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“I Want to Be Like Jesus.”

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West’s look—indeed his whole affect—is curated to refer to America’s black Christian past. The dark suit, reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr. and the itinerant preachers and blues performers of previous centuries, is “cemetery clothing,” West told me, a reminder of the inevitability of death. A cynical person might regard these sartorial and rhetorical affectations as further evidence of grandstanding. But as I walked down the street with him, as I did in Princeton one evening, West’s pose grew intimate. He is recognizable, of course. Everyone wants to say hello. And he lingers with each as if he has all the time in the world: the colleague, the groundskeeper, the maître d’, the professor’s wife, the graduate student, the cook, the waitress. “He touches people because he knows it matters. He hugs everyone. He lifts everyone up,” says Hendricks. Whenever you see Cornel West, he asks this question: “Hanging on? Staying strong?”

Barack Obama and Cornel West first crossed paths in 2004, after Obama, then a senator from Illinois, spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In that speech, Obama called the United States of America “a magical place, a beacon of freedom and opportunity,” and West went on television to debate the point. Americans have fought hard to earn and protect their freedoms, he said; magic has nothing to do with it. The senator phoned West, and the two men talked for four hours, especially about their mutual commitment to the dreams of Dr. King—“It was a wonderful conversation,” West says. During the 2008 primaries, West stumped for Obama, making 65 appearances in half a dozen states, and he was in the room as Obama prepped to debate his Democratic rivals at Howard University. West had the candidate’s personal cell-phone number, and he left messages on it frequently. “I was calling him, not every day, but I did call him often, just prayed for him, prayed for his safety and that he’d do well in the debates and so on.”

But after Election Day, the man whose character and judgment West had so enthusiastically lauded at the Apollo never called to express his gratitude, and West found himself unable to procure tickets to the inauguration—something he desperately wanted to do for his mother. West was infuriated. Even now, when he talks about the break in their relations, West uses the language of a jilted lover. “One of the reasons I was personally upset is that I did not get a phone call, ever, after 65 events. It just struck me that it was not decent,” West says to me. “I don’t roll like that. People would say, ‘Oh, West, you’ve got the biggest ego in the world. He ain’t got time to say nothing to you.’ I say, ‘Weeell, I’m not like that. I’m not like that. If somebody does something for you, you take time to say thank you.’ ”

West speculates that something scared the president-elect off. Perhaps, he says, it was his long friendship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s problematical former pastor. “Jeremiah Wright is my brother,” says West, who was in the audience at the National Press Club, when Wright combusted in May 2008, refusing to repudiate the sermon in which he said “God damn America.” Or it might have been that Obama needed to distance himself from the “socialist” label that was dogging him. West himself suspects he was “too leftist.” He believes someone in Obama’s circle said, “We don’t want to get too close to this brother.” (A senior official from the 2008 campaign insists that no one had any intention of shutting West out of the proceedings. “If something dropped there, that’s unfortunate. But whatever happened, that isn’t President Obama’s fault.”)

Despite his lack of access, West arrived in Washington with his mother and brother on Inauguration Day, wanting to participate in the historic event. As they were checking into their hotel, the Wests were astonished to find that their bellhop was luckier than they. “We drive into the hotel, and the guy who picks up my bags from the hotel has a ticket to the inauguration,” he told Truthdig. “We had to watch the thing in the hotel.” Later that day, West’s ruffled feathers were smoothed when he ran into Arianna Huffington and she invited the West brothers to join her at the Huffington Post party. Of all the celebrations that night, “that turned out to be the best one,” says West. Arianna let him pick a few people from the rope line, he says: friend of Obama’s John Rogers, and Michelle Obama’s brother Craig ­Robinson. Inside, West ran into his nemesis, Larry Summers. “I shook his hand. He looked like a skeleton. I said, ‘Congratulations, my brother.’ ”


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