I had a dream the other night, a dream that American had elected a black president. The year was sometime in the not-too-distant past, maybe even as recently as 2008. I don’t know about you, but my dreams can be amazingly vivid and curiously vague all at the same time. This one surely was.

It might actually have been 2008, for all I know. In any case, my hazy, post-dream recollection tells me that this election must have been fairly recent. That’s because I recall wondering why it had taken the country so long to get to this point. After all, the hard days and the great days, the sorrows and triumphs of the civil rights movement were all in the distant past. The marches and the speeches, the freedom rides and the fire hoses, the law-breaking and the law-making were nothing more than a distant memory lodged somewhere in the back of the mind of those Americans, white and black, who were alive and awake in the 1950s and 1960s.

I am one of those Americans, one of those white Americans to be precise. The names and places still trip off my tongue: Medgar Evers and James Meredith, Selma and Birmingham, Roy Wilkins and Fannie Lou Hamer, Greensboro and Philadelphia, James Chaney and John Lewis and, of course, Dr. King. They are all still there, frozen in time, in my mind’s eye.

But time, of course, does have a way of marching on. And as it does, old dreams give way to new realities, some good and some not so good. That’s certainly been true for many of the dreams of the 1960s, many but not all.

One of the wildest dreamers during that long ago decade was Dr. King himself. In fact, when he dreamed what surely must have been his most daring dream, he was wide awake and speaking before a huge throng. There’s no need—or excuse—for haziness here. A near half century of time can’t so much as cloud, much less erase, that August day in 1963. There he was, dreaming out loud, with none other than President Lincoln himself looking over his shoulder. It was a very American scene, not to mention a very American dream.

All of this brings me back to my own dream. Its story line went something like this. Sometime in the early 21st century we Americans did something that we had never done before. We elected a person of color, as the phrase has it, to serve as our president. Did that mean that we Americans could proudly say that we were finally living in the kind of country that Dr. King had envisioned, namely a country where all citizens were judged by the content of their character, rather than by the color of their skin? That might be a bit much. But what can be said is that we had elected this particular candidate on that very basis and on none other. Those of us who are white certainly did elect him to make ourselves feel better, or at least less guilty. Nor did we elect him to be our savior.

I don’t recall the candidate’s name or party, but neither really matters. What does matter is the candidate himself. Himself? Yes, Shirley Chisholm, I hate to have to break this to you, wherever you are, but this candidate was a man. Actually, that doesn’t matter much either. But something else does matter. Character matters. For that matter, so do matters of temperament and experience.

Here’s where things began to get very vivid indeed. This was an American presidential candidate with a uniquely American pedigree. His roots were deeply American. More than that, his family tree was as tangled as it was undistinguished. Filled with slaves and sharecroppers, it extended over an unknown, perhaps even an unknowable number of generations.

Stories had always abounded in this family. Some of them might even have been true. There were dramatic tales of runaway slaves and pedestrian tales of daily labor and quiet resistance. There were also double-edged tales of alleged Uncle Toms, real and imagined.

As you might expect, this family’s stories did not end with the end of slavery. There were new stories of family searches, of loved ones united—and reunited, of families broken and restored. There were difficult stories of promises made and broken, of soil broken and cultivated, but seldom owned, of the vote granted (to men only) and then taken away. And there were stories of life under and after the days and decades of racial segregation, north and south, de facto and de jure.

Innumerable members of this man’s family persevered through it all. Some succeeded more than others; some fell behind more than others. Successes, when achieved, came in small doses. Failure, when it hit, was sometimes brief and sometimes not, sometimes personal and sometimes not.

Some family members moved about looking for work and opportunity; and some stayed put. And why not? It’s a free country, even if the freedoms available to this man’s family were not what they might have been—or should have been.

If there was a common thread to this family’s story, it’s that their search for greater opportunity led many to seek an education—and at schools that surely weren’t as good as they might have been—or should have been. Here again success stories were anything but uniform or universal. Some finished high school, and some did not. Some began college, and some did not. A few finished college, and more than a few quit. Some of the quitters did just fine any way; and some did not. And then there were those whose college career proceeded, shall we say, fitfully.

Our new president fit the last mold, although mold may not quite be the right word here. He started and stopped; he transferred more than twice; and he changed majors at least as often. None of the colleges he attended had much of a reputation. And not much of what he did at any of them deserves much of a mention. Nonetheless, he, too, persevered. And eventually, he graduated.

I know, this was a dream, but his college tale and its accompanying travails, does have the ring of truth to it. Come to think of it, didn’t a recently resigned governor of a very large western state have much the same undergraduate experience?

