A Race About Race

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008; 9:10 AM

It was nice while it lasted.

Barack Obama was running a strong campaign for the presidency, won a nearly lily-white state in Iowa, and hardly anyone was talking about race--except to exult in the fact that race seemed to be a non-factor in his candidacy.

But in recent days, the black-and-white issue has emerged as a palpable subtext amid finger-pointing by the Hillary Clinton and Obama camps. Whoever started it, I can't avoid the feeling that it's a shame. You had the feeling that Obama wouldn't make it to November, if he lasted that long, without the prospect of electing the first African American president grabbing more attention, but I'm not sure anyone expected such a debate this early in the Democratic primaries.

I don't think Bill Clinton started it with his "fairy tale" swipe, which was, after all, about Obama's record on the war, but some black leaders chose to interpret the remarks as denigrating Barack's candidacy. I do think Hillary waded into dangerous waters by casting herself as LBJ and her opponent as Martin Luther King Jr. But could the Obama side have pounced on that because it might help in South Carolina, with its sizable black population?

Then you have the Hillary surrogates--first Billy Shaheen popping off about Obama's youthful drug use, now Bob Johnson clearly alluding to it--and it seems like the Democratic contest is sinking into a bog.

As the partisans engage in their finger-pointing, I have to wonder: How can this help either side? Do the Clintons, longtime champions of the black community, really want to be seen as denigrating--or allowing their allies to denigrate--the first viable African American candidate for president? Does Obama, whose appeal is built in no small measure on his ability to transcend black-white divisions, really want more daily sniping about race?

And does the country benefit from this sort of politics?

All this was playing out on two levels yesterday. As Politico reports: "Barack Obama's campaign has dismissed as not believable a prominent Hillary Rodham Clinton backer's 'tortured explanation' for seeming to inject Obama's youthful drug use into the 2008 presidential campaign, and called it 'troubling' that Clinton has not done more to distance herself from the remark."

That was Obama's spokesman. As for the candidate himself, the NYT reports: "As he campaigned in northern Nevada on Monday, Senator Barack Obama said he was concerned that a heated discussion of racial issues in the presidential campaign could divide the Democratic Party. I don't want the campaign at this stage to degenerate into so much tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, that we lose sight of why all of us are doing this,' Mr. Obama told reporters at a news conference here. 'We've got too much at stake at this time in our history to be engaging in this kind of silliness. I expect that other campaigns feel the same way.'

"Mr. Obama was seeking to be seen as taking the high road in the ongoing feud between his campaign and that of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. First, he conducted three back-to-back interviews with the major television networks here. Then, he hastily called a news conference."

Joe Klein seems to be faulting Obama:

"A good part of Obama's appeal--in fact, as Shelby Steele has argued--a good part of the subconscious exhilaration of white voters has been the post-racial nature of Obama's campaign. The color of his skin became an afterthought in Iowa.

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