A Black-and-White Question

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009 9:20 AM

Is it racial?

Are the protesters, tea-partiers, birthers, deathers, doomsayers and hecklers motivated, at least in part, by a distinct discomfort with the country's first black president?

Or is that a smear against disgruntled Americans who have every right to express their dissent?

There is no definitive answer, of course, since we are talking about millions of people, from Joe Wilson, the disrespectful congressman who's now raised $700,000 for his "you lie" outburst, to the woman who told Arlen Specter that Obama is trying to transform the US of A "into Russia, into a socialist country."

But I began to suspect that race was a factor for at least some critics when I heard them shouting about "the Constitution" and "taking our country back." Maybe Obama's health-care plan is an awful idea and his budget is way too big, but how exactly is any of this unconstitutional? Clearly, for some folks, there's a deeper rage at the man occupying the White House.

I do think we all need to be careful about tarring the critics with a broad brush. Dissent is an essential element of America's DNA. Civil rights protesters transformed the country. Protesters helped turn the country against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The majority of those digging in against Obama's policies sincerely believe that he is moving the country in the wrong direction.

Still, there is an ugly undercurrent out there. Yes, some on the right tried to delegitimize Bill Clinton as well -- remember the garbage linking him to drug trafficking and murder? -- but this is dark and personal in a much more unsettling way. What other president -- with a Hawaii birth certificate, no less -- would be subjected to conspiratorial doubts about whether he was born in this country?

There was a hopeful moment after Obama's election when the country -- even many of those who had voted against him -- seemed proud of itself for having broken a racial barrier. Maybe we were all being naive. Maybe prejudice is not so easily drained from the swamp.

The subject got a major boost in visibility from Maureen Dowd, who began with the shout-out from the South Carolina congressman who was a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans:

"Fair or not, what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!"


"I've been loath to admit that the shrieking lunacy of the summer -- the frantic efforts to paint our first black president as the Other, a foreigner, socialist, fascist, Marxist, racist, Commie, Nazi; a cad who would snuff old people; a snake who would indoctrinate kids -- had much to do with race. . . .

"But Wilson's shocking disrespect for the office of the president -- no Democrat ever shouted 'liar' at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq -- convinced me: Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it. . . .

"For two centuries, the South has feared a takeover by blacks or the feds. In Obama, they have both."

Well, not the entire South. Bill Clinton is a southerner. Then again, he supported a white candidate against Obama, didn't he?

Salon Editor Joan Walsh takes the argument a step further:

"I started thinking opponents were blackening Obama back in July, after the racial drama of the Sotomayor hearings, when poor oppressed Caucasians like Sens. Jeff Sessions, Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham made it sound like it was open season on white guys. Then came the racial morality play of the Gates arrest -- Did race or class matter most? Should Obama have stayed out of it? -- which gave way to the screaming of the Birthers, the angry gun-toting town-hall haters, the shrieking of Palinites over 'death panels.'

"I wrote about the role race played in these ginned-up controversies at the time: Birthers and Deathers (who tended to be the same people) were focused on marginalizing Obama as scary, 'the other.' Race was central to their fears, from the Birthers' obsession with Obama's literal origins as the product of miscegenation; to the Deathers and the Town Hellers' insistence that healthcare reform was, in Glenn Beck's idiotic formulation, Obama's idea of 'reparations' for slavery. The cries of 'socialism' were just another way to mark him as 'other,' scary and foreign. Watching scenes of shrieking, sobbing people pleading to 'take our country back,' it was hard not to ask, From who? The president who got a larger share of the vote than Ronald Reagan in 1980 or George Bush in 2000? What exactly is it that makes this particular commander in chief an interloper?

"Finally, when Republicans began objecting to Obama's speaking to schoolkids last week, you couldn't ignore the racism: Listening to some parents' expressing actual fear of having Obama beamed into their kids' classrooms, it was hard to imagine such hysteria being inspired by a white president. It would never happen."

And what's especially striking is that Obama goes out of his way to come across as a calm and conciliatory figure.

Some African American members of Congress say the specter of racism is undeniable.

But there could be a backlash brewing. Ruben Navarrette of the San Diego Union-Tribune says that "Obama's supporters [aren't] doing him much good when they try to portray his critics as defective in some way -- intolerant, racist, mean-spirited, or, in the case of Wilson, just plain rude. Hopefully, Americans see through that. . . .

"During one of my regular appearances on National Public Radio, I was disappointed to hear a liberal colleague -- who, not surprisingly, happens to be an unflinching Obama supporter -- insist that critics like Wilson would never have been so disrespectful to a white president. This is a variation of the ridiculous argument that most of the criticism of Obama is coming from people who are uncomfortable with the idea of having a black president. Besides, apparently, my friend has forgotten how disrespectful groups such as Code Pink or MoveOn.org were during the Bush administration toward Alberto Gonzales, the nation's first Hispanic attorney general. Was that about racism too?"

At Right Wing Nuthouse, Rick Moran also challenges the use of the R-word:

"I received an email from a long time reader yesterday who was concerned I couldn't see that the protests were, at bottom, 'anti-American, racist, and dangerous . . . ' There's nothing 'anti-American' about protesting anything. We are, after all, a nation born out of protest, nurtured in the bosom of contrarianism, and defining progress by going against the grain in order to right significant wrongs in our society. This is not 'dangerous' by any stretch of the imagination - except to the comfort of the elites who always believe it dangerous when the hoi polloi become restless and disