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Lawrence Goodwyn: The Great Predicament Facing Obama

An interview with legendary historian Lawrence Goodwyn on Obama, the larger currents in our political life, and the possibility of a rebirth in our democratic culture.

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Walter Hall was genial but disappointed. "I was afraid you'd say something like that," he said to me. "Larry, you're just like Ronnie [Dugger, the Observer's young founder and editor]. You are writing about minor crimes. So does Ronnie." (Disclosure: Ronnie and I both wrote about the Southern caste system and the excesses of "Big Oil." We did not think either subject was "minor.")

For his part, Walter Hall agreed, rather absentmindedly, that Jim Crow was admittedly foolish, if not insane, and he supposed it would go away eventually and not soon enough, either. That is, it would not happen until people with power decided the time had come to make it happen, which he did not think would occur anytime soon.. (Self-evidently, this was a conventional 1950s conversation among white Americans, before the Southern freedom movement unleashed itself upon the country and rearranged some, but not all, of the furniture in the room.)

The point of my story is that I don't think young people easily find ways to engage in serious conversations with old men like me in my time or Walter Hall in his. So I'm not sure my views on our president have an audience panting to listen. But I will nevertheless opine a little.

For me, Barack Obama remains a president for the ages. Larger than FDR. Larger, by far, than Teddy Roosevelt. And larger than Jefferson. He has infinite patience, far beyond his years, patience almost beyond imagining -- as he powerfully demonstrated during the 2008 campaign with his resistance to enormous collegial pressure to throw Jeremiah Wright under the nearest bus he could find. This surly attitude toward the good minister by Obama partisans was a product of Wright's righteous and provocative pronouncements on race.

But it was not until the good reverend's repetitious and, I must say, demagogic pontifications forced Obama to take full ownership of the relationship that the candidate took the bull by the horns. We saw then that when Obama moved, he was capable of moving with great skill: his speech on race in America at Freedom Hall, Philadelphia instantly took its place alongside the Gettysburg Address. It probably will take some time before this appraisal becomes the settled wisdom of American culture but that such a day will materialize I have absolutely no doubt.

Having suggested such sweeping potential, I can add that Obama is not yet larger than Lincoln, but capable of growth on a scale attained, among our presidents, only by Lincoln.

Frel: I want to press you on the latter subject, but first can you also expand on the Jefferson comparison? You think Obama will be seen as larger than Jefferson?

Goodwyn: Yes. If, as a nation, we continue to mature culturally (as I believe we will because that is the American trajectory over time), it will not be seen as a close question between Jefferson and Obama.

However, let us first give Jefferson his due. As a democratic theorist he was crucially valuable to the young republic not only because he gave voice to popular aspirations as against the elitist Federalists, but also because he advanced some theoretical concepts about popular democratic conduct that were so encompassing and lofty that we have never found a way to live up to them.

I refer now to Jefferson's understanding that democratic relations need a political home that was literally close to home. He advocated for what he called "ward republics" to be organized across the land. He suggested that each republic be kept small, not more than 100 people, so that in the aggregate thousands of them could form the structural base of the political nation. In fact, his most elegant term of description was not "ward republic" but rather "elementary republic." Small and numerous settings warred against a local polity being taken over by swaggering types of people and warred against demagogy by hustling types nursing private agendas -- in short, warred against anti-democratic conduct in whatever form.