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Old Lessons For Obama

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, April 19, 2008

In this year's contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama has been taken to school by Hillary Clinton and the Republican right wing. The New York senator and her GOP allies are giving him lessons in politics' dark side. Whether he's learning anything remains to be seen.

Obama's experience, however, should be instructive for young people drawn to politics by his candidacy, especially those thinking of following in his footsteps.

Consider what Hillary & Co. have taught thus far:

Lesson One: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

A story told once before: In 1960, when I was a junior in college, Hubert Humphrey visited Howard University during his campaign in the D.C. Democratic primary. He was also running against John F. Kennedy in the West Virginia primary, where the Massachusetts senator's Catholicism was being assailed.

A government major, I asked Humphrey how he felt about the attacks against Kennedy's faith. Humphrey, not missing a beat, said that although he was seeking victory, he didn't want to win with anti-Catholic votes.

To Humphrey, an enemy of his friend was his enemy, too.

Not so with today's Clinton-conservative lash-up.

Granted, Hillary Clinton has philosophical differences with the putative Republican presidential nominee, John McCain; far-right-wingers Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh; and the conservative talking heads on Fox TV. But they and Clinton have a common enemy: Obama. Their allegiance to the goal of bringing him down makes them compatriots.

To discredit Obama, Clinton plugs McCain's commander-in-chief qualifications.

She and McCain, working from similar talking points, do a tag-team number on Obama, labeling the Democratic Party front-runner "out of touch" and "elitist."

Buchanan, who proclaims that "reverse discrimination is pandemic," goes into overtime branding Obama as a left-wing zealot while praising Clinton as a paragon of Middle American virtues.

Clinton benefited from the intervention of Limbaugh, who urged Republicans in Ohio and Texas to vote for her. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton turns up on Limbaugh's show on the day of the Texas primary (he was interviewed by a guest host) to plug his wife's candidacy to Limbaugh's vast conservative audience. The Clinton-right-wing friendship is one of the most arresting developments of the campaign.

Reminder, young hopefuls: There's no telling what some folks will do to get ahead.

Lesson Two: Resort to McCarthyism.

Discredit your opponent by associating him or her with someone who is strongly disliked or deemed disreputable.

It matters not that your opponent neither shares nor is influenced by that person's ideas or behavior. The association, if presented skillfully and persistently, may be enough to create doubt about the opponent.

Case in point: Link Obama with controversial figures to call into question his fitness for the presidency. Sen. Joe McCarthy did it by impugning the patriotism of innocent Americans. It worked for him -- for a while.

Guilt by association is being tried again.

Lesson Three: Getting too big for your britches is costly.

Frederick Douglass, former slave, abolitionist and human rights champion, could have told Obama that there would be days like this.

It's one thing to have a great speaking voice and a commanding presence, as did Douglass -- and, likewise, Obama. It's quite another matter to think you have something important to say. Worse yet, to tell yourself you can be a leader, not just a loyal spear carrier.

Douglass found that out.

In his autobiography, "Life and Times of Frederick Douglass," Douglass talked about his early days as an escaped slave in the North.

The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society assigned him to travel through part of the state with a white society member to sign up subscribers to the Anti-Slavery Standard and the Liberator.

"I was generally introduced as a 'chattel,' -- a 'thing' -- a piece of Southern property -- the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak."

Douglass, who was self-taught, said that during the first few months, his speeches consisted almost exclusively of narratives of his experiences as a slave. Abolitionist leaders wanted to pin him down to simple stories. "Give us the facts," one told him, "we will take care of the philosophy."

But Douglass grew tired of restating the same stories. "It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs," he wrote, "I felt like denouncing them."

"I was growing," he said, "and needed room."

Douglass said one abolitionist told him: "People won't believe you ever was a slave, Frederick, if you keep on this way."

He also was told: "Better have a little of the plantation speech than not. . . . It is not best that you seem too learned."

Because of his speech and demeanor, Douglass said, people said "I did not talk like a slave, look like a slave, nor act like a slave."

He had to prove he once was chattel, and he was discouraged from stepping up and out of his place.

Remember, young folks, there's a price to be paid for appearing uppity.

It could even cost you the presidency.

kingc@washpost.com

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