Race in the Race

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

WITH THE first viable African American and the first viable female candidates for president, the campaign for the Democratic Party nomination puts the nation on the road to a historic first. But the debate over race that boiled over last weekend and continued yesterday, marked by mischaracterizations and veiled aspersions, threatens to mar this extraordinary moment.

Supporters of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have taken remarks of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former president Bill Clinton out of context and then unfairly criticized them for what they did not say. Mr. Clinton was accused of belittling Mr. Obama's career or campaign as a "fairy tale." But the "fairy tale" Mr. Clinton was referring to had to do with the much narrower issue of Mr. Obama's opposition to the Iraq war; the former president was bemoaning what he saw as a lack of attention to Mr. Obama's -- again, in Mr. Clinton's view -- inconsistent stances on the war.

Then, responding to Mr. Obama likening his oratory and vision to that of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ms. Clinton said: "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act. . . . It took a president to get it done." Critics pounced. They said she was belittling King's noble efforts while championing those of a white president. She should have been more sensitive to how her remark would be perceived; it wasn't only Obama supporters who were offended. But her point was legitimate and not racist: She was saying presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as King, all had to do much more than orate to accomplish their goals. As Ms. Clinton said on "Meet the Press" Sunday, "Dr. King didn't just give speeches. He marched, he organized, he protested, he was gassed, he was beaten, he was jailed. He understood that he had to move the political process and bring in those who were in political power, and he campaigned for political leaders, including Lyndon Johnson, because he wanted somebody in the White House who would act on what he had devoted his life to achieving."

Mr. Obama didn't pick this fight. But he is abetting his supporters in their mischaracterizations when he says, "Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark . . . She is free to explain that. But the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous." This might help him secure a large majority of the black vote (just under half of registered Democrats) in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26. But it isn't good for his party.

Here's something else that isn't good: The wink-and-nod allusion to Mr. Obama's admitted past drug use by Black Entertainment Television founder and Clinton supporter Robert Johnson on Sunday, and Mr. Johnson's less-than-credible explanations afterward. If Mr. Johnson believes that youthful drug use should be an issue, let him say so. His veiled jabs only serve to stoke the theory that the Clinton campaign is subtly playing the race card, and Ms. Clinton should be a lot clearer that she won't accept that.

A hallmark of Mr. Obama's campaign is its transcendent, universal appeal. He refreshingly portrays himself as a candidate for the presidency who happens to be black, not the black candidate for president. As long as racial divisions remain in America, race is a legitimate, important subject for political debate. But the current finger-pointing is unproductive and even dangerous because it threatens to revive those divisions rather than bridge them. The candidates should use tonight's debate to acknowledge that each of them has a demonstrated commitment to civil rights and move the discussion to a higher plane.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company