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DANA PARSONS / ORANGE COUNTY

He's excited about Obama but not expecting miracles

August 26, 2008|DANA PARSONS

The first national political convention J. Owens Smith remembers watching was in 1960, when John F. Kennedy won the nomination and offered the vice presidency to chief rival Lyndon Johnson.

But what Smith remembers most, as a teenager coming of age in rural Alabama, wasn't the high drama of the politics that week, but that the convention knocked some of his favorite TV westerns off the air.

Even in the face of such adversity, life goes on -- and Smith's led him down a path that required he watch plenty of political conventions in the ensuing years. He has devoted his professional life to teaching political science and has been on the Cal State Fullerton faculty since 1984.

This week's Democratic convention is a brand-new program, however. For the first time in Smith's life, a black man like himself will be the nominee of one of the two major political parties.

"He really surprised me," Smith says of Barack Obama on Monday afternoon, a few hours before the first prime-time coverage was to kick in. "I'm glad he's running, because I can see before I die a black American as president. I never figured that would happen."

However, if that makes it sound as if Smith, 65, will have a box of tissues at his side while he watches the convention this week, he says he won't. Yes, he appreciates the historic nature of Obama's feat, but the political science professor in him knows there is only so much a president can do. In short, Smith doesn't expect Obama to become a miracle worker if he wins the White House.

Like a lot of other black Americans, Smith was in Hillary Clinton's camp as the primary season unfolded. "I didn't pay much attention to Obama," he says. "I was sure Hillary Clinton would win; she was my favorite. I didn't think Obama would get to first base."

Obama will be standing at home plate this week. But even if that alone won't cause Smith's heart to flutter, what does he make of the Obama moment?

"Given the race issue, I never did think America would get beyond that," Smith says. "What it does show is that America has gotten beyond the old race problems and the race issue."

Smith has joint appointments in Cal State's political science and Afro-ethnic Studies departments. Though Obama's ascension can't be separated from the racial element (at least not by pundits), Smith says his success also has a color-neutral aspect.

"I see it in political terms," he says of Obama's meteoric rise. "He happens to be a black man with charisma. America likes young, strong, charismatic leaders. Someone who will come out riding the white horse and rescue them. Out of all the other candidates, Obama seems to be that one guy who represented, so to speak, the Lone Ranger."

I ask Smith if he'll be riveted to the convention coverage. Uh, not really, he says. A lot of it can get pretty boring. So far, he's zeroed in on three can't-miss moments: the appearances by Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's acceptance speech.

Smith expects Obama to win the presidency, but insists he's "not caught up in him being the first black president. You can look on it as a racial breakthrough, but everyone's looking at the country now, for someone to bring the country back together. Americans, regardless of race and ethnicity, want to be together and want to rally behind the flag."

And if Obama is the next president, the historical nature of his election soon will be eclipsed by how he does in office, Smith says. Given the frequently stated litany of problems facing the country, the public's attention will shift to what Obama and Congress can get done. In that regard, Smith says, a president has only so much power.

Smith acknowledges Obama's nomination and possible election will "remove a lot of stereotypes" that have dogged blacks through the years but notes that any future black candidates will have to put together the same kind of top-notch organization as Obama did.

Fair enough. Smith kept his professor's hat on throughout our conversation, sidestepping my thinly veiled offer to wax sentimental about what Obama's nomination means for black America.

Except for this: "Wait until he gets in office," Smith says, "then I'll come out and wave the flag."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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