Visible Men

Near the beginning of MTV’s Be Heard: A Global Discussion With Colin Powell, a beaming Norwegian girl asked the secretary of state how he felt about representing a country perceived as the Satan of world politics. Powell leaned back slightly in his dark suit (his military bearing a bit softer than usual) and replied that he rejected her premise. He explained how the U.S. has fought for freedom all over the globe, how after World War II, it didn‘t claim Japan or Germany but helped those countries build themselves back up. “The only land we ever asked for,” he purred, “was enough land to bury our dead.”

Boy, is that man good. And as he cruised through tougher-than-usual questions about AIDS and Israel, al Qaeda and condoms (he freaked out America’s nitwit right by endorsing their use), I could only admire his fabled steadiness. Before September 11th, Powell‘s cautious multilateralism had made him something of a wallflower in a Bush administration notorious for a foreign policy about as delicate as a Pamplona bull run. Time put him on the cover with the headline, “Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?” Even after we began bombing Afghanistan, most public attention went not to the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but to rootin’-tootin‘ Donald Rumsfeld.

But Powell has a knack for outlasting flashier or more bellicose colleagues. He did so after the Gulf War, when people suddenly grasped that Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf was actually a glory-hogging gasbag. And he‘s doing so now. As Rummy’s cowboy outfit begins to fray -- revealing Dr. Strangelove, not John Wayne -- Powell‘s charismatic calm once again has come to the forefront. He still doesn’t fit comfortably into the administration‘s right-wing agenda, nor does he get to make the big foreign-policy decisions (though he surely deserves some credit for America’s measured response to the terror attacks). But faced with a world increasingly skeptical about the War on Terror, he‘s become the Bush team’s best and most plausible mouthpiece -- not least because he‘s black.

Watching Powell offer the world’s teenagers an embodiment of the Bush administration far more sensible and humane than the real one, I remembered covering the ‘88 and ’92 Democratic conventions when Jesse Jackson was trotted out to articulate the dreams and aspirations of a party that was about to betray them. As Jesse spoke, the crowd would whoop and weep and applaud -- he had the Omni swooning -- and then once the euphoria had died down, the convention would go about its business of nominating bloodless Michael Dukakis or Bill Clinton. For Jackson‘s power lived and died with his words. The party wanted his passion and biblical cadenzas, not him. (Curiously, Jackson’s Paleo-Con counterpart is also black: Alan Keyes‘ manic vim, loony smile and eyelash-batting flirtatiousness make him the most entertaining presidential hopeful in decades. If the Christian right had forgotten about color and voted its heart, he might well have been the Republican nominee. As it is, Keyes now merely leaps into the mosh pit of his talk show on MSNBC.)

Although black eloquence clearly appeals to white America, it carries far less clout than its visibility might lead you to think. Aside from Martin Luther King, who turned the streets into his power base, the African-Americans who’ve gained national power are those skillful at working behind the scenes: Condoleezza Rice, the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown or silky presidential confidant (and corporate-board denizen) Vernon Jordan, whose career puts a sly spin on the term “invisible man.” Like them, Powell is a superb bureaucratic operator -- he thrived in both military and civilian organizations -- and has mastered addressing the public in a cool TV style. Not for him the rolling biblical sentences of Dr. King or Barbara Jordan; not for him the grinning snake-oil patter of Al Sharpton or J.C. Watts. No, with his quiet stolidness and enormous head, Powell has a gift for being reassuring. This, as much as his obvious intelligence, has taken him to the highest public office ever reached by an African-American. He‘s trusted by the country -- you don’t think he‘ll blow up the world to prevent the “axis of evil” from doing it -- and by a Republican administration to whom he’s proven as loyal a company man as Tiger Woods.

A classic bootstrapper, Powell exudes competence, decency, discretion. And he provides racial cover for an administration not exactly hailed for caring about people of color, inside or outside our borders. Can you picture Dick Cheney trying to convince MTV viewers in Cairo or the Bronx that the U.S. government has their interest at heart?

