Race Tangled in the Race

Geraldine Ferraro says the Obama campaign took her comments on race out of context and is appalled that they were used to attack Sen. Hillary Clinton. Video by CBSNEWS.com
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

The debate about racial preference vs. equal opportunity has coursed through society for decades, and not smoothly. We've argued passionately about who gets admitted to college and why, who gets a job promotion and why, which company gets awarded a contract and why.

But affirmative action in pursuit of the presidency? Now, that's a new one.

Geraldine Ferraro, the former congresswoman who once drew large, ecstatic crowds as the first woman on a major party's presidential ticket, is pioneering new ground: She has suggested that Barack Obama is leading the Democratic presidential race because he is black. Given that Ferraro is a prominent Hillary Clinton supporter and something of a Democratic elder stateswoman, this assertion blew up on the campaign trail like an exploding oil tanker. Charges and countercharges -- of insensitivity, racism, race-baiting, race-carding, sinister calculation and thin-skinnedness -- flew back and forth between the two camps and ricocheted across the landscape.

Ferraro, 72 and feisty as ever, finally had enough and fell on her sword, sort of. She quit Clinton's finance committee, saying she wished to do her friend no harm. But she took back nothing. In fact, Ferraro has been on a multi-interview tear the past several days, blaming the Obama campaign for spreading the controversy and causing all the trouble. "I personally think that this is the last time that the Obama campaign is going to be able to play this type of race card," she said on "NBC Nightly News," "because I think that's what it is. I really do."

She then suggested that she was the one owed an apology for being implicated as "a racist," though it appears that no one in the Obama campaign actually called her one.

"The truth is, I think that most people want to put this behind us and not turn up the heat on what already has been a pretty unfortunate situation," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said yesterday. "No one on this campaign has ever accused her of being a racist. That is just completely ludicrous. I wish her well."

Some Obama supporters, however, cited what they described as other insidious comments -- some racially tinged, some not -- by Clinton surrogates such as New Hampshire Democratic power broker Billy Shaheen, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, businessman Bob Johnson, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and even Bill Clinton himself.

Georgetown law professor Emma Coleman Jordan, an Obama supporter who sat on the fence for a long time because she so admired Hillary Clinton, sees the Ferraro episode as "part of a systematic project" to raise Obama's negatives. "It is so sad that we've come to this," she said, "that a Democratic Party liberal [Clinton] has chosen to pick up the dirtiest tool in the political box to win. I'm sad. You can put that in a quote. But it's no longer possible to avoid the conclusion that this string of events is not an accident."

Responded Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson: "Both campaigns have had supporters that have said things that each candidate has repudiated. Do I think it was part of a pattern when Samantha Power called her a monster, when Merrill A. McPeak mocked her for crying, that that says something about the Obama campaign?" Wolfson said that Clinton herself has "disagreed with" and "rejected" Ferraro's comments, and that there is really nothing more to add.

The Ferraro quotations that ignited the firestorm appeared last Friday in the Daily Breeze newspaper of Torrance, Calif.: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position."

Ferraro has since complained that her comments have been twisted out of context by those trying to gain political advantage. But she said much the same thing 10 days earlier, in a largely unnoticed radio interview. In fact, she made similar remarks about Jesse Jackson during his 1988 campaign, according to a Washington Post article. Because of Jackson's "radical views," Ferraro said then, "if Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn't be in the race."

In the Feb. 26 interview, on Fox News Radio's "John Gibson Show," Ferraro sounded frustrated by the phenomenon of Obama and the fact that her candidate was behind.

She first took aim at some of Obama's prominent superdelegates. Of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), once a Clinton backer who switched to Obama, Ferraro said: "I'm so disappointed in him I could die." She then chided Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) for not sticking with the sisterhood. Not only had she chosen to support Obama, Ferraro said, but she came to his defense when his abortion-rights voting record in the Illinois Senate was challenged. "Tell me why she is endorsing Barack Obama," Ferraro said. And finally, she expressed exasperation that Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) endorsed Obama after dropping out of the presidential race, saying "it's the guys sticking together, John."

Gibson asked her why wasn't it credible that these superdelegates had chosen to back Obama for good reasons. Did she expect them to just hand the nomination to Clinton?

"No," she said, "but I expect them to look very carefully at who has the experience, John. Between me and you and your millions of listeners, if Barack Obama were a white man, would we be talking about this as a potential real problem for Hillary? . . . If he were a woman of any color, would he be in this position?"

DeLauro, for her part, said in an interview that she was "saddened that my friend Gerry Ferraro has taken that route. . . . It may be a strategy that is directed at upcoming primaries. The fact is that Senator Obama has the popular vote and the delegate vote and he has energized the country, to his credit."

Discussions of race often get tangled up in misinformation and misperceptions. Both Clinton and Obama are waging historic candidacies, each drawing voters who want to make history. But the racial and gender dynamics are more complicated than Ferraro states. According to exit polls, in 20 states where voters said a candidate's race was important in their choice, Obama and Clinton evenly split the votes of those voters; each candidate won those voters in 10 states apiece. But in 21 states where voters said a candidate's gender was an important factor, Clinton won those voters in 16 states compared with Obama's five.

Obama himself addressed the subject of race and gender yesterday, trying to put the Ferraro flap in context.

"As I said before, race and gender issues are very powerful in our society," he told reporters on his campaign plane. "They've been an organizing principle in our politics since the early days of this country. It would be naive to think that we could just brush them aside, and I know that sometimes Senator Clinton and others accuse me of being naive, but I'm not naive enough to think that we're going to solve the country's racial problems and some of these other divisions in the span of six months or a year. What I do think is that our campaign has pointed towards the future, an era where these distinctions are less prominent in our politics."

It is not Geraldine Ferraro's era of politics. She was the bright star in 1984 when Walter Mondale asked her to be his running mate, and the pair went on to lose 49 states to Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Ferraro has said if her name was Gerard instead of Geraldine, she never would have been given that opportunity. Of all the Americans who want to see a woman sworn in as president, Ferraro might be one of the most eager. Now that Hillary Clinton has a chance to become the Democratic nominee, Ferraro has said she gets emotional at the prospect. She doesn't want Barack Obama to ruin her thrill.

The nation will continue its ongoing debate about who gets ahead in life and why, but is Barack Obama ahead in the popular vote and pledged delegates because he is black? Preferential treatment by the voters? Now, that's a new one.

Staff writer Peter Slevin contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company