I have a small wish of my own in this season of public and private Utopias. It is that the emergence—or should I say ascendance?—of Barack Hussein Obama will allow the reentry into circulation of an old linguistic coinage. Exploited perhaps to greatest effect by James Baldwin, the word I have in mind is cat. Some of you will be old enough to remember it in real time, before the lugubrious and nerve-racking days when people never knew from one moment to the next what expression would put them in the wrong: the days of Negro and colored and black and African American and people of color. After all of this strenuous and heated and boring discourse, does not the very mien of our new president suggest something lithe and laid-back, agile but rested, cool but not too cool? A “cat” also, in jazz vernacular, can be a white person, just as Obama, in some non–Plessy v. Ferguson ways, can be. I think it might be rather nice to have a feline for president, even if only after enduring so many dogs. (Think, for one thing, of the kitten-like grace of those daughters.) The metaphor also puts us in mind of a useful cliché, which is that cats have nine lives—and an ability to land noiselessly and painlessly on their feet.
Toward the beginning of his second book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama displays the modesty that is one of his many engaging qualities, attributing his victory in his very first U.S. Senate race (all the way back in 2004) to “my almost spooky good fortune.” This understates matters to a huge degree. The front-runner in the original contest for the Democratic nomination in that race, a man named Blair Hull, who had spent $28.7 million of his own money, was hit by news reports that his second wife had sought a protection order during an ugly divorce some years before. Not only did his commanding lead in the polls evaporate, but he had already lost the advice and services of the gifted political consultant David Axelrod, who joined the Obama camp. Meanwhile, the Republican primary had resulted in a victory for the personable Jack Ryan, whose early campaign showed distinct promise. Ryan was also to be unhorsed by earlier divorce accusations from his former wife, the actress Jeri Ryan, who accused the GOP standard-bearer of forcing her to go to S&M clubs and have sex in public. (You know how that upsets the family-values constituency.) Obliged to find another candidate at short notice, the Illinois GOP made the appalling and condescending mistake of selecting Alan Keyes, a highly volatile and extremely right-wing black man who had run for office almost everywhere but Illinois, and who promptly decided to accuse Obama of being insufficiently African American because none of his ancestors had been slaves! In the course of the campaign, for good measure, Obama was chosen to give the keynote address at the Democratic convention, with, as he sweetly phrases it, “seventeen minutes of unfiltered, uninterrupted air-time on national television.”