NYTM: Barack Obama makes racial politics go away

From left: Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia; Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina; Representative John Lewis of Georgia; and Representative Artur Davis of Alabama. (Nigel Parry for The New York Times)

Interesting, if already well-circled, story in the recent-most New York Times Magazine, entitled “Is Obama the End of Black Politics?”. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter got some face time in its main graphic, as seen above, and in a large portion of the story, briefly excerpted below. A beginning excerpt that stuck with me:

Obama was barely 2 years old when King gave his famous speech, 3 when Lewis was beaten about the head in Selma. He didn’t grow up in the segregated South as Bill Clinton had. Sharing those experiences wasn’t a prerequisite for gaining the acceptance of black leaders, necessarily, but that didn’t mean Obama, with his nice talk of transcending race and baby-boomer partisanship, could fully appreciate the sacrifices they made, either. “Every kid is always talking about what his parents have been through,” Rangel says, “and no kid has any clue what he’s talking about.”

For black Americans born in the 20th century, the chasms of experience that separate one generation from the next— those who came of age before the movement, those who lived it, those who came along after — have always been hard to traverse. Elijah Cummings, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and an early Obama supporter, told me a story about watching his father, a South Carolina sharecropper with a fourth-grade education, weep uncontrollably when Cummings was sworn in as a representative in 1996. Afterward, Cummings asked his dad if he had been crying tears of joy. “Oh, you know, I’m happy,” his father replied. “But now I realize, had I been given the opportunity, what I could have been. And I’m about to die.” [Source]

Here is the beginning of reporter Matt Bai‘s lengthy passage on Nutter, later in his piece. Nutter comes off well as always, particularly later in the passage where the most common words in Nutter-stories predictably come up “deadpan” and “dry sense of humor.”

On the first Tuesday in July, I traveled to Philadelphia, the site of Obama’s landmark speech on race, to see the city’s mayor, Michael Nutter. Known as a reformer during a 14-year stint on the City Council, Nutter played a central and intriguing role in this year’s presidential contest, emerging as the black face of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Pennsylvania at a time when she desperately needed — and got — a solid victory in the state. Nutter certainly wasn’t the only visible black politician to campaign for Clinton deep into the primary season, but he was, in some ways, the least likely. Nutter is only four years older than Obama, Ivy League-educated, bookish and doggedly unemotional. He is, in short, the very prototype of the new generation of black political stars. But unlike Cory Booker or Artur Davis or Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, Nutter sided with Clinton, and he enthusiastically campaigned for her.

I was curious to know whether Nutter, who was elected to a four-year term just last fall, was bracing for the consequences of that decision. About 9 of every 10 black voters in Philadelphia pulled the lever for Obama, according to exit polls, and I heard at least one black Obama backer in Washington vow to make Nutter pay for his apostasy. On the day that I visited him at City Hall, his aides had been reviewing the video of a sermon from last fall in which a prominent black minister in the city suggested that Nutter might have a “white agenda.”

Nutter said he sat down with both Clinton and Obama after his election as mayor and quizzed them about urban issues like housing, education and transportation. Race, he said, hadn’t entered into this thinking. He understood, he said, why the prospect of a black president after hundreds of years of discrimination was “powerful stuff” for a lot of his constituents, but he had a greater responsibility, and that was to run the nation’s sixth-largest city. “In the context of what I do for a living, I’ve not figured out a black or white way to fill a pothole,” he said, in a way that made me think he had said this many times before. Nutter was a delegate for Bill Clinton way back in 1992, and he said that the former first lady had shown a “depth of understanding” of what cities like Philadelphia were facing. It probably didn’t hurt that Obama endorsed one of Nutter’s opponents in last year’s mayoral primary, either…

Keep reading on about Nutter here. It’s worth it, Nutter gets a laugh or two. Or read the piece from the beginning here.

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