Published on
the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

We've Got Dreams to Remember

Tony Norman

The thoughts that come to a person drifting in and out of a cough-syrup-induced stupor for nearly a week aren't pretty. You start to imagine things, especially if you have talk radio or cable news on as background noise to fill the hours of post-nasal sleepiness.

This week, competing voices dissecting the Democratic primary election results seeped into my consciousness like the hot and cold sensations of VapoRub. At one point on Wednesday morning, I tried to wake up, but all I could do was flutter my eyelids while one of Lynn Cullen's callers ranted on about the "monolithic unfairness" of black voters.

He was defending the reluctance of the white working class in Pennsylvania to vote for Barack Obama. He was also claiming to be a black businessman himself. There was just enough contempt in his voice for me to form a picture of him in my dreams.

"You should've seen what the black people interviewed on C-Span were saying about the former first lady the other day," the caller said. I tried to reach for my cell phone to call Lynn's show to offer a rebuttal, but I was paralyzed. The medicine I had taken to suppress my cough had worked too well. Then I pictured thousands of black people dialing C-Span to complain about Hillary Clinton. Inexplicably, the chorus to Otis Redding's "I've Got Dreams to Remember" floated through my head.

My dreaming mind shouted what my lips couldn't: What about President David Palmer on "24"? Surely, he must have done well enough in the Pennsylvania primary and in other states with large white working-class populations to get elected.

I felt that if I could only reach the phone to remind Lynn that it had been done before, she wouldn't have to sound so depressed and despondent. I could see the cell phone through the flutter of my eyelids, but I couldn't move.

"I've got dreams / Dreams to remember / Listen to me / I've got dreams / Dreams to remember."

When I woke up, I realized that David Palmer -- the principled black president played with noble rectitude by Dennis Haysbert on the early seasons of "24" -- really wasn't in a position to leave an electoral treasure map so that others in the real world could follow. He was a work of fiction.

Still, what about those other black presidents -- from Morgan Freeman's Tom Beck in "Deep Impact" to Chris Rock's Mays Gilliam in "Head of State"? How did they win hearts and minds in Pennsylvania?

Were they able to beat Gov. Ed Rendell's machine in this state or did they win with the machine's help? How did they overcome the reluctance of 18 percent of white Democrats who were brave enough to admit to pollsters that race mattered to them in Tuesday's matchup between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Only 69 percent of that cohort said they would vote for Mr. Obama against Republican John McCain if he were the party's nominee in the general election.

Back in February, I criticized Gov. Rendell for suggesting during a meeting at the Post-Gazette that large numbers of Pennsylvanians would vote their fears based solely on race. It turns out that not only was Gov. Rendell correct in his frank assessment of the Pennsylvania electorate, but he may have low-balled the estimate of how many would do so.

I don't believe Gov. Rendell is celebrating the reality he predicted, but he does recognize how irrational forces shape the kind of candidates who eventually win each party's nomination for president. Ed Rendell is nothing if not a knuckle-cracking realist. • When I finally woke up, I thought about the long road the country still has before it.

Barack Obama has literally done everything in his power to transcend the source of racial threat to many white voters in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Still, he can do only so much without submitting to a full-body bleaching.

Those of us of a certain age remember a comic book series produced for Catholic schools called "A Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact." National Public Radio recently did a story about one weekly series that ran from January to June 1964. It was the story of Gov. Tim Pettigrew, a presidential candidate nobody got to see until the last panel of the series:

"And so this man Pettigrew became the first Negro candidate for the president of the United States. He then went out across the land, this black man, to campaign for the highest office. Would he win? Well, the year was 1976. It was the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

"Could he win? Well, it would depend in part on how the boys and girls reading this comic grew up and voted. It would depend on whether they believed and, indeed, lived those words in the Declaration -- All Men are Created Equal."

I have dreams / Dreams to remember.

Tony Norman can be reached at

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