Confessions of a ‘Half-Breed Mongrel’: A plea to the president

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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Barack Obama is a Half-Breed Mongrel. But I mean that in a good way.

I’m also a Half-Breed Mongrel — Jewish-Samoan to be exact, with some Tongan thrown in to make it interesting. In fact, I invented the term Half-Breed Mongrel (not that anyone seems to want to steal credit from me). I coined the term not as an expression of self-loathing, but as my affectionately un-PC way to describe the growing army of people whose parents didn’t have the discipline to breed with their own kind. Some of us were created this way by accident, and some by design — as if part of some scientific experiment to mutate the human species. But however we were created, we’re all here, an odd assortment of folks with incongruous features and split personalities who don’t quite fit in.

Ever since I was the boy with the biggest lips in Hebrew school, I’ve searched for comforting affirmation that what sets me and my fellow mongrels apart is what makes us special. And I convinced myself that we mongrels were put on Earth for a reason: to help bridge the differences between people of different cultures and different perspectives.

Half-Breed Mongrels, or HBMs, are constantly faced with riddles of cultural reconciliation. Had I been born a few centuries ago, I might have had to reconcile the occasional cannibalism in Samoa with the Talmud’s frustrating silence on whether human flesh is kosher.

Even in this day and age, many purebreds manage to go through life forming close associations only with their own kind. HBMs, on the other hand, are more likely to come into close personal contact with a multitude of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Tiger Woods is the quintessential HBM in that regard.

HBMs are forced to see the world from at least two perspectives. We therefore have an innate understanding that there is usually more than one valid way of looking at most issues. That’s a fundamental first step to accepting other people and finding common ground with them. That doesn’t mean that HBMs are all wishy-washy moral relativists incapable of saying that anything is better than anything else. It simply means that we don’t start out of the box with the rigidity of thinking that might afflict some of our non-HBM friends. In fact, that’s why I think HBMs tend to be good at thinking “outside of the box.”

The election of Barack Obama as president signified that HBMs are really starting to come into their own. I did not support Obama, since my views on public policy differ greatly from his. Still, I felt a strong personal identification with him. I saw a weird symmetry to our implausible “fish-out-of-water” upbringings: He was a half-black kid being raised by his mom in Polynesia (Hawaii); I was a half-Polynesian kid being raised by my mom in an African-American neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

In the HBM world, Obama’s black-white mix is fairly vanilla. Not to pat myself on the back, but Samoan-Jewish by contrast shows a great deal of creativity. But the specific ingredients in Obama’s mix were never important to me; what was important was that he was mixed. I was convinced that Obama’s HBM background would enable him to work productively with the opposition party — my party — in spite of our healthy differences of opinion. At least that was my theory at the dawn of the Obama Era.

It’s over two years later now and my theory, like the stimulus, didn’t exactly work. Even at the start of Obama’s presidency, I noticed a disappointing lack of graciousness towards his predecessor, George W. Bush — including a compulsive habit of passing the buck backwards. He was also frequently dismissive of Republicans’ ideas and even impugned their motives. As a Republican, I felt my president not only disagreed with me (no problem), but disrespected me (problem). While hyper-partisanship might be par for the course in Washington, I didn’t want to believe that the first HBM president would behave that way. That’s not him talking, I would tell myself; that’s his teleprompter.

It has only gotten worse, as Obama’s dismissiveness has deteriorated into ridicule. We’re now regularly subjected to unfunny comic riffs about how Republicans are sitting on their arses nitpicking Obama’s mopping and sweeping techniques as he works valiantly to clean up the GOP’s mess; about how Republicans, who “drove the car into the ditch,” are screaming to get the keys back now that Obama has finally gotten the economy out of the ditch (“out of the ditch” presumably meaning at 9.1 percent unemployment); about how the impossible-to-satisfy Republicans, now that Obama has made our border indisputably secure (huh?), will probably insist on a moat — and “maybe they want alligators in the moat.” I sometimes forget whether I’m listening to the president of the United States or Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

Obama’s press conference last week, in which he stood in the White House and blasted everyone else for failing to lead, has drawn fire even from Obama’s core support base. Time magazine’s Mark Halperin said that Obama was acting like a “dick.” Well at least he didn’t call Obama a “Weiner,” and opted for the more polite synonym instead. Newsweek’s Evan Thomas accused Obama of acting like “a God [bleep] Democrat.” (Well that ought to put to rest, once and for all, all that nonsense about the media’s liberal bias.)

Mr. President, as a fellow HBM, I believe that I have an insight into what is going on with you. I understand that people like John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid can at times be just as rigidly partisan as you’ve been acting. Frankly, Mr. President, I don’t expect as much from those people. They all have the cultural disadvantage of having only one culture. With all due respect, Mr. President, stop acting like a purebred.

I know it can be tough, Mr. President. I know the feeling of desperately wanting to “fit in,” to “pass” in a society still dominated by purebreds, to show that you can be every bit as partisan, rigid and narrow-minded as they are. I know the impulse you must feel to show you’re even more purebred than the purebreds. While it might suffice for one of them to merely reject the ideas of the other party, you might feel the need to do them one better and pretend to have no freaking clue about what the other side believes. Your recent attack on ATMs, in which you pretended to believe that they kill jobs, was a particularly brilliant ploy to feign ignorance about how free markets work. Well played, Mr. President, but I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to do that anymore.

You no longer have to pretend that you’re one of them, Mr. President. Your election has made it cool to be an HBM. HBM kids everywhere, kids who are misfits like you and I were growing up, are counting on you to show the world what makes us special. You are their role model, Mr. President, and pulling a Charles Barkley on them is not an option.

Your relentless partisanship, Mr. President, is making it hard for me to cling to my lifelong belief that HBMs are inherently special. I’m even contemplating the drastic step of finding some other way to judge people, such as the content of their character. Don’t let me sink to that level, Mr. President. Make me believe again!

As we head towards a potentially catastrophic partisan showdown on raising the debt limit, we need a president who is above grandstanding — one who can work collaboratively with the other side to restore fiscal sanity without choking off the recovery with higher taxes. Now, more than ever, we need a real HBM in the White House. Until January 2013.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.