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Baltimore Sun - Obama Invokes Spirit of MLK, RFK

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Baltimore Sun - Obama Invokes Spirit of MLK, RFK

Gregory Kane

Presidential candidate Barack Obama was fresh from delivering a rousing speech in Southeast Washington when he decided to take a few minutes to greet three news media types.

After the Illinois senator jokingly expressed envy about our casual attire, radio talk-show host Joe Madison of WOLB reminded the senator that in his line of work, he really didn't have to wear anything.

I was trying to get the picture of a naked Madison sitting in a radio studio out of my mind when Obama walked up, looked me straight in the eye and shook my hand.

"Gregory Kane, Baltimore Sun," I introduced myself. "I noticed you invoked Martin Luther King quite a bit in your speech."

"Of course," the senator answered.

Obama did more than invoke King. For the duration of his 20-minute speech at the Town Hall Education, Arts & Recreation Campus in the nation's capital. Obama seemed to channel the very spirit not only of King but also of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

And if you're a liberal Democrat who's running for president and giving a speech about how to help lift up America's urban poor, you can't do much better than to channel the spirits of King and Kennedy.

Obama started his speech by telling the audience about Kennedy's memorable trip to the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s. Kennedy saw firsthand the poverty that Mississippi's blacks had endured for decades. According to Obama, a teary-eyed Kennedy looked at reporters traveling with him and asked, "How can a country like this allow it?"

In Southeast D.C., Obama continued, poverty still exists.

"Here, on the other side of the [Potomac], ... every other child in Anacostia lives below the poverty line," Obama said. "Too many do not graduate and too many more do not find work. Some join gangs, and others fall to their gunfire. ... How can a country like this allow it?"

Obama answered his repeat of Kennedy's question of 40 years ago the way Kennedy would have: "We can't," the senator said to cheers from the crowd. Then he outlined the details of how an Obama administration would fight its own war on poverty.

If elected president, Obama said, he would sign legislation raising the minimum wage; fund programs that support poor families with children; fund not only job-training programs but programs that help workers get promotions; give incentives to bring businesses back to the inner cities; and make affordable housing more accessible in "mixed-income neighborhoods."

Obama is obviously aware that many Americans will react to his ideas with a "been there, done that, got the staggering tax bill" sneer. He acknowledged that there were problems with President Lyndon B. Johnson's first war on poverty.

"It's true," Obama said, "that there were many effective programs that emerged from Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. But there were also some ineffective programs that were defended anyway, as well as an inability of some on the left to acknowledge that the problems of absent fathers or persistent crime were indeed problems that needed to be addressed."

Coming from a liberal Democrat, those words are almost heresy. They're like God endorsing atheism, for heaven's sakes! But then Obama committed more heresy.

"You can ... see what a difference it makes when people start caring for themselves," the senator continued. "It makes a difference when a father realizes that responsibility does not end at conception; when he understands that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise one. It makes a difference when a parent turns off the TV once in a while, puts away the video games and starts reading to [that] child and getting involved in his education. It makes a difference when we realize that a child who shoots another child has a hole in his heart no government can fill."

With those words, Obama channeled the spirit of King, who in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, urged black Americans to take more personal responsibility. In that same book, King wrote about what it would cost to end poverty in America and bring blacks into the mainstream.

"The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap," King said. "The limited reforms [of civil rights legislation] have been obtained at bargain rates."

Obama seemed to be paraphrasing King when he told the audience what a renewed war on poverty would cost America.

"I'll be honest," Obama said. "It can't be done on the cheap. It will cost a few billion dollars a year."

Hey, at least the guy's telling us upfront we're going to get hosed. And, as I'm sure Obama would remind critics of his anti-poverty plans, we're already getting hosed with the billions the Bush administration is spending to fight a war of questionable value in Iraq.


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