You Don’t Dance in the Street: One Man’s Reality

The following interview was conducted November 6, 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview is with Richard Carlson, a retired butcher from a small town in west-central Illinois, and the authors’s father. I include this interview for it’s more conversational nature replete with my father’s folksy-isms. Yet it is surely representative of the millions of similar conversations that occurred throughout the United States at this time between friends and family members.

Well, all day long they were saying on CNBC, they were talking about what was going to happen after Obama won. And during the day it was already a given that Obama was going to win. And so that you were just waiting to see if it was going to happen. And it did. So we got him. That’s about it.

I mean, your mother might have greater things to say about it.

When you woke up some time late that night he had won. What were your thoughts?

…Let’s see… Well… Him being elected is not a cure-all. It’s kind of like running a race. And some run the 50-yard dash, some the 100, and some the 800. Well, with all the things that he’s go on his plate, now that’s he’s president, he’s running the 800. And he’s got an enormous amount of things that he has to get accomplished, or try to fix. And, and it’s all against him. Before he can really help the economy, we have to figure out where the economy’s at. It’s kind of like, we have all these people who owe money on their houses. We don’t know hom many people. You have to say, you can’t fix the train ’til you fix the tracks, and then you can put the train on it. Well, that’s what’s happening right now. You can’t say, “Well, you fix it,” because he don’t know where the tracks are either. And he don’t know where all the problems are at. So… It’s going to be a wait-and-see.

I look at it from an economical stand point.

Have you heard anything being said in Elmwood?

Well, let’s see… Charles Lee voted for McCain… Didn’t think it would do any good because the television was saying that Obama was going to win. That’s about it, about the only person I talked to.

I don’t think people are—well, you saw all this stuff on television, that was “Oh, well, how great!” But give me a break! That’s ridiculous. You know, they’re going, “Oh, it’s a new beginning! It’s going to be wonderful!” I mean, he’s got to work… Already today, one of the guys of the Democratic party are coming out on what they should do to fix the system. Well, he shouldn’t a’done it! He should have waited to see what Obamawanted, as the party leader. And supported him. But he didn’t do that. He came out with his own plan, that this is what we’re going to do. And just undermined Obamaalready.

Go on.

I really don’t have any brilliant statements, because I don’t see him—you know, it’s kind of spooky in a way. Because you watch television, and all over the world they’re all excited about him getting in. What do they expect of him? What do they think he’ll do? What do they think he has the power to do? What do they think, he knows how to do it?

People must not be excited simply for their health. Something in them is making them dance. Try to put yourself in their place. What do you see?

I think that Bush in terribly disliked. I think he’s a terrible disappointment, and I think they’ve flat-out, 100% lost faith in their leadership, in his administration. Now they’re hopeful this administration will do better. I tell you, Bush anymore looks like a beaten man, doesn’t he? And Obama is going to his first meeting looking like a man than can take on the world.

That’s something to be—

And I think he’s liked around the world. I really believe that.

Why do you think that’s true?

Well, I’m an economic person. And you still go back to: we need the economy in this country going again. Part of it is the stock market. We don’t know… They gave the administration $700 billion to put the economy back on track. But these people that are putting this money in different places still don’t know how much of a problem that have, or where it’s at. So they can’t build a platform that says “we’re at the bottom now, and we’re going to build back up.” Because they don’t know. That’s what I mean by you’ve got to put the train on the tracks before you make it run.

The people don’t have any confidence. If you were to go out and take a look, and Johnson & Johnson’s down 50%, and I might buy it, but you don’t know how much further that stock’s going to fall. So they’re still are going to buy it.

I do want to say one other thing. I personally was in bonds, okay? My money wasn’t bothered by the fact stocks dropped this big amount. I don’t know how many people—many, many, many—had their stocks drop 50%. If you had $400,000, if you were going to retire next year, those people are kind of devastated. Because it’s going to take maybe ten, fifteen years for those stocks to come back. What are those people going to do?

And I wonder about Obama, and—I’m going to be on your side, okay? I watched a whole program the other night on the environment and how the glaciers are melting. It’s getting warmer, and as the water comes down into the oceans, the oceans are rising, and temperatures are changing, and… what’s going on as far as climates are changing? Now this, even right now, we can’t change what we’ve done. We can start now. What we’ve done is there. Because it’s not something that can be turned around tonight. We need to do things that will change the environment. We’re talking 2050, might make a difference. And I don’t believe—I’m not trying to be negative—but I don’t think India or China would go along with it. And that is a concern. You didn’t expect me to go there, did you?

