"Well, how could they be jamming us if they don't know…if we're coming?"
- Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams)
If you watch TV or go to the movies, you're already pretty familiar with the black sidekick. From Rochester to Robin Quivers, there is frequently at least one African American in the crew to provide a little flavor and a little, um, color. Spenser: For Hire had Hawk, Bruce Springsteen had Clarence Clemons, and Han Solo had Lando Calrissian, but now the country might have a black guy sitting in the big chair and his lieutenant, his road dog, his ace boon…well, you know, will almost certainly be white.
A few weeks ago I wrote that Sen. Barack Obama's bid to become the first African-American president of the United States was "the political equivalent of trying to do a triple salchow in the long program with dull blades on a sprained ankle." Of course, there's no exact scientific means to prove that it's harder for a black man to get elected, but just in case everything you've witnessed in your life is not enough empirical data for you, consider this: 12 percent of Americans are black, 14 percent of our presidents have been named Bush, Adams or Roosevelt, but zero percent of African Americans have been president.
So I'm here to tell you that if it comes to pass, being the first black president will be the political equivalent of competing in the decathlon with one contact lens, carpal tunnel syndrome and a worsted wool full-body tracksuit. A mortgage crisis, global warming, and Thursday night bowling lessons in Scranton are going to be enough of a challenge without having to worry about what your No. 2 is doing all day long. So my advice to Obama is to pick a running mate who he's comfortable with. Don't just base the decision on trying to lock down a particular demographic or seal off a few extra electoral votes. You're going to be sitting next to your understudy on a lot of planes, trains and automobiles, and if you have to spend your days wondering who your sidekick is text messaging on their sidekick, then it's going to be a long four years.
Obama has a solid, if not particularly thrilling slate of choices. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, the straight-arrow, centrist, Midwestern political scion is the antidote to Dan Quayle. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the poorly coiffed, bilingual, native Kansan and Harvard Law grad is as close as we'll come to a white Obama. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, über-competent, good-looking but not too good-looking for her own good and a graduate of the same prep school as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, might become the first woman President of the United States. She's the perfect running mate for almost any Democrat…except perhaps, Barack Obama. Peggy Noonan is probably right that Americans prefer their barriers broken one at a time. To some of us, Obama and Sebelius together in a convertible Saab looks natural—like a carpool to a Common Cause meeting. But there are others who might feel like an Obama/Sebelius pairing is akin to a bad acid-trip flashback from a mandatory diversity workshop gone horribly wrong.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, now thrice (at least) screwed by her husband's unwillingness to toe the line, would bring a certain "dream team" aura to the ticket, but choosing her would be like choosing Brett Favre as a running mate—we know she can win the big one, but she and her husband might also wreck the whole franchise before the season even gets underway.
They say Obama is considering the very "articulate and bright and clean" Delaware Sen. Joe Biden because of his many years of experience in foreign affairs. Nothing against Biden, but was it Biden or Obama who wined and dined every world leader from the Champs-Élysées to King David Street a couple of weeks ago?
So what does he do? My advice to Obama, short of recommending media mogul Russell Simmons as his running mate (folks are not ready), is to at least take a page, literally, out of Simmons' book and, Do You! Pick who you want. Pick someone serious who'll help you win, but also pick someone who you want to govern with.
President Bush let himself get sandbagged with Vice President Cheney, and you see how well that worked out for him. During the last seven years, a job that used to be called "The Leader of the Free World" got downgraded to "Wal-Mart Greeter of the Free World," and whoever becomes the next president is going to have to get us back in the game pretty quickly. So Obama should choose someone capable of taking on some of the workload, who has their ego in check, and who he wouldn't mind spending some late nights with around a conference table with a couple of boxes of Yum's carryout.
With apologies to another famous Illinois legislator, you can't please all of the people all of the time. Obama is in the home stretch, and if he worries too much about making a mistake, he might tighten up and make one anyway. So, sometimes you can throw the people a bone and still make your point: He put on the flag pin and guess what?—we still have two wars and $4.00 gas. But, Sen. Obama, if you're reading this, remember that sometimes you just have to do what you think is right, and let the chips fall.
Whatever you do, don't run around from one campaign stop to another like Will Smith trying to unload those bone-density scanners, wondering if this is worth all the trouble. Sidestep the racial chatter (thanks, but we can take it), stay positive (unless somebody pops off about your mom, Michelle or the girls), stand firm on Iraq (we wouldn't have needed a surge if there hadn't been a war in the first place), stay away from off-shore drilling (but maybe consider nuclear), visit a mosque (before the convention), and choose a running mate who will be—in the best tradition of Al Gore, Prince Andrew and Spinderella—the DJ to your rapper, and who complements your Afro-nerd chic, stadium-filling, "such-a-nice-young-man" style. Just do it very, very carefully.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.