There’s been quite a bit of chatter in the past few days about Barack Obama’s middle name, from Jon Stewart’s parody at the Oscars Sunday (noting the failed candidacy of former presidential hopeful “Gaydolf Titler”) to conservative talk radio host Bill Cunningham’s comments yesterday leading John McCain to apologize.
And today the Tennessee Republican Party is joining in, with a scathing press release titled “Anti-Semites for Obama” that uses all three facets of what will likely become the holy trinity of Obama fear-mongering in the general election: his middle name, a picture of him dressed in Somalian clothing (with a helpful assist by the Clinton campaign, who reportedly passed the photo around), and the unsolicited praise recently heaped upon him by Louis Farrakhan.
As Obama himself likes to point out with regards to his race, the people who decide not to vote for him due to his middle name probably weren’t going to vote for the Democratic candidate anyway. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where we won’t have some sort of national conversation– regardless of how civil it will be– prior to the general election about Barack Obama’s name, heritage, and what it will mean for America both home and abroad.
On one end of that conversation will be organizations like the Tennessee Republican Party, who will attempt to convince voters that Barack Hussein Obama secretly supports the worst aspects of every foreign (especially African and Middle Eastern) culture, and is looking to subvert the interests of both America and Israel.
On the other end of that conversation will be people like Juan Cole, president of the Global Americana Institute, who in light of the recent “Hussein” dustup has written one of the most insightful commentaries on Barack Obama’s name yet to be published. In it, he argues not just that Obama’s name should be tolerated by Americans, but that it should be embraced as a tremendous asset that will have a profound effect throughout the world:
I want to say something about Barack Hussein Obama’s name. It is a name to be proud of. It is an American name. It is a blessed name. It is a heroic name, as heroic and American in its own way as the name of [World War II] General Omar Nelson Bradley or the name of Benjamin Franklin.
Cole goes on to reveal the Semitic origins of the names of several historical American figures, including 14 presidents. He points to a list of the 289 times in which the word “barack” (a Semitic word meaning “to bless” or “blessing”) occurs in the Bible. And he notes that the name “Hussein” (a Semitic word meaning “good” or “handsome”) is common throughout the world, arguing brilliantly that “Americans may think of Saddam Hussein when they hear the name, but that is like thinking of Stalin when you hear the name Joseph.”
Reading Cole’s argument, it occurs to me that Barack Obama and his campaign might be wise to similarly embrace his unique name and heritage.
When the Drudge photo of Obama dressed in Somalian clothing was released, campaign manager David Plouffe immediately reacted strongly, characterizing it as ”the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we’ve seen from either party in this election.” And in December, many Obama supporters cried foul when Clinton supporter Senator Bob Kerrey remarked that he liked “the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama.” (Although part of that reaction was due to the fact that Kerrey stated falsely that Obama had attended “a madrassa.”)
But what if David Plouffe– instead of denouncing it– embraced the Drudge photo as evidence of how popular and well-received Obama is throughout the world? What if Obama supporters simply agreed with Kerrey’s statement that while some people may see Obama’s name as a political liability, it is actually an asset?
In short, what if Barack Obama, along with his campaign staff and supporters, stopped treating “Hussein” like a dirty word?
Again, at some point between now and November, we are going to have a national conversation about Barack Obama’s name. At some point, Americans are going to have to either embrace or reject the possibility of a President of the United States named Barack Hussein Obama. In the heat of a general election, no one will be allowed to remain agnostic (as Obama seems to be hoping).
In light of that oncoming eventuality, might it not be wise for Obama himself to lead the way and unequivocally, unapologetically embrace his middle name? Shouldn’t he make it clear that no one, not Bill Cunningham nor Rush Limbaugh nor John McCain, should have to apologize for using it– in the same way that no one should have to apologize for referring to Senator Clinton as Hillary Rodham Clinton (who ironically has also shied away from her middle name for different political reasons)? Perhaps even by accepting John McCain’s apology yesterday, Obama was sending his supporters mixed signals.
As long as “Hussein” continues to be the word you’re not allowed to say, people will continue saying it, and saying it in a derogatory context. It will continue to be the edgy, dirty little in-joke and continue to pass for sharp political commentary in certain conservative circles. But if, over the next eight months, it becomes purposefully and unashamedly ingrained in the American lexicon, it will quickly lose whatever potency it has. We need to get to a point where Hussein-laden outbursts like Bill Cunningham’s are met not with apologies and ratings-boosting controversy, but with eye rolls and here we go agains, even among conservatives.
In light of the recent history of frivolous but effective attacks against Democratic presidential candidates, it’s understandable why Barack Obama, his campaign, and his supporters are naturally defensive. But it’s well past time for all of them to abandon their posts at the Neighborhood Hussein Watch. Unless the candidate himself and his staunchest supporters begin to fully embrace his name, it will continue– unnecessarily– to be a hotly-debated issue in this campaign. And if the conversation in November is still about middle names, Barack Hussein Obama could very well lose the election to John Sidney McCain.