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Makers and takers: Obama, justice and Carolyn King's legacy

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Perhaps Barack Obama had the same reaction to Mitt Romney that I did as I watched last week's presidential debate. "You lying sack," I thought when Romney said he'd never proposed a $5 trillion tax cut. And when he said he'd never heard of any tax breaks for corporations outsourcing labor to other countries. And when he said Obamacare should be repealed—but Romney's "plan" would protect all the good parts of it anyway.

If I ran into this blowhard and he started ranting about the deficit and moral values, I'd try to be polite, but I would get out of range as quickly as possible. Moral values? From the guy who fronted Bain Capital as it bought companies, loaded them with debt and cashed in whether the businesses—and their jobs—survived or not? From the guy who told his fellow millionaires, behind closed doors, how long-suffering they are for tolerating the 47 percent of us who aren't taking responsibility for ourselves?

In his career as a vulture capitalist, Romney mastered the art of saying one thing to investors and another to the workers (before he dropped the hammer on them) in the companies Bain bought. It's a skill Romney now displays as he says one thing in private to his political backers and something else in a public forum.

You can't debate someone who's dishonest, as no less an authority than Newt Gingrich said as he tangled with Romney in the Republican primaries. Obama, after trying in vain to make Romney explain how his plan for an across-the-board 20 percent tax cut would not explode the deficits he's so moral about, seemed to reach the same conclusion.

But Obama couldn't just leave. Nor did it occur to the president to change the subject to his own record of reversing the economic collapse, saving the auto industry, promoting renewable energy, enacting universal health care, protecting women's rights, advancing gay rights and advocating the DREAM Act for the children of undocumented immigrants.

Modesty? Boredom? It struck me as disdain: Obama was unwilling to be seen arguing with someone so unfit for the nation's highest office.

It was a bad decision. When he failed to defend his record, Obama also failed the tens of millions of us who've stood with him even when he was wavering and waffling, because we believed that at heart he shared our progressive values.

Where was the heart?

Days later, I was still fuming about the debate. That ended with Carolyn King's memorial service on Saturday at the Community United Church of Christ in Raleigh. Carolyn, who was 90, and her husband, Cy King, have been Raleigh's beloved first couple for 60 years for the causes of peace and social justice. They're modest, passionate, gentle souls whose abiding good humor testifies that being liberal is the way we were meant to live. I find it hard to write about Carolyn in the past tense. Rather, I'll quote the Rev. Steve Halsted, who told his listeners, "Carolyn's spirit is here with us today."

Yes, it is, and the service for Carolyn was a gift that dispelled the gloom of 2012 politics.

The Kings helped to establish the first racially integrated housing project, day care center and vacation Bible school in Raleigh—all by 1952. The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, striking down segregated public schools, was still two years away, and the landmark federal civil rights and voting rights acts were a dozen years in the future. But the Kings weren't waiting.

It was a reminder that whenever progressive gains are achieved, the breakthroughs come first in the streets and then in the public mind, and when the way is clear, politicians follow up in the law. A Mitt Romney may slow them down, and a Barack Obama may speed them up a bit, but gains come when people demand them.

Fittingly, as the King service ended, a demonstration was beginning downtown for a cause to which Carolyn would've subscribed. NC HEAT's March Against School Pushout was part of a national campaign to challenge the school-to-prison pipeline, which results in disproportionate numbers of low-income, minority and LGBT students being suspended, expelled and drawn into crime.

Beatrice Galdamez, a sophomore at Northern High in Durham, read from a poem in Spanish and English. "Can't I dream?/ Can't I breathe?/ Don't push my chances away from me/ I know my rights/ I know my flaws/ You can't push me out/ If that's all."

She, like the other students in NC HEAT, is the Kings' heir to the civil rights movement.

In the 2012 campaign, Republicans talk a lot about makers and takers. The makers, to them, are the wealthy "job creators," while the takers are parasites dependent on the government.

But in this as in so many things, the Republicans aren't telling the truth. The real takers are the Mitt Romneys who eliminate jobs and companies while enriching themselves.

Imperfect as he admittedly is, Obama is at least trying to follow Carolyn King's lead, which took from Romans 12: "We, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others."

King was a maker.

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