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Words Heard Differently

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

George Bernard Shaw said England and America were two countries separated by a common language. Richard Cohen says that white and black Americans are in a similar fix. Statements that one side considers innocuous, the other can consider offensive. Things have gotten to the point where Bill Clinton, a president once adored by African Americans, is being accused of making racially insensitive statements. Shaw would understand. It's not necessarily what was said, it's the way it was heard.

To my (racially) tin ear, little that either Bill or Hillary Clinton has said this election season sounded ugly. These included the remarks that seemed to have started it all -- Hillary Clinton's crushingly banal observation that for all that Martin Luther King Jr. did, it took Lyndon Johnson's presidency to enact a monumental civil rights law. The context was clearly her contention that despite Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric, it takes good old experience (like hers) to get the job done. Who could possibly object to that?

Lots of people, it turned out, many of them African American. Obama himself called the remark "unfortunate." My own ears heard nothing untoward, and when I mentioned that to an African American colleague, he said -- to my utter surprise -- that he initially took the remark as a swipe at King. I was flabbergasted. Who would take a swipe at King? A Democratic presidential candidate would have to be criminally insane to do such a thing.

It hardly seemed possible, but things went downhill from there. Bill Clinton suggested that Obama's victory in South Carolina was akin to Jesse Jackson's, lo these many years ago. Kapow (as they used to say in the comic books). Again, allegations of insensitivity or racial provocation. I confess I heard something different, but this time I appreciated the complaint -- an alleged attempt to racially pigeonhole Obama. The former president may have meant no such thing, but in Obamaland, Bill Clinton is widely believed to always know precisely what he is saying -- too cunning a politician not to always know the impact of his words. Maybe so, but his recent record of bloopers, errors and rhetorical pratfalls suggests otherwise.

The grievance concerning Bill Clinton was enunciated last week by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a senior African American legislator not known for extremist statements. He called Clinton's remarks "bizarre" and said that even back in January, he "thought the president was saying things that would anger black voters and he should chill out."

What Clyburn might be suggesting is not that Clinton himself had picked up some racist bug but that, like some sort of political Typhoid Mary, he was spreading a disease to which he himself is immune.

This is what is believed by adherents of the Clintons-will-do-anything-to-win school of thought. I myself have some doubts. The Clintons will do almost anything, but not something that will stain their immortal political soul. They have to know that running a racially tinged campaign would give both of them a historical asterisk that would dog them into posterity. Years ago, Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen wrote a bestseller, "You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation." Its thesis was that men and women employ the same language but, somehow, hear it differently.

What is true for men and woman is just as true for blacks and whites and, probably, minorities of all kinds (recall the Woody Allen character in "Annie Hall" who mishears the word "Jew" when a passerby is saying, "Did you?"). The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor, seemed to make precisely that point in his speech to the NAACP in Detroit. "The black religious tradition is different," he said. "We do it a different way." That "way," as he now knows, made for an awful sound bite.

Barring some unforeseen event, Barack Obama will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. That being the case -- and also as long as the nomination fight continues -- race will be an issue, stated or not, in the presidential campaign. For that reason, it's incumbent on Clinton, Obama and, of course, John McCain to not only watch their language but -- maybe more important -- to watch their reaction to the language of others. We could be on the verge of a great moment of racial acceptance. It sometimes seems that only our common language stands in the way.

cohenr@washpost.com

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