Ditch the Anger Translator, Mr. President
"Mr. President, what are you doing here?” I kept asking myself as the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner wore on (and on).
This wasn't the first time I’d wondered why presidents sat through Washington journalism’s interminable spring rite of self-celebration. But with Baltimore seething less than 45 miles away, wasn't this the year for the president to just say a few words and make his excuses? Yet there he was, and there he remained, chortling along with celebrities large and small (Jane Fonda! Ivanka Trump!) as a comedian from "Saturday Night Live" dished out jokes about abortion.
It was the wrong call and you wish the president’s gut, or at least his staff, had told him so.
If it felt like a long night at the correspondents’ dinner, Baltimore has endured some far darker ones in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody on April 19. The contrast between the two scenes was both unsettling and instructive: on one side a pageant of the triviality of politics and on the other a city about to explode with pain and frustration.
I thought of Bobby Kennedy's decision in 1968 to deliver a speech to angry crowds in Indianapolis's inner city on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Perhaps it would be impossible for a president to walk into a volatile city, but surely there were better places for Obama to be than the ballroom of the Washington Hilton.
It wasn't until three days later, after an epic night of rioting, that Obama finally spoke up. Responding to a question during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama condemned the violence, expressed sympathy with injured officers, but also called out the number of incidents of police violence. He said protestors who had destroyed businesses and looted were “criminals and thugs,” taking advantage of a tragedy.
He took the risk of mentioning the root causes when he riffed on, well, root causes: "We have seen too many instances of what appears to be police officers interacting with individuals -- primarily African American, often poor -- in ways that have raised troubling questions," he said. "If we think that we're just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without as a nation and as a society saying what can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity, then we're not going to solve this problem."
What was striking about his answer was its length and intensity, a signal perhaps that the president realizes his time in office is almost up and that it’s time to stop worrying about giving offense.
He’s always feared being seen as the clichéd Angry Black Man or being reduced to "the first black president" -- he’s happy to leave that title to Bill Clinton. But to the end of avoiding white backlash if he tilts too heavily toward black victims, Obama has been so restrained as to be virtually silent after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Gardner. And those are just the incidents that made news. Enter “police shoot unarmed man” into Google and you will get a long list.
Most of the political class issued bland statements on Baltimore, with one exception: Martin O’Malley. Although no one seems to have noticed, the former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor is running as a challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. O'Malley returned from a European trip designed to burnish his nonexistent foreign policy credentials to burnish his standing as a candidate, so that at least someone will know who he is at his next campaign event.
But he’s constrained in much the same way Hillary Clinton is. In a speech in New York on Wednesday, she said there is “something profoundly wrong” with a criminal justice system that is far more likely to ensnare black men than whites. True enough, but she forgot to mention that a lot of what ails this system is right out of the playbook pushed by O'Malley and Bill Clinton: arrests for petty crimes, harsher sentencing and harsh prisons (though O’Malley’s city jails were famous for gangs running them). In the 1990s tough policies played well for those trying to find the political center.
If Obama becomes more fearless he might use his last months to keep attention on Baltimore and other cities where some citizens are more likely than others to regret their interactions with the police. That would be the best way to take on what the president described as “the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities, and the occasional riots in the streets" that we feign concern about "until it goes away and then we go about our business as usual."
Closing out his comedy routine at the dinner Saturday, the president was joined on the podium by the comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who acted out the part of "Luther, Obama's anger translator.” Supposedly channeling what the ever-cool Obama is really thinking, he began with “Hold on to your lily-white butts.” After Obama said in mellow tones, “In our fast-changing world, traditions like the White House Correspondents’ Dinner are important.” Luther burst in with, “I mean really what is this dinner and why am I required to go to it?”
I wish we could really see some anger from an Obama who speaks his mind on race, the most tender and unattended issue of his presidency.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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