A Colorado congressman insisted recently that President Obama is not “an American.” No, he wasn’t revisiting that tired old nonsense about the president being born in Kenya. He meant something quite different. He explained that Barack Obama is not an American “in his heart.”
The congressman, a Republican named Mike Coffman, is desperately backpedaling now, repeating that he “misspoke” and saying he apologizes. But I believe he meant what he said. And what he said shines a light on the true nature of a deep-rooted hostility many Americans feel toward their president.
Of course, some of that hostility has to do with the color of the president’s skin and the texture of his hair. But racial prejudice is just a part of the problem. To some Americans, President Obama simply does not have the right attitude.
I am an American. I became a citizen in Tampa nearly 30 years ago, renouncing “foreign princes and potentates.” But I am sure Representative Coffman would not accept me as one of his countrymen. I am sure he would not consider me an American in my heart.
Like most people in the English speaking world, I have watched my share of American films and television shows, and read a lot of American novels and magazines. And I accept the convention that in any situation where an American is involved, he or she will be the hero and emerge victorious over any number of foreign opponents. But I accept it as fiction, not reality.
Of course there are exceptional Americans. But there are also exceptional Spaniards, exceptional Mexicans, exceptional Germans, exceptional Canadians, exceptional Jamaicans… exceptional people of every ethnic and national background and every skin color under the sun.
But people like Representative Coffman don’t see it that way. That’s why they talk about “American exceptionalism.”
It’s a troubling notion that reminds me of the way the Nazis touted Max Schmeling, and the way the Soviets created sports heroes for propaganda purposes. It implies the existence of a master race.
I have a lot of American friends. My wife is an American. My grandchildren were born in America. But I doubt that any of them are American “in their hearts” the way Representative Coffman understands it. To me, Coffman seems to be a throwback to a stereotype called “the Ugly American.”
It’s been many years since the book with that title was published and the movie released, and America has come a long way since that time. This nation is far more diverse today, far more multicultural, far more global in its perspective.
But there is a diehard remnant in the nation’s culture that holds “Americanism” above the rest of the world. It’s an Americanism that relies on military might to dominate other countries. It’s an Americanism that expects America to have the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop, first refusal of the world’s bounty.
President Obama is not one of those Americans. He is too realistic, too grounded in today’s world to entertain such notions of inherent American superiority. He knows that America is a great nation. He knows that the American society is robust and resilient. He knows that Americans are overwhelmingly decent, hard working, resourceful, ingenious and compassionate.
But he is not so blind as to suppose this country has a monopoly on these virtues. And he is not so arrogant as to expect the rest of the world to bow to America’s every whim.
So the fact that he has proved beyond any doubt that he was born in Hawaii is not relevant topeople like Representative Coffman.
They hold fast to the comic book culture of my childhood that showcased those invincible white superheroes. They want Captain America as their president – not Barack Obama.