Wherever you want to—

This goes back to the election! What’s Obama, what’s he really going to do? Come on, come on Mister McGuy, you know? Now it’s over with the rhetoric, now you’re going to do something. And I don’t— you know—we’ll just wait and see.
And it’s important. It’s all important. He has a lot on his plate.

Could your parents have ever imagined a time like this? Would it have been grudgingly accepted or—

It wouldn’t happen.

I understand that, then. But what might they say about now?

They would have been horrified… I mean, my mother, she even hated Mexicans. There was a couple times I dated Mexican girls, and my mother always knew what I did. I could never figure that out. But they used to wear spicier perfumes, and she could smell it on me. And she called them “’spics.” And she just, oh, got very violently upset, that I would go out with one.

Now, to get that upset over a Mexican, just think how upset she would have been if I’d been out with a colored gal. I mean, I might as well not come home.

What makes more sense to you? Does what you remember when you were young make more sense, or does this more multi-cultural world make more sense to you?

I am what I learned. And that made sense. Eric, you’ve dated colored girls, and I never got on you about it, and I’ve never said anything. But inside of me that’s a no-no. I mean, they are black people, they got their own race, they got their own place. And we’ve got our own place, and we don’t mix. I mean, you asked me and I’m tellin’ ya. That’s what’s inside me. And I hope I didn’t make you mad.

No, I’d rather really know what you think. This is what I’m working towards. People really saying what they feel.

The next morning, on the newscasts, they were saying Obama got elected because he was black. Now, I’m not saying that, but they did. Because there was more black people voted, and black people were not going to vote for McCain. And by the numbers, Obama got it.

My follow-up is this: If it was just that easy—if this is all it took, this entire time, for the last 40 years was “if enough black people voted”—and it would happen, why now? It just seems like too easy an answer, and I’d like to call you on it.

There wasn’t anybody running back then that was colored.

…Okay. But by that logic, why haven’t there been more Democratic wins overall; more white Democratic presidents, at least? I’m saying that this year it was also a youth vote, and a large number of whites voted for him.

I’ll finish with one thing: I can see that with the way the world is they’re going to have to protect him.

…I understand what you’re saying, and I know—look, the executive gets world-class protection. They’ll do their job. You remember the day that John F. Kennedy died. You remember something like that, living through. You said you were driving over the Mississippi, either going to or coming from Hannibal, Missouri, and you heard it on your radio, in 1963. How would it make you feel to experience such a thing again?

It wouldn’t bother me that much.

…What do you mean?

You said, “How would it make me feel?” I would in some ways be like the others. That’d be that. It’s not a big, earth-shaking thing. He set himself up for such a situation.

You’re saying it’s like you’re asking for it? If you go for a good job, to make yourself something—it’s the victim?

You’re putting yourself in that situation.

No, I’m, but… Someone tries to better themselves, or others, to do what anyone else should and have been able to do, it’s their fault for trying?

Oh on, you’re going off in another—

I’m just asking. I’m just asking.

Oh no, that doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Only because you said he “set himself up for it.” Should he not have the right—just stay where he was? I mean—

Yeah.

Okay. So it’s his fault for trying to be president?

Yeah.

It’s not someone else’s fault for not being able to live in a world like we have now?

…Well…

I’m just asking if—

There’s people in this world that are not as tolerant as you and I. That’s all I’m saying.

…I, um…I do know there are people like that. There have already been a few things. But, I mean, when I’ve been at home, I’ve seen you leave on Sunday mornings, and come home from church. There they do talk about loving each other. How do yo rectify that? Christian love, right?

Well, to start with, I’m not one of those people. It won’t be a good thing.

Okay. You just didn’t seem to count him as a person, if you might not care very much.

I would expect it. That’s all. Let’s say if you were taking drugs and drinking every night, and I knew it, and it went on for one year. And then one night the police called and said you get killed. Well, I’d think, you know, it was possible that was going to happen.

But in this case I’m just the guy sitting here on the sideline watching the game.

…What successes and failures do you think he’ll have, and what failures?

