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The Race Turns to Race

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 29, 2008; 12:00 AM

In a famous New Yorker essay in October 1998, Toni Morrison referred to Bill Clinton as "our first black president." However Morrison meant it, the label has stuck, not the least with Clinton himself. For the moment, at least, it seems he not only wants to have been our first black president but our last as well. Barack Obama is just going to have to wait.

The usual post-campaign books this time around may have a particularly interesting tale to tell. It will be how Hillary and Bill Clinton -- or is it Bill and Hillary Clinton? -- managed to turn Obama into the black candidate he never wanted to be. In South Carolina, Obama overwhelmingly lost the white vote.

The turning point for Obama actually came in New Hampshire, when Hillary Clinton said that Martin Luther King's "dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." This, of course, only reflected historical reality and was, moreover, a slap not at King, but at Johnson's predecessor, John F. Kennedy, to whom Obama is often compared. (Both Caroline Kennedy and her uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, have since endorsed Obama.)

Possibly we shall someday learn that Hillary Clinton's remark was diabolically intended to offend blacks. I doubt it. Whatever the case, though, some important African-Americans quickly reacted -- and the Democratic primary campaign was never again the same. Not only did the Clintons not back off, but they seemed to savor the moment. As for Obama, instead of adroitly taking the sting out of what Hillary Clinton had said by shrugging it off, he called her comments "unfortunate" and "ill-advised."

The upshot was the racially divided vote we saw in South Carolina, one Bill Clinton immediately likened to Jesse Jackson's victories in 1984 and '88 -- in other words, yet another asterisk, a race-based triumph and therefore of negligible importance. Obama won big, bigger than expected. But a lot of his margin came from African-Americans, particularly, and unexpectedly, women, many of whom were supposedly in Hillary Clinton's corner. He got about 80 percent of the black vote.

Obama may do as well in similar states -- Georgia, for example, or for different reasons, his home state of Illinois. But in New York, New Jersey, California, Arizona, Massachusetts and others where the black vote is not as significant, Hillary Clinton is at least 10 points up in the most recent polls. In California, with 441 delegates at stake, she leads 43 percent to 28 percent. Obama cannot afford a backlash where white voters, for whatever reason, feel they are somehow excluded from his campaign.

In her essay, Morrison did not confuse white with black or forget that Bill Clinton was a Yale Law grad with a very white face. She concentrated instead on why African-American men identified with the then-president -- the spectacle of him being whipped by his own weaknesses, brought down and put in his place for being, as it were, out of his place. This was what blacks understood about Clinton.

And there was presumed reciprocity -- a complementary understanding that was keenly felt and just as keenly appreciated. Such a man would have sensed the impact of the Martin Luther King remark (no matter its validity), the mocking "fairy tale" or, later, any suggestion that Obama was, fundamentally, a black candidate -- like Jackson.

Obama has played a role of his own here -- either as a naïf or co-conspirator, it's hard to tell. In New Hampshire, he seemed not to understand that he needed to turn off the sudden eruption of racial feeling. That sort of sentiment smothers debate and produces resentment. If we cannot discuss history, then what can we discuss?

In South Carolina, the Democratic presidential race turned a corner. Hillary Clinton went virtually white; Obama went black. In Iowa, in a much larger field, Obama had gotten about one-third of the white vote. In South Carolina, in a three-way race, the figure dropped to 24 percent. By the end, Hillary Clinton's events were nearly all-white affairs, according to reports.

Maybe it was always too much to expect that race, any more than sex, would not be a factor in the Democratic nominating contest. But race-hatred is a particularly vile American ugliness, an appalling part of our history since Jamestown, 1619. It would be more than a shame if Obama lost on that account and a former president, renowned for his affinity to African-Americans, played any role whatsoever.

If the Clintons beat Obama on the merits, then a candidate has lost. If they beat him on account of race, then the rest of us have lost as well.

cohenr@washpost.com


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