Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Just the second sitting president whom I ever got to see in person, and the only one with whom I ever shared a meal, died this week. My first, early in the summer of 1964, had been LBJ, dedicating the federal building in San Francisco. I was taking some classes nearby & walked over on my lunch hour. Johnson was a tall man, something I had not fully appreciated from seeing him on television, and towered over his Secret Service agents. There were only a few hundred people there, and the only picket signs – there were maybe three – read Au H²O.

My one prior glimpse of reigning state authority had been to see – quite by accident – the motorcade of Nikita Khrushchev as it traveled through Santa Cruz on its way to Carmel or Pebble Beach. We were on the beach & might not even have noticed it had my grandfather not yelled for us to look. I was maybe 12 at the time, thoroughly a repository still for the anti-Communist propoganda that filled our school textbooks, and can recall feeling apprehensive that this man sworn to “our destruction” was somehow in one of those limos gliding past, plain as day.

But it was in September 1986 that I found myself at a Foreign Affairs Council luncheon in San Francisco for Corazon Aquino, then very newly installed as the president of the Philippines. Born into one of the wealthiest families in her nation & a lawyer by training, Aquino had run for the office after the assassination of her husband, Benigno, who had led the movement to oust the dictatorial incumbent, Ferdinand Marcos. She actually lost the election, albeit rather in the same manner as Mousavi recently lost in Iran. But the people – and civil institutions, such as the Catholic Church – had had quite enough of the blatantly corrupt Marcos family & forced him into exile, installing Aquino in his place.

In 1986, the idea of a female head of state was still quite a novelty. In the U.S. to assure President Reagan and Congress that theirs was not a revolution in the sense of Cuba, Aquino was the guest of then-mayor Dianne Feinstein, another female who rose to executive power as the result of an assassination.¹ Aquino’s husband had been an exceptionally popular figure in the Bay Area Filipino community, and his assassination on the tarmac of the Manila airport, returning from exile to challenge Marcos, was treated by San Francisco media as though it were a major local story.

In many respects, Corazon Aquino in 1986 faced the same challenges Barack Obama does today. Each was the repository for the hopes of many people who felt marginalized by a predecessor who was openly contemptuous of law & morality. Each represented a demographic that previously had not exercised power. And each soon discovered exactly how little of their nation, indeed how little of their government, the president controlled. In Aquino’s case, her six-year tenure was repeatedly punctuated by attempts at coups from various factions of the military – and indeed there was a non-electoral change in the presidency there as recently as 2001.

But in 1986, Corazon Aquino embodied the aspirations of the Philippine people, of women, of people anywhere trapped by repressive regimes and reactionary social institutions. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize and named Time magazine’s woman-of-the-year. Her speech to the foreign affairs council was articulate, but general, and she got absolutely nothing but softball questions from an audience that just wanted to bask in the promise her administration offered.

If there is a lesson here, it’s that even the most thoughtful, well-positioned politician cannot succeed just on good intentions. There needs to be a massive social movement not only to ensure that success, but to demand it. And if I’ve seen anything in the first seven months of the Obama administration, it’s that there is no such movement in the U.S. Wall Street has been writing the rules for its own recovery, Afghanistan increasingly is looking like the latest embodiment of the word quagmire, and if the future of healthcare reform depends on the wisdom and good intentions of Max Baucus’ gang of six, we are all in serious trouble. Don’t even get me started on the civil rights of the gay community or the persistence of Bush-era legal tactics in the name of counter-terrorism.

But don’t get me wrong either: I would vote for Obama again in a second. Consider the alternatives. Yet everywhere I look, I see drift, entropy & compromise. And compromise from a position of weakness, because there is no larger movement demanding the changes we all talked about last fall. It’s not enough, say, for just the gay community to demand the same civil liberties enjoyed by everyone else. Or for the pacifist community to ask what we think we can accomplish in a land that never in its history has truly been a nation. Nor is it enough to have an administration filled with the brightest people & best intentions. Everywhere you look, you see the gravitational pull of corporate capital. It’s like having a planet the size of Jupiter at about the distance of the moon.

Unless and until the forces outside the beltway are more organized, more powerful, and more articulate than the enormous capital resources that are at work inside it, the Obama administration of 2009 is going to look one helluva lot like the Aquino one of 1986. And that is not a portrait with a promising future.


¹ Feinstein had been the president of the Board of Supervisors – what passes for a city council in San Francisco – when Dan White, another supervisor, shot & killed Mayor George Moscone & supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. She finished Moscone’s term and was then elected twice in her own right. In 1986, she was midway through her second full term.


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