Volume 21, Number 38 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | January 30 - February 5, 2009

Downtown notebook

Listening to Obama and the racists in my W.W. II tent


It was a tent, on Guam, just large enough for four cots and a tinny radio that day and night conveyed from 10,000 miles away the searching voice of a skinny phenomenon named Sinatra who was packing the Paramount back in New York with screaming, fainting bobby-soxers.

One of the songs he was soon to sing was Abel Meeropol’s “The House I Live In,” a 1943 hymn to the ideal of a multi-ethnic, bigotry-free America, but Sinatra or no Sinatra, that cut no ice with three of the four occupants of the tent — young crewmen in a B-24 squadron, one from Detroit, one from St. Louis, and one from I forget where — whose daily and nightly converse was so unremittingly peppered with nigger this and nigger that as to drive the fourth occupant crazy enough to one day…

…That was the way I was going to start this piece, but on Tues., Jan. 20, toward the end of President Barack Hussein Obama’s inaugural address, I changed my mind. Everybody was expecting him to quote from Lincoln, but the man who’d surprised us so many times in the past two years surprised us once again by summoning up another towering American, indeed the first and foremost, via the following quietly thrilling peroration:


So let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of Americas’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”


Hope and virtue — not bad as beacons. And I, listening, shivering — not from cold but from emotion — suddenly thought of some correlative words that, lodged in my head and heart, had carried me as a sort of armor (spiritual armor if you will) all the way through World War II to Guam and beyond and back:

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”


That was composed by Tom Paine on Dec. 23, 1775, two days before Washington and his handful of ragged, bleeding, freezing men crossed the Delaware to save the Revolution. And yes, Tom Paine was a full-fledged radical, so I guess that waitress in the diner at Croton-on-the-Hudson last summer was right when she said Barack Obama was “too radical” for her. Because in his cool, calm, self-contained way, Mr. Obama is certainly as radical as any president can very well get. He is also something of a knife-edged Calvinist; let us but pray there is nothing in there also of a cold-blooded heat-seeking Robespierre.

It was when he was something more than halfway through his address to the million and a half in front of him and the billions of others around the globe that one realized how much better this address would read on the morrow than in its now somewhat dry and constrained delivery by someone who had only a few months earlier set afire a huge Denver football stadium of 90,000 souls plus anyone and everyone else within reach of television and/or radio.

Awed by History, I guess you could say of his oratory now on the Mall — awed by the very history he was making, had always known he was making, was going to make. Remember when, in the campaign, as he and Hillary were heading down the homestretch, he icily replied to the suggestion that they toss for No. 1 and No. 2: “I’m not running for vice president, I’m, running for president”?  That history.

And, yes, the first inaugural of President Barack H. Obama does in fact read better, richer, more movingly, more historic than came across in its somewhat flattened deliverance under the pale, cold Tuesday-noon sunlight of Jan. 20, 2009.

That pale cold sunlight – and the occasion, and History itself, and Barack Obama’s full realization of the occasion and of History, did something else: At least to me and some others with whom I’ve spoken: it suddenly made his face seem 15 or 20 years older, tougher, cannier, more angular.

Also, perhaps — however distantly, however kept deeply under wraps — not afraid, not cautious, but … preoccupied. I only know that for my own part, watching the television — and, I would think, the best part of a million and a half others more immediately present in that great space that day — one was holding one’s breath from first to last and even beyond the last, when the speech was ended, giving way to kisses and handshakes all round — even then might be the moment for a shadow to protrude from the columns of the Capitol, the barrel of some madman’s gun…

Someone like the nut case in New Jersey who a few days later was blustering on the tube that he was out to kill The Man. Someone a great deal worse than my three benighted tent mates 65 years ago on Guam.

Which brings me back to where I came in. Or even earlier, when, like Larry King, I got my first hard dose of racial reality as a high-school kid coming in to Union Station in Washington, D.C., thirsty as hell, and walked through that marble immensity toward a far wall on which there were two drinking fountains — one labeled WHITE and the other COLORED. There, in the national capital.

Larry King says he drank from one labeled COLORED. I don’t remember if I did or didn’t do that, hut I do know that in that tent on Guam, when I finally had my bellyful of days on end of nigger this and nigger that, I finally, one fine night, up and said: “Hey, fellas, lay off, I have Negro blood myself” — only a small lie in a good cause.

There was dead silence. And then, in the days that followed, those three guys, each by each, one at time, so as not to let the other two know, came to me and said, pleaded: “Come on, tell me, it isn’t  true, is it? You’re not really a nigger. Are you? You can’t be.”

But I never did change my story. Not to one, to the other, to all three. A small, silly, maybe stupid thing, but as you can see, I’ve not forgotten it. And that is my inauguration present to Barack Hussein Obama, 44th president of the United States of America. I would take an oath on it. Faithfully.






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