On February 3, 1959, a Beachcraft Bonanza carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper crashed in a field in the outskirts of Clear Lake, Iowa, killing three of the most promising young American musicians this country has ever known. When the news broke, the press called it “The Day the Music Died.”
That date has always carried special resonance for me: My father was born in 1959, two months after the crash, and he passed away in 2001, on February 3rd. But most of us remember The Day the Music Died because of Don McLean’s 1971 classic song, “American Pie,” which serves as both a rollicking chronicle of the 1960s and an elegy for the loss of American hopefulness, following the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the escalating war in Vietnam.
For McLean, The Day the Music Died became a metaphor for something exceptional and profound we had possessed as a nation, however briefly, that was extinguished by the tragic losses of our young and most inspirational leaders, the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the politics of aspiration and equality and free love being replaced with the politics of cynicism, consumerism, conservativism, and perpetual war.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” the great American humorist Mark Twain once allegedly said.
Immediately after Barack Obama emerged onto the national scene in 2004 and delivered a rousing keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, MSNBC political commentator Chris Matthews said, “I’ve seen the first black President there.” At the time, Obama was just a state senator from Illinois, campaigning for a term in the United States Senate, but it was clear to Matthews, as it was to so many others watching, that there was something exceptional about this young man whose mother was from Kansas and father was from Kenya and something profound about his message of hope and reconciliation.
Obama spent less than four years in the Senate before announcing his candidacy for President, and once on the campaign trial, he spoke about hope and change constantly. At the time, America was in the midst of the two longest and most expensive wars in our nation’s history; the economy was collapsing; millions of people lost both their homes and their jobs, and by September of 2008, it became evident that, unless we took immediate action, we were headed toward the next Great Depression.
Perhaps it would have been easy for candidate Obama to exploit people’s anger and anxieties, but though he never missed the opportunity to remind Americans who caused these catastrophes, his message always remained hopeful and rooted firmly in the aspirational language of America’s founders and in the famous stories of those who expanded the cause of freedom against remarkable odds, which he distilled in a pithy, motivational slogan, “Yes we can.”
He didn’t merely talk about hope and change. As a biracial man who had grown up in Hawaii and become the first-ever black editor of the Harvard Law Review, he also personified it. His election would represent a transformative and cathartic moment in the history of a country that once gone to war with itself over the barbaric institution of slavery and that continues to struggle with its vestiges even today.
In 2008, Barack Obama received more votes than any Presidential candidate in American history: 69,498,516. That’s nearly 7 million more than Donald Trump received in 2016, 7 million more than George W. Bush received in 2004, and nearly 20 million more than Bush received in 2000. (Incidentally, Hillary Clinton received more votes than any other Presidential candidate in American history not named Barack Obama).
Almost immediately, political pundits heralded a post-racial America. They, of course, were wrong.
Instead of marginalizing racism, Obama’s election, despite the mandate that accompanied it, seemed to amplify it, or, at the very least, provide permission for it as an expression of legitimate political criticism. While most Americans recognized the historical and cultural significance of the election of the country’s first black President, some, particularly white Southerners, saw it as an ominous threat to the political power they had long taken for granted as a birthright and not a privilege earned through hard work and service.
They could not dispute the legitimacy of his election, so, instead, they began to question the legitimacy of his basic identity as an American citizen and a Christian. The so-called “birther movement” believed, without any evidence whatsoever, that Barack Obama lied about his birth place and that his birth certificate was fraudulent, and they spent years drumming up this ludicrous theory in the mainstream media, at one point convincing large pluralities of Republican voters of its truth. Of course, even if his birth certificate were fraudulent (which it wasn’t), Obama was still qualified to run for the presidency because his mother was a natural-born citizen, a fact they never disputed or bothered to address.
The birther movement against Barack Obama wasn’t just racist; it was the ugliest smear leveled against any American leader in modern history. He wasn’t being accused of being a secret agent of any particular foreign government, an accusation that goes all the way back to Alexander Hamilton, because his accusers couldn’t even agree where they thought he must’ve really been born. Instead, he was simply a man without a country, an illegitimate bastard of the world.
And no one fomented this hateful, racist conspiracy more than a New York billionaire with a reality television show, a Twitter account, an insatiable and craven desire for media attention, and a keen understanding of how to exploit the press to promote himself by relentlessly saying provocative, sometimes absurd, and frequently contradictory things about the news of the day.
Donald J. Trump latched onto birtherism, because he recognized, early on, that he would be lending credibility to the theories espoused by a large percentage of white working class Southerners and Midwesterners, people who had otherwise thought of him as a caricature of the very type of New York elitism, unearned wealth, and vainglory they had always loathed. In championing this theory, he legitimized it, and in so doing, he burnished his reputation as someone “willing to tell it like it is.” While the mainstream media treated Trump’s obsession with birtherism as a bizarre joke, he knew the public was listening to him, and that they were treating him seriously in return.
