President Barack Obama bending over so a boy visiting the Oval Office could feel that the President's hair was like his. (White House photo by Pete Souza)
In telling the story of Jackie Robinson's personal challenge breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947, the movie "42" does not air-brush the ugliness of how the United States reacted to the integration of its "national pastime." But one has to wonder if there will be "44," a movie recognizing how racism has surrounded Barack Obama's breaking of an even bigger color barrier as the 44th president of the United States.
What was impressive about "42" was that the movie took you back in time -- a not-all-that-distant past, certainly a recognizable America -- when hurling racial epithets at a black man was considered acceptable behavior by many baseball fans. The behavior is jarring to today's audience but surely not unbelievable.
So, seeing fans and other players baiting Jackie Robinson with various slurs -- in "42" -- fit with what we knew about those times. But it wasn't just the audible taunts from overt racists that were troubling but the collective booing that Robinson endured when he came up to bat. It was disturbing how otherwise normal people could be pulled into such expressions of hatred toward a visiting ballplayer with dark skin. Many of us lived through the days when black-and-white TV showed white protesters heckling black children going to formerly all-white schools; when Southern states still had their "white only" toilets and water fountains; when using the "n-word" was common even among many white Northerners.
There were, of course, other storylines in "42": the courageous stand taken by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey in defying the white-only traditions of Major League Baseball and the supportive behavior of some of Robinson's teammates who stood by him in defiance of the verbal abuse.
The movie also has a satisfying ending in which Robinson emerges as a genuine American hero -- honored today as entire teams celebrate the anniversary of his entrance into the league by all wearing "42" jerseys. Robinson's racist detractors are viewed historically as disgraced figures.
Yet, what has been remarkable about the Barack Obama story is that not only have right-wingers subjected him to racially coded slights -- questioning his birthplace, calling him "Muslim" and challenging his legitimacy as president -- but even progressives and centrists feel free to insult him.
Though most of these detractors would insist that they are not disparaging Obama because he's black -- and some would claim that their ease in disparaging him is somehow proof that they are not racist -- he has undeniably been treated with extraordinary disrespect, far out of line from his performance as president, especially one who was left with the burden of two unfinished wars and a broken economy.
And the insults haven't stopped. Some Republican leaders, who winked and nodded at the "birther" slurs, are now suggesting that Obama should be impeached or at least ignored for the next three years because of a few petty "scandals" that the Republicans have ginned up -- all the better to prove to their "base" that he was never fit to be president in the first place.
"I think he's really losing the moral authority to lead this nation," declared Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, on Sunday.
And it's not just the Right. Some on the Left are ruder toward Obama -- presumably because he has failed to meet some especially high standard -- than they were even to catastrophic presidents like George W. Bush.
Though many of these progressives won't admit it, they were somewhat intimidated by the nastiness of the right-wing machine that demanded respect for Bush's "legitimacy" even though he lost Election 2000 and had to be installed by his father's friends on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Newspapers, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, fell over themselves in pretending that Bush really did prevail in Florida although their own unofficial recount determined that Al Gore would have won if all ballots considered legal under Florida law were counted. [For details on the recount, see Neck Deep.]
Even as President Bush stumbled over his words and gave speeches that bordered on incoherence, he still got more respect than Obama, whose oratorical skills are as impressive as the baseball talents that Jackie Robinson displayed on the field.
Still, some columnists, such as the New York Times Maureen Dowd, have found endless numbers of contradictory reasons to fault Obama's performance. In one column, Obama will be blamed for not schmoozing enough with Republicans (he's "President Standoffish"); in another, he's not enough of a bully; in yet another, he's not connecting with the important people of Washington, presumably including Dowd.
In her April 20 column entitled "No Bully in the Pulpit," Dowd concluded, after the failure of gun control legislation in the U.S. Senate, that "Unfortunately, he still has not learned how to govern. ... [H]e doesn't know how to work the system. And it's clear now that he doesn't want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him."