Well, I do think he’ll get the recommendation to raise the taxes on people over $250,000. I think he’ll that right away… I think that there’s a sort of status quo that’s been set up by the Republicans on that’s going to happen on the economy. So I don’t really see him, and this point, doing much to change it.

You seem to be projecting an attitude of “well, what’s the point, nothing can be done about it.” Would you be saying this if someone else was president?

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Right, we’re all going to have to wait and see, but—

I’m not saying he won’t get it done. I just don’t know what he will get done. Ok, he’s got this Democratic Congress. He’s got them. But I don’t think they know what to do. You know what I heard, the day after the election? The people that matter to him are the ones that gave him money to get elected.

There was an average of $86 given online. People gave $86 on average, so—five, then, twenty dollars—

But those people aren’t going to matter. It’s the people that gave $100,000. And they say, you know, “I want my bridge.”

Okay. Is there something else, beyond my questions, that’s come to you in the last two days? Something I’ve missed?

Well, I do think we’ll have better relationships with the European countries. I think he’s going to have a rude awakening, to the war, and to Afghanistan. I don’t think he’s going to run out and solve that problem. I will say this, something of intelligence: There are many people that are really happy about him being in. My expectations of him changing things—

What do you feel about his characteristics, his intelligence?

Oh, I think he’s probably fairly smart. But he’s not going to change my life.

He’s “fairly” smart? What would you compare him to?

…He’s a really smart guy. I mean, look, he went to college. I can’t remember where it was—was it Harvard? But he’s married well, and I guess he was a great debater. He’s a smart guy. So we’ll just wait and see. I could give you another example. Remember when Kennedy was elected?

I remember reading about it, but go ahead.

I mean, my mother was totally upset. Because he was a Catholic, and that meant terror, just terror. That meant that the Catholics would be running the presidency. The Pope would tell him what to do. And he would be the anti-Christ. Now, you can laugh now or whatever, but back then that was my mother’s thoughts. So what do you think if there was a colored guy? We have to just wait and see.

If you saw him on the street, you know, as President, and he said “hello,” would you shake his hand?

Um, I wouldn’t bother him, and I mean, he’s an important man—

If he said hello?

Oh, sure. I like the guy! I like the guy.

If you could ask him something, what would you ask him?

There’s nothing that he can—

You have one chance to talk to the most powerful person in the country, in the world, to get something done. What would that be?

I would ask him if he would fix Social Security. So that it would be solvent for when you were older. How was that?

What do you think of this: that there are young children today who very well will grow up thinking a black president as quite normal?

I don’t know. That’s a good thought.

I do want to ask you, because you can recall a time when it seems everyone was very suspicious, whether Catholic, black, whatever. That’s go to be a lot of fear, a lot of needless wondering about others’ motives. That couldn’t have been comfortable or fun. I’ve almost wanted to be younger—the age of today’s kids—and grow up in a slightly more understanding age. Does it appeal to you?

No. I’m sorry, but I’m a fan of General Norman Schwarzkopf. He’s a man, man, tough guy. And those are the type of people I grew up with. The people that were leaders of World War II. Eisenhower, Patton. Those were the guys you looked up to, the great leaders of the time, and felt that they were people who could lead your military and keep your country safe.

Sometimes you’re not that great of a leader if you have to resort to war. It means you sort of failed.

Well, look at Patton. As soon as we won World War II, he said let’s go kick the hell out of Russia. And he was right.

If you had a choice, you’d rather live in that world? Always having an enemy, always—

Oh, we always will. I mean, it’s human nature.

But if you had a choice.

I don’t know, where are we getting betting at? I mean, we don’t trust China. We certainly have out war in Iraq. Look at Afghanistan, and everything that’s going on there. And who knows what might erupt in India. I’m sure Cuba doesn’t like us, South America doesn’t like us. Look at what’s going on in Africa, in Darfur. And that was caused by China going in there for oil and we backed off. I’m really upset about that one.

A lot of problems, a lot of animosity. At the same time, Tuesday night, when the world took a big breath and shared something, you looked at it as a bit of nonsense. Is there any win there—what’s the happy medium?

Reality.

Reality?

Yeah.

What does that mean?

You live in reality. You don’t dance in the street, you just wait and see what’s going to really happen.

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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