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Jonathan Power 2008
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Barack Obama's
remarkable personality



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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January 12, 2008

LONDON - Why in the end do we perennial American critics (I purposely don’t say anti-Americans) so respect America? At times it has been hard to - when its electorate re-elected George W. Bush or, going back, when it allowed the defeat of George McGovern with his “Come Home America”.

It is because America has a soul. Its religious beliefs may get wonky, whether it be the Mormon cult of Mick Romney or the anti Darwinism of the Huckabee southerners. But Americans are more sincere than most of us. They do want to do what is right. Indeed they read avidly more “how to” books than the rest of us put together. It is just a pity that so few of them don’t read more deeply, either history or literature and that their leaders can be as often as shallow as the masses they lead. (But, of course, you can also say America never has had and never will produce a Napoleon, a Stalin or Hitler. So what anyway is the use of all that Voltaire, Ballets Russes or Bach?)

The point I make stands: America does have moral limits. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisor, is fond of saying, “whilst America has power it also has principles”. It also continuously gets rid of its incumbent presidents at the ballot box.

Now we may be about to witness later this year a great historical event without precedent - the possibility of a mainly white nation voting a man of colour in as president, to preside over the world’s most powerful economy, largest military machine, with a box on his desk that would allow him to blow up the whole world within half an hour. (Of course because this is a nation with moral limits we know that the generals would ever obey such a command, and probably not even one to fire just one nuclear tipped missile - ask General George Lee Butler, who for a number of years was commander of the U.S. strategic arsenal.)

Can we who marched at Selma digest what is happening? Then Martin Luther King with his tremendous oratorical power had to take white America by the nose and hold it face down in the Bible. Today states like Iowa and New Hampshire with 90+% white populations believe, without being pushed and with a good range of other choices, that a 46-year-old black man can lead America away from the brink of world public damnation and back to be being a respected society.

I know many readers will say, “Yes, but. This is a mere cosmetic change.” Beneath the surface the military-industrial complex along with Wall Street and its legions of self-interested moneymen will still rule. The voters barely have an influence on better schools much less on the grander, more difficult issues.

But show me one human society where it is different, and don’t tell me Sweden, from where I write this column! Sweden is a very capitalist society and the military-industrial complex has a lot of muscle here too - hence the obfuscation over the murder of its former prime minister, Olof Palme, in mysterious circumstances. It is true that Sweden is a paragon of virtue compared with the U.S. when it comes to dealing with poverty, income inequality, national health care, penal reform and the status of women. But all these battles were hard fought. It is not long ago that millions of starving Swedes were emigrating to America and Swedish armies - the best and most vicious in Europe - were intent on subduing Russia. It was hard politics and hard drudge, built on military defeat that created the Sweden of today.

America can change under the democratic will and nothing shows it more clearly than the progress of black America. No one predicted in 1965 at the time of the Voting Rights Act that by the end of the century there would be a black general commanding all U.S. forces or that the new century would see black bosses running some of the world’s biggest companies.

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Like Mr Obama I know the awful content of American slums. Like him I chose to live and work for a while in Chicago’s West Side. A few years ago the BBC sent me back to see if things had changed for the better since Martin Luther King’s aborted “End the Slums” campaign. I found it had in many ways, but it still had a long, long way to go before life could be called pleasant and reasonable. But a national health care plan, serious educational reform and a massive job re-training program could change a lot. Whoever becomes the Democratic Party’s candidate - and right now after the primary in New Hampshire it will be either Obama or Mrs Hillary Clinton - will pledge to do such things.

Change in America can be painful slow, but sometimes it can be speeded up. But to lead it well one has to have the personality that brings out the best in Americans. Barack Obama appears to have more of it than Mrs Clinton.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
and e-mail:

Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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