Speaking of governorships, that’s just the post that this winning presidential candidate happened to occupy at the time he was elected to our nation’s highest office. Just how he got there, I can’t recall. Haziness returned. I can only tell you that a number of years intervened. Somewhere along the way he acquired a wife and children, a business and a reputation. Of course, there were mis-steps and false steps. Money was made and lost and made again. And then just when prospects for the good life seemed most firm, something happened. Politics beckoned. Maybe intervened would be a better word. He must have been somewhere in his mid-to-late forties by then. I can’t be sure. First it was local politics, then the state legislature, and finally the governor’s chair. Elections were lost and won—and then won again and again.

Once again, details escape me. I can only recall that politics was not his chosen vocation. I do recall that the issues that drew him into politics had nothing to do with race. And the reason he was sought out to be a candidate had nothing to do with race. The problems facing his state were essentially economic, and he had had a good track record as a sound businessman and a concerned citizen. Anything more than that escapes me. Besides, this sort of stuff makes for pretty boring dreams.

But vagueness and boredom certainly gave way to vividness once his presidency was underway. On his inauguration day, the situation in the country was far less than good, and the country’s place in the world was little better. He had inherited double digit unemployment, a mounting federal deficit, and two wars. Tough stuff and tough times to be sure, but nothing compared to the Civil War or the Great Depression or World War II or the early years of the Cold War or even the post-Watergate, misery index, hostage crisis years that happened to coincide with the years of his young manhood. In fact, via his speeches and press conferences the new president tried to make sure that his fellow countrymen had all of this in proper perspective.

In any case, the president and his country seemed to be a pretty decent match for one another: he hadn’t advertised himself as a miracle worker, which was just fine with most of his fellow countrymen, since they knew miracles weren’t likely to be achieved anyway. Sacrifices, to be sure, would be necessary, but not miracles.

What helped establish his credibility was his own story. Many members of his family had overcome adversity. He had done the same—and all without damning the country or paying heed to anyone who did or resorting to any “P” word by way blaming the Powerful, or those who controlled the Purse strings, and certainly not by resorting to a double “P” word by way of blaming the Previous President.

Something on the order of a great-great-great-great grandson of slaves, our new president used his bully pulpit to warn against modern versions of slavery, or at least of serfdom. Of course, there were times when a powerful federal government was both necessary and beneficial, but this was not one of those times. Certainly, it had been just that during the Civil War. But more often than not there were good reasons to worry about the expansiveness of government, especially the federal government, which was another of our new president’s persistent themes.

What helped both him and the rest of us here was his reading of American history. While history was never one of his many majors, he had taken to reading a fair amount of history, especially American history, in recent years. Somewhere along the way he had come across President Truman’s great line, something to the effect that the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know. He’d used that line himself on occasion, sometimes with attribution and sometimes not.

Speaking of presidents, this president did have his favorites. Truman was among them. So was Jefferson—and not necessarily because of anything he accomplished as president. Didn’t Jefferson own slaves? That question had cropped up repeatedly when he spoke to grade school students in his home state. Didn’t Jefferson keep and even sleep with his slaves? The governor had faced that question during many a high school, and sometimes even during a junior high visit, especially if he’d been inclined, as he usually was, to make a positive reference to our third president or at least to his Declaration of Independence and what lay behind it. Yes, yes, and maybe, he conceded.

But that isn’t the whole story, he went on. As governor, he’d even made a point of inserting himself into a local school controversy. With a move afoot in the state’s largest city to remove the name Jefferson from one of its high schools from Jefferson the governor let it be known that he thought Jefferson ought to stand. No American, he averred, deserved more credit than this slave owner for establishing the American creed that enabled future generations of Americans, including ex-slaves and descendants of slaves and ex-slaves, to live free lives.

Besides, the governor couldn’t resist adding, Jefferson was often praised by another former president, a president who didn’t always share our third president’s stand against a powerful federal government, but a president who understood greatness when he saw it. That former president would be Abraham Lincoln, whose “four score and seven” reference in his 1863 Gettysburg Address ought to tell us a thing or two about his understanding of the founding of the country.

In truth, Lincoln was atop our current president’s list of presidential greats. It almost goes without saying that he was in a unique position to thank both President Lincoln for his role in ending slavery and the second President Johnson for his role in ending segregation. That stipulated, our new president was also uniquely positioned to remind his fellow countrymen that a powerful central government could be fraught with perils as well. If his ancestors had been forced unto slave ships, if they had been tethered to the slave system, driven along the road to slavery, and then kept there, who could better steer the country away from the modern road to serfdom than a descendant of slaves? At least he took it upon himself to assume this self-appointed role.

