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.

"This phenomenon is extremely threatening to two groups of people: Republicans and the old civil-rights establishment. Racism was, after all, the initial propellant for the Republican ascendancy that began with Nixon's southern strategy. As for the Al Sharptons of the world: If race becomes an afterthought in American politics, they become powerless. That's why some of them raised the loathsome question of whether Obama is 'black enough.' Now, however, they are rallying--a bit too enthusiastically--to Obama's cause after several thoughtless remarks from the Clintons in the waning hours of the New Hampshire primary.

"Two thoughts: First, any attempt to paint the Clintons as racists is idiotic. Bill Clinton calling the Obama campaign a 'fairy tale' had nothing to do with race and everything to do with (a) Obama's lack of experience and (b) Obama's alleged wobbling on the war in Iraq, which was the topic being discussed at the time. It was a stupid attack . . .

"Second, it is really foolish for the Obama campaign to allow this controversy to continue."

Josh Marshall says Bill is being unfairly blamed:

"The ins and outs of Obama's position on Iraq are a separate issue. To my reading the 'fairy tale' line is unambiguously a reference not to Obama but to the claim that Obama always opposed the war. And I do not see how that can be construed as a racially-charged remark or demeaning to Obama as a black man."

Washington writer Marjorie Valbrun says in The Post:

"My real fear is grounded in something more probable -- that Hillary Clinton, after her less-than-stellar showing in Iowa and her close call in New Hampshire, will now go straight for Obama's jugular. Race, whether used subtly or as a blunt weapon, will undoubtedly be a factor . . .

"Clinton herself has made racially tinged comments that could be taken as either insensitive or patronizing. The most widely noticed was in her efforts to dismiss Obama's talk of 'hope' and 'change' as empty idealism. In doing so, she offhandedly diminished the important role played by Martin Luther King Jr. in pushing America to meet its promise of equality for millions of black Americans. 'Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,' Clinton said. 'It took a president to get it done.'

"In other words, 'I have a dream' is a nice sentiment, but King couldn't make it reality. It took a more practical and, of course, white president, Lyndon Johnson, to get blacks to the mountaintop. Of course no black man could have hoped to be president 44 years ago. And, for that matter, neither could any woman.

"What was Clinton thinking? King's name is sacrosanct in most black households, and for poor and struggling blacks whose lives have yet to reflect King's ideals, 'hope' is more than just a notion. Clinton managed to insult a beloved black leader in her eager attempt to insult a rising black leader."

At the New Republic, Noam Scheiber sees a major downside for Barack:

"The mini-uproar may help Obama win South Carolina--especially since native son John Edwards should siphon white votes from Hillary if he stays in the race. But I think racial tension beyond South Carolina probably hurts Obama--both in narrow tactical ways (he's going to need a chunk of white independents on February 5; it could also create a backlash among Hispanics), and in broad, thematic ways (his candidacy is so attractive to many voters because they see it as an opportunity for racial healing).

"That said, all this really just hurts the party. If you were cynical, you could argue that the Clintons have an interest in keeping this going beyond South Carolina, for the reasons just mentioned. But any benefit Hillary would reap from racial division in the primaries could be pretty costly in the general."

Is the race-based sparring overshadowing everything else? Salon's Walter Shapiro says that may be happening:

"The problem is that with a dizzying two dozen primaries scheduled between now and Feb. 5, the Democrats run the risk of having the emotionally charged issues of race and gender dominate all other concerns in choosing a presidential nominee. The problems facing the next occupant of the Oval Office range from nukes in Pakistan to neighbors packing because their mortgage has been foreclosed. Yet the political news of the last week for Democrats has revolved around Obama's debate crack that his opponent is 'likable enough,' Clinton's battle with tears on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, and the skirmishing over Martin Luther King's legacy."

Pouring fuel on the fire was Bob Johnson, the man behind Black Entertainment Television, who said this over the weekend:

"And to me, as an African-American, I am frankly insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood -- and I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in the book -- when they have been involved."

Gee, I wonder what he could have been referring to. Johnson later said in a statement he was referring to Obama's community organizing. Sure.

Riehl World View blames HRC:

"Hillary pulls a reverse Sister Souljah . . . as BET founder Robert Johnson on the stump with Hillary plays the drug card against Obama. It'll make news, which will cut right into one Democrat demographic Hillary captured in New Hampshire, one she desperately needs - white blue collar union types, otherwise known as Reagan Democrats with no love for BET. And plenty of blacks, who have a high rate of church attendance, are likely to be unimpressed.