Conservatives often accuse African-Americans of playing the race card, but there are plenty of cards in that deck, and they‘re available to white people, too. One favorite trick is to use prominent black figures as a way of suggesting that the system is working. Such thinking was present in the post--Rodney King hiring of Willie Williams and Bernard Parks. It was there during my years teaching at Georgetown University, when looming basketball coach John Thompson and his five black starters provided camouflage for an expensive, nearly all-white Catholic university in a District of Columbia that was 70 percent African-American.

The same dynamic emerged in the recent skirmish at Harvard, when new president Lawrence Summers reportedly chastised professor Cornel West for ignoring his scholarly duties and making a jazzy, hip-hoppy music CD called Sketches of My Culture. Taken as a sign of disrespect for the whole African-American Studies Department, Summers’ rebuke prompted talk of a migration to Princeton by the program‘s so-called “Dream Team,” which includes West, the fine poverty scholar William Julius Wilson and Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is at once black culture’s Ken Burns and its George Steinbrenner. Such an exodus would naturally cause a humiliating loss of face for Harvard, which needs a high-profile African-American Studies program to salve its own liberal conscience and persuade the outside world that the university‘s not the training ground for white elites it so obviously is.

Almost instantly, the controversy became a mudslinging jamboree. The Economist mocked for dubbing West “one of the most preeminent minds of our time” while misspelling the name of Nietzsche. The New Republic Web site dredged up an old Leon Wieseltier piece that called West’s writing “almost completely worthless.” The Wall Street Journal ran an article sneering at West‘s scholarship and accusing the Dream Team of using white guilt to achieve black power. By the time Al Sharpton started talking about lawsuits, a writer in Slate had termed the whole thing “a feast of victimization.”

It was equally a smorgasbord of high-octane careerism. In fact, the West kerfuffle said as much about changing academic mores as it did about race. We’re long past the days (if they ever existed) when modest, donnish souls spent their whole lives Mr. Chipsing their way around the university quad. Today‘s high-profile professors are marquee names, who jump around like baseball free agents, sometimes package themselves together like Hollywood “talent” and get away with all this because their names serve as drawing cards for any university that has them. Offend them at your peril. West is one of Harvard’s undeniable stars, which makes it odd that Summers so thoroughly missed the point of what he does. I don‘t know anyone who thinks West is a great thinker, but he’s a mesmerizing speaker, whose rhetoric blends Jesus and Marx with the riffing, improvisational exuberance of a Muddy Waters or John Coltrane. Hearing him in full flight, you‘re reminded of Albert Murray’s line about the blues: What counts isn‘t verbal precision but musical precision. It doesn’t really matter that his books are mediocre because, like so many legendary teachers, he‘s there to inspire his listeners to action, to fill them with intellectual excitement. And this he does. He opens up the world for them, one of the classic functions of a university professor.

The problem with Sketches of My Culture is not that it’s insufficiently academic. The problem is, it sounds bad. If anyone should be maligning this excruciating CD (which West‘s Web site modestly labels “a watershed in musical history”), it’s not the president of Harvard, but Ornette Coleman and Chuck D.

I once interviewed former Reagan-Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan and found her as nice as can be, but put her at a keyboard and, man, she turns as nasty as Goofy behind his steering wheel. After seeing Black Hawk Down, she wrote a column rhapsodizing about the scene in which a sergeant who‘s been ordered to drive a jeep tells his colonel, “But I’m shot.” The colonel snaps, “Everybody‘s shot. Get in and drive.”

Declaring “everybody’s shot” to be “great metaphoric words,” Noonan takes aim at her ideological enemies:

“Just after the movie, I picked up Ellis Cose‘s latest book, The Envy of the World, about the ’daunting challenges‘ that face black men in 21st-century America. I read and thought, Earth to Ellis: Everyone faces daunting challenges in 21st-century America. Because everybody’s been shot.”

Earth to Peggy: For millions of Americans, many of them black men, the idea of being shot isn‘t simply a metaphor.


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