoric of the GOP has been dictated by its right flank.

    Until recently, that flank was evangelical Christians. Never has a segment of America been less representative of America, yet has had more representation. Witness its sway on federal stem cell research, so broadly supported, yet blocked by the Bush administration.

     Now, as Robinson observes, the GOP and the House are in the throes of right-wingers who draw Hitler 'staches on the president.

     These are the people who in 2010 got religion about debt and deficits, yet who still worship in the pagan holiness of that deficit-by-design patron saint, Ronald Reagan.

     They dwelt in a cone of silence when the Bush administration drove up debt without a care. Then, when in the face of the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, Obama engineered what many economists still consider a modest, verging on meek, economic stimulus plan, they roared like a jet engine. They belched dragon flames. They had TV camera crews and state nominating conventions on a string.

      Now that Obama has engineered a successfully centrist completion of the 111th Congress (again inflaming the left by conceding to the Republicans on tax cuts; some socialist), his general standing is on the rise. In contrast, the flame-throwers of the right look more freakish each day.

    Today we look back at billboards that slandered Martin Luther King and realize who ended up winning that debate.

     Obama can take heart that ultimately, fright by the side of the road persuaded only a hardened core of Americans. Understand: They're still among us, and not going anywhere. The rest of us ultimately will go forward as before, looking to real leaders and leaving grainy, hysterical claims in the rearview mirror.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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