"It's desperation time for Hillary. They found a black surrogate to play the drug card and hopefully prevent more criticism for its being a racial attack. Still, I don't think it'll play, except perhaps on BET. And, honestly, how many BET fans are going to bail on Obama because he may have done a little coke back in the day?"

At Americablog, John Aravosis sees Johnson's remarks as part of an orchestrated assault:

"I hate to be constantly harping on Hillary because I'll be happy regardless of who gets the nomination on our side (and I still harbor concerns about how well Obama will fight back against the GOP machine in the general election). But. I have a hard time watching the Clinton folks beat the crap out of Obama with personal attacks, then deny it . . .

"Right. Because Obama's work as a community organizer would be something so horrible, so nasty, that Johnson simply couldn't mention it in polite company. Give me a break. We all know what Johnson was doing, he was launching the same personal attack on Obama that numerous other Clinton campaign workers have launched. I'm really astounded that the Clinton people are interested in dredging up dirty laundry about Obama because there's an awful lot of dirty laundry to go around, some of it fresh. I suspect the Clinton people are counting on Obama being too nice to 'go there.' They'd better hope they're right, because they keep opening the door, and some day Obama might finally walk through."

Conservatives are feasting on the controversy. Bull Dog Pundit says the Democrats are being hoisted on their own racial petard:

"I've said it before and I'll say it again - if not for his color Barack Obama would not even be mentioned as a presidential candidate. That's not to say that he won't at some point, but can someone again please tell me what he's accomplished that would lead you to believe he's ready to be president of the United States."

Maybe. But would George W. Bush have been a serious candidate had he not been a president's son, or Hillary were she not a president's wife? Everyone uses his or her circumstances and life story.

"The delicious irony in all this however, is watching how frustrating it is for the Clintons and their campaign to question Obama's qualifications without drawing howls of protest (most of which are unwarranted) from many in the black community that she is 'diminishing' what Martin Luther King did, or that calling Obama's campaign is built on a 'fairy tale', or that their 'tone' is offensive to many in the black community.

"After all, for years it was the Democrats who demonized many Republicans and conservatives for being indifferent to, or not caring about black people. Even the slightest bit of criticism was all that was needed for many in their party to play the race card.

"Hillary Clinton is raising some legitimate points about Barack Obama's qualifications to be president. This is politics, not softball, and would anyone doubt that if Obama were white, the tone and substance of her criticisms would draw such anger?"

Michelle Malkin rips Hillary's side, beginning with this other Bob Johnson quote:

" 'That kind of campaign behavior does not resonate with me, for a guy who says, 'I want to be a reasonable, likable, Sidney Poitier 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.' And I'm thinking, I'm thinking to myself, this ain't a movie, Sidney. This is real life.'

"Hillary's black supporters are old-school race-hustlers--not embarrassed to show bigoted contempt for non-militant, achieving blacks. Whatever you think of Obama's politics and qualifications to be president, he is a successful person and he has led an impressive campaign.

"Without having to bow and scrape at the foot of racial demagogues like Al Sharpton and his ilk. Which is apparently what earned him the Sidney Poitier remark from Robert L. Johnson. This is how they view Obama--as the unbearably, too perfect, too presumptuous, accomplished black doctor character in 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.' "

Andrew Sullivan finds yet another reason to bash Hillary and her hubby:

"I'm not objective on the Clintons. But it's an opinion gained from many years of observing their cynicism, shallowness, self-serving machinations and self-righteousness. And, no, I do not believe that Bill Clinton is doing what he's doing out of marital duty either. Please. We all know what Bill Clinton believes he owes his wife as a wife. But what he owes her as a political device to regain power for the two of them is another matter.

"And the truth is: former president Bush never trashed his son's rivals as Bill Clinton has Obama; and has kept an admirable arm's length distance from his son's administration. Bill Clinton is campaigning for himself as well right now, his own future power. He'll be in a Clinton White House, ready from Day One. And if they get there for a third term, the marital psychodrama they inflicted on us for eight long years will be with us once again."

Okay, the Feb. 5 polls are starting to come in. In California, says the LAT, Hillary is ahead of Obama 47-32 among Democrats, and 52-29 among independents. On the GOP side, it's John McCain 20, Mitt Romney 16, Rudy Giuliani 14 and Mike Huckabee 13.

Those numbers will change, of course. But California could make New Hampshire look like a blip.

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