My dream must have been nearly over at this point, but his own unique role, his own exceptional story, must have triggered something in my sub-conscious, as I continued to dream on for just a little while longer. I don’t recall any pre-presidential travels abroad. There likely hadn’t been any, what with this candidate’s single focus on convincing his fellow Americans that he was the man for this job. But once in office, the president quickly let it be known that the first country he wanted to visit was Israel. And once there, he immediately assured the Israelis that he understood their plight, that their history of slavery and freedom was his family story as well.

On his way home from the Middle East, his itinerary had him stopping in various European capitals. In each city he made a point of defending America’s role in the world, then and now. Yes, he conceded, there was a time when America tried to take leave of the world, because Americans had convinced themselves that the world was an evil place. That had been true as recently as the 1930s when his parents were young. But in fairly short order Americans, including his parents, rallied to help purge Europe of evil.

When he was himself a young man, our new president reminded his European listeners, America was once again in a mood to retreat from the world. This was the post-Vietnam America of the 1970s, or a time when many Americans wanted America to withdraw from the world because they had come to believe that we had become an evil country. In truth, the president continued, there had never been such a time in our history, not during the depths of slavery, not during the conquering and the settling of the west, not during all those decades of racist segregation, not during his own youth, and not now.

We Americans had heard our president defend our country and its history on many occasions. What he had to say to his European audiences was neither new nor surprising to us. To be sure, some of his political enemies here at home were accustomed to accusing him of being an Uncle Tome, some but not many. In any event, he had grown equally accustomed either to blunting or ignoring the charge.

But the Europeans who heard him were surprised. What little they knew about our new leader had been filtered through their media—and ours. More than that, they had somehow been conditioned to believe that an American minority was by definition a member of an oppressed class, and that there was only one politically acceptable way for any such member to look at America and at America’s role in the world.

The vast majority of those who saw him and listened to him could not help but believe that he believed the words that he spoke. But that belief did not mean that they were pleased. Most were either stunned or appalled or both; most, but not all.

But the Europeans who heard him were surprised. What little they knew about our new leader had been filtered through their media—and ours. More than that, they had somehow been conditioned to believe that an American minority was by definition a member of an oppressed class, and that there was only one politically acceptable way for any such member to look at America and at America’s role in the world.

The vast majority of those who saw him and listened to him could not help but believe that he believed the words that he spoke. But that belief did not mean that they were pleased. Most were either stunned or appalled or both; most, but not all.

The most exceptional event of his European tour took place in Berlin. There he chose to remind Berliners of the sacrifices American had made during the previous century. At the end of his speech he took a few questions. Was it true that he had rejected an invitation to speak in their city while he was running for president? Yes, he conceded, such an invitation had been extended. And yes, he had been tempted to accept. But in the end he said no—not because he wanted to snub Berliners, but because he was preoccupied with making his case to America’s voters.

Next question, please. Why was his country so far behind Europe on so many fronts? Before he could so much as begin to answer, another question came at him: Why are Americans so, well, so uncivilized? And did he really believe in this silly thing called American exceptionalism?

The president responded by weaving the three queries together and noting that the first two pointed to his answer to the third. He wouldn’t presume what his questioners presumed. He also wouldn’t presume the reverse. We were neither ahead nor behind Europe. We were neither more civilized nor less civilized than they. But we were different, in fact exceptionally so. More than that, if his administration had any say in the matter, we’d stay that way. And, by the way, those differences had had something to do with America’s willingness to sacrifice for others in the past and will have something to do with a similar willingness to sacrifice in the future.

One last question was asked. Despite his election, wasn’t his country a racist place at heart? Look at any number of leading social and economic indicators. The president refused to take the bait by way of agreeing with the premise of the question. But he did have one comment. The fact that the abortion rate among people of his own race was triple that of whites was troubling. He wasn’t about to accuse the abortion industry of racism, but he was going to look into this.

What if one of his own daughters became pregnant, a questioner shot back. Did he want her punished with a child. “Punished” would not be the word he would use in such a situation, he replied. The president then went on to declare that the abortion issue was the civil rights issue of his day.

I don’t know what happened next. In fact, I’m not sure that there was a next. And if there had been, my guess is that the president would not have continued by resorting to a laundry list of any sort in attempting to answer a hostile question. Oh, there might have been a reference to Jefferson, and no doubt to Lincoln, and that likely would have been that. But who knows for sure. I don’t, since it was at this very point in my dream that I awakened. Why, I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t due to the raucous applause that greeted our president’s words. If anything, it was probably a reaction to the deafening silence.

Whatever the reason, there I was, suddenly very wide awake. The dream was over. It was time to get up and deal with the America that is, even as I recall the dream that I had and continue to dream about the America that might yet be, if the day should ever come when we can truly say that character governs all when it comes to choosing our leaders.

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