Obama? Been there

I’ve been a Democrat since I was 16 years old and couldn’t vote because I was underage and not yet a U.S. citizen. I was a Democrat when most other Iranians
considered that a dirty word — because “Carter was a Democrat who lost Iran to the mullahs and Afghanistan to the Soviets. He might have had good intentions, but he was a disaster at foreign policy. What do you expect, really, from a peanut farmer whose great ambition in life, after being the leader of the free world, is to build cheap houses and write bad books?”

I was a Democrat when many Iranians claimed this was a betrayal of the motherland: “Democrats want to negotiate with the mullahs; Republicans want to overthrow them.” When many of my fellow Iranian Jews were calling G. W. Bush “Mashiach”: “He’s been sent from above to save Israel and the Jews everywhere; if you’re pro-Gore or Kerry, you’re anti-Israel.” When being a Democrat made you automatically suspect: “You must be getting paid off by someone high up in Kerry’s camp.” When admitting you were a Democrat was foolhardy at best: “Don’t you know people will ostracize you? They won’t invite you to their parties and won’t want to do business with you or let their son or daughter marry your son or daughter.”

And here I was, all that time, telling people I thought Reagan was a bad actor whose presidency augured the decline of so much that has been good about this country, and that Bush I should have been impeached for the mere sin of having spawned Bush II, and that McCain may have been a good guy, but he sold his soul when he made that speech admiring Bush II at the Republican Convention in 2004.

And, yes, I would really like to see a Democrat in the Oval Office next January, I will certainly vote for one, and so will my kids — parties and business and marriage issues notwithstanding. I’d much rather it were Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama, because I like Hillary. I think she’ll make a great president; she’s smart and tough and capable, and she has her heart and her politics in the right place, and, besides, I figure it’s high time this country caught up with Pakistan and India, Indonesia and Liberia, not to mention the UK and Germany and Israel, in giving a woman the chance at the highest office, but I’ll vote Democrat even if Hillary’s not the nominee.

I don’t like Obama much; he may be tall and good-looking, but I’m always weary of people who promise me the moon, and yet I figure any Democrat will do better than a Republican. So what if Obama’s wife is obnoxious and his speeches are laced with platitudes that offer no real answers. So what if his senior foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power, chokes when BBC asks her if Obama’s going to redefine the relationship between this country and Israel, and she gets so uncomfortable that the interviewer remarks that she’s twisted herself into a pretzel and can barely mutter some line about Israel’s right to exist. So what if he claims he’s a unifier but chooses to campaign in South Carolina with notorious gay-basher, gospel singer Donnie McClurkin.

There’s one “so what if” I haven’t managed to move beyond.

I’ve read some of those quotes Obama’s pastor posted on the church’s Web site, about Jews and Israel and the Holocaust. I’ve heard some of the comments that the Rev. Wright has made in some of those sermons that Obama claims to have magically skipped. I’ve listened to and read his “major speech on race” more than once. Still, I can’t understand how a person can claim he’s a unifier, and how his party can stand behind him and reinforce that claim.

I can’t understand how they can call him “the leader of a lifetime,” when for 20 years he has sat in the church and given money to the pastor and been either too dim to understand what is being said, or too cynical to risk alienating his base by contradicting the reverend, or too undisturbed by what was being said to bother with it either way.

And if it sounds like I’m giving myself permission here to cast the first stone, that’s because I am — because I’ve been there, a member of a minority group that has been wronged by history, a Jew in a Shiite country, an Iranian in Europe, a Democrat in Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community. I’ve been there and know the pressure to conform to the tribe, the desire to close ranks with one’s people against a hostile world, to keep one’s mouth shut and thereby avoid becoming an outcast, being called a traitor, becoming unpopular. I’m not a particularly brave person, but I’ve found myself, on more than one occasion, walking out of a synagogue where the rabbi was preaching intolerance, refusing to join groups that, under the banner of “traditionalism,” promote oppression of one kind or another. Here’s what I’ve learned about swimming against the tide, about the difference between sitting in the pews for 20 years or leaving halfway through the first service: There is such a thing as guilt by omission.

As for the much-hyped speech on race, which some in the media compared favorably to Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, what I heard were some pretty words and grand statements, followed by more self-serving politicking: Vote for me, and I will not only solve the problems of economy and war and terrorism, but also, once and for all, the issue of race in this country.

I don’t think Obama is a bigot or malicious. I think he’s someone who’s risen too high too fast, on the merit of some exceptional oratorical skills and some natural charm and charisma, at a time when this nation is hard-pressed to find a person in whom it can put its faith. I think he hasn’t even had a chance to examine his own loyalties and politics enough to know where he has stood up to now and how he can reconcile his “base” — the Louis Farrakhans and the Rev. Wrights of the world — with his new, much wider constituency. So instead of explaining why he belongs to a church that gave Farrakhan a lifetime achievement award, he talks about his white grandmother and black adopted uncle and manages to get away with it because the media and the general population in this country are just too smitten with the idea of a savior to demand real answers.

As German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo says, “Pity the nation that needs heroes.”

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.