During Obama’s two-terms as president, there were many tragedies, both here and abroad, and there were many missteps and controversies and more than a few unfilled promises. For those on the far left, it’s easy to exclusively characterize his administration by its failures in foreign policy: the botched intervention in Libya, the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, the continued operations at Guantanamo Bay, the lingering presence of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the proliferation of ISIS, the unprecedented reliance on un-maned drones, and the rising influence of Russia and North Korea. In domestic policy, the income inequality gap continues to rise at an almost astronomical rate, wages have remained relatively stagnant, Wall Street bankers were never prosecuted, whistleblowers were treated like traitors, our immigration policy is incoherent, gun crimes are out of control, particularly in major cities like Chicago and New Orleans, and police brutality against unarmed African-Americans has resulted in institutional distrust and fear among those who the police are supposed to protect and serve.
The last eight years have not been perfect, but the White House itself has been scandal-free, which, in American presidential politics, is rather exceptional. In less than a week, Barack Obama will leave as the most popular outgoing two-term President in modern American history, and there are good reasons for that. He expanded health care coverage for nearly 30 million people who otherwise did not or could not have it, and that’s saved thousands of lives and provided millions of families with stability and peace of mind. He’s prohibited insurance companies from discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions, the most significant achievement for disabled Americans since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
He’s opened up an embassy in Cuba and became the first sitting President in nearly a century to visit the island, which rests only 90 miles from Floridian soil. He’s signed a deal eliminating Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and he signed the Paris Agreement, the most robust climate change agreement in history.
He’s dedicated more new national parks, national forests, and wildlife reserves than any of his predecessors.
He’s created nearly 11 million new jobs; he rescued the domestic automobile industry from almost certain bankruptcy. For the first time ever, an American President oversaw 75 consecutive months of job growth. The unemployment rate is under 5%; high school graduation rates are at their all-time high, and so is the stock market, which has more than doubled since he took office.
He repealed the law banning gay and lesbian service people from serving open in the military, and under his watch and due to his legal team, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Today, as a result of state referenda and federal policy, more than 65 million Americans can access recreational marijuana. His wife built a fresh vegetable garden in the White House, and he opened up a White House brewery and a basketball court.
All the while, he raised two beautiful daughters and managed to have family dinner with them almost every night of the week.
During their eight years, they treated the White House as their home and as the people’s home: Hosting more than a dozen live music performances from people like Stevie Wonder and B.B. King and even the entire cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton.
It is likely that Americans will never see such an extraordinary family occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a long, long time. They never seemed to have taken the position for granted or forgotten what a solemn and heavy responsibility they had and, perhaps most importantly, what they all mean- their entire family- to people and to minorities all across the country.
The President and his wife served with grace and humility and often with joy, but they always took their jobs seriously. Last week, when the President-elect was responding to Meryl Streep on Twitter, Barack Obama was publishing a 50-page commentary on criminal justice reform in his old paper, The Harvard Law Review.
Next week, the 45th President of the United States will sign the lease, but it will never be the same as it was during the last twenty-four years, when the White House was occupied by a family. The incoming First Lady wants to stay behind at Trump Tower with their young son Barron, and it appears that Trump’s adult daughter Ivanka will be taking over many of the duties of the East Wing.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe that President-elect Trump ever actually wanted the job more than he wanted the publicity. His is already shaping up to be an accidental presidency, a public relations campaign that became too successful for its own good. It’s almost as if he didn’t intend on winning, and now that he has- thanks largely to well-timed assists from the Russian government and FBI Director James Comey- he doesn’t intend on really governing either.
Our founding fathers debated the differences between installing an executive who represented a type of hereditary monarch, like the King with whom they were most familiar, versus an executive led by someone who earned the position through his own merit.
In the last 240 years, America has gone back and forth between meritocracy and plutocracy. So, to some extent, President Trump is nothing unusual in America: A plutocrat who ascends to the highest position in the land by cynically appealing to populist sentiments and who, once ensconsed in power, betrays the message that catapulted him to office and instead surrounds himself almost exclusively with like-minded plutocrats. In Trump’s case, it’s already abundantly obvious.
But there is a difference between Trump and plutocratic presidents of America’s past: Indeed, he may be the only President in American history who was elected without ever actually reading the United States Constitution.
Barack Obama called Trump’s style “improvisational,” which, to me is a kind way of saying “dangerously, proudly ignorant.” Buckle up, America.
In Don McLean’s song “dirges” refers to protest songs during the Civil Rights Movement. On January 21st, the day after his inauguration, we may need to brush up on some lyrics because it’ll be the perfect opportunity to sing dirges in the dark, the day the music died.