With a black senator contending for the presidency, this might seem like the perfect time for the Pittsburgh Public Theater to present Radio Golf, August Wilson's play about a black businessman who wants to become mayor of Pittsburgh.
But the local production, whose run ends just before the Nov. 4 election, is either a decade too late or a few days too early. And on the national stage, it's not really Barack Obama who is under the spotlight. It's the whole approach to grassroots organizing that he represents, along with tens of thousands of others.
Wilson finished his play in 2005, and probably couldn't have guessed that three years later, lines like "They ain't gonna let no black man be the mayor" would sound dated. After all, polls show a majority of Americans are willing to give a black man the keys to the White House.
But let's not speak too soon. After Nov. 4, it may sound prescient when the play's mayoral hopeful, Harmond Wilks, is told, "You got too big too fast. They don't like that." Obama's meteoric rise is already one of the things that make people wary. But reading the play, it occurred to me that, if Obama had taken a slower path to prominence, he never would have reached it.
Radio Golf is about power, and the compromises needed to gain it. Harmond has to choose between defying the power structure and abandoning his community. But for Obama, the decisions haven't been quite so stark: By moving up the power structure so quickly, he's come to represent an ever-larger community, so that he doesn't get mired in community disputes over divvying the spoils.
The problem is, conservatives aren't letting the rest of us off that easy. Sarah Palin's attacks on Obama as a "community organizer" may not have stuck ... but conservatives are going after community organizing instead.
It began with conservative pundits -- including Pittsburgh's own Jerry Bowyer, an occasional guest on national radio and cable TV -- blaming the housing crisis on the poor. According to this theory, the mortgage crisis stems from the Community Reinvestment Act, which was created to prevent banks from "redlining" minority neighborhoods. Conservatives contend the measure forced banks to make subprime loans to people who couldn't afford them. They also accuse the community-organizing group ACORN -- or, as Bowyer recently described it over at CNBC, "the nuts at ACORN who helped get us into this mess" -- of forcing banks to make bad loans.
See, it wasn't the stockbroker who owns 10 houses -- or the GOP presidential candidate who owns 7 -- who got greedy. The fault lies with the family who just wanted to own one, and with those who tried to help.
Few serious observers believe this theory: The McClatchy newspaper chain recently reported that of the top 25 institutions selling subprime mortgages, only one was governed by the CRA. But already we're seeing a whole new approach to blaming grassroots organizers: the attempt to castigate ACORN for signing up new voters.
In registering hundreds of thousands of new voters, see, ACORN organizers apparently produced some fake signatures, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Conservative organs like the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review are sounding the alarm. Asserting that ACORN "has shown it can't be trusted," an Oct. 12 Trib editorial grimly observed that "[e]xpanding voter turnout is key to Democrats."
That's a striking admission, since it suggests that keeping people away from the polls is key to Republicans. In any case, ACORN says it's a victim too -- of paid signature-gatherers who trumped up voters to get a few extra bucks, and everyone favors purging rolls of non-existent voters. But fears over phantom voters -- like the GOP e-mail I just got warning that ACORN was "hijacking our electoral system" -- are a phantom issue. Non-existent people don't vote, even in Allegheny County. If some new voters are "ghosts using names of dead people," as the Trib claims, those ghosts can't sway an election unless they show up to vote ... holding real-life ID cards in their spectral grasp.
But don't expect these attacks to stop. It gives conservatives a consoling reason for why they will lose the 2008 election, and a divisive line of attack for 2010.
In Radio Golf, Harmond Wilks protects his community by sacrificing his ambition. In the real world, conservatives are seeking to reverse the equation. If they can't stop Obama, they'll go after almost everything, and everyone, he represents instead.