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Obama no longer seen as 'Jesus' in Charm City

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BALTIMORE -- I was driving the heart-breaking streets of Charm City and the black man on the radio was talking about Barack Obama.

"All this spinnin' plates on a stick the President's tryin' to do is for the rich," he was saying. And the caller (it was a local midday talk show on the AM dial) said, "Yeah, he can't take no more from us, 'cause we got nothin' to lose."

The next day, a survey was released by The Washington Post and ABC News. The headline said Majority of Americans lack faith in Obama: poll.

"Asked how much confidence they have in Obama to make the right decisions for the country's future," the article said, "58 per cent of respondents said just some or none."

I wondered if this opinion extended to the African-Americans who had danced in the streets of Baltimore on Nov. 4, 2008. So I went to see the man whose voice I had heard on the radio.

He didn't have (or need) a name; just a letter and a number: C4.

Everybody in Baltimore knows C4, which is an abbreviation for the patrician monicker of Clarence M. Mitchell IV. As a former state senator (like Barack Obama), and as the son of a former state senator, and as the grandson of the first black female attorney in Maryland, and as the grandson of the man for whom the city's courthouse is named, and as the great-grandson of the woman who served as the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1935 to 1970, his credentials seemed to be in order.

Then he clinched it by saying that, on his Caucasian, slave-owning side, he was a direct descendant of Charles Carroll, Maryland's venerated signer of the Declaration of Independence. So C4 could tell the pinkos AND the Tea Party to kiss his parchment, if it came to that.

We were sitting on a sofa in a hallway at WBAL-AM, which is one of those 50,000-watt "clear-channel" powerhouses that can be heard, when conditions are right, from Halifax to Houston.

Despite the famous station's heritage and market dominance, C4 and three other talk-show hosts share an office the size of two coffins laid end to end, which is why we had to relocate to the corridor. So not much had changed in local AM radio since I had my own lunch-hour sports show in the elegant studios of WHAZ in Troy, New York, as recently as 1972.

"Are you disillusioned with Obama?" I asked C4, who is a hyperactive, hyper-honest man with a son whom he did not name C5.

"He's not Satan, but he's not what they're projecting," he replied. "I grew up in a political environment. I followed the way he ran his campaigns back in Illinois. I'm not disillusioned, because I never was illusioned to begin with."

C4 had been defeated for re-election to the state Senate after endorsing a Republican for governor -- an act of hara-kiri for a black public figure in these colour-coded times -- but now the ex-pol was enjoying his gig as the broadcast voice of no particular party.

With the leviathan Rush Limbaugh as his lunch-hour competition on another channel, and with the weepy Glenn Beck as the old medium's new paradigm of radio-active self-promotion, C4 flaunted his independence and said, "You just hope it resonates with enough people so you don't get fired."

I asked him what he was hearing from the streets of black Baltimore, which includes some of the most devastated and dangerous neighborhoods in the country. (A young medical researcher was robbed and murdered on a major street not far from WBAL the other night; it was one of five homicides that weekend.) C4 said, "People really thought that the skies would open up and money would rain down into all the urban areas. To me, that was unrealistic."

"Did you dance in the streets when he was elected?" I wondered.

"I did cry," C4 said. "I did. When he was elected, I thought about my great-grandmother, and I remembered the phone calls when I was a kid, people talking about lynching my grandfather.

"At that point, Barack Obama was Jesus. Obama's election represented so much that people had fought for, and people had died for. That he was not a perfect vessel didn't matter."

But it mattered now, said the radio host.

"Barack Obama is wedded to a path that leads nowhere," C4 said, and he griped that the president's appeal to extend unemployment insurance to more than the current 99 weeks threatened to turn joblessness into "a permanent lifestyle."

"You can't pay your bills with 'Hope' and 'Change,' " he said. "But it's a good thought."

The radio host told me that, two years ago, his son had lined up for hours to hear Obama give a speech at the Baltimore hockey arena. But now, C4 said, "When he sent 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, he crushed the young people. He just crushed them.

"Barack Obama will never lose the favourable opinion of the black community, but expectations are lower now," said Clarence M. Mitchell IV. "You can see now that he's not special, and everybody thought he was."


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2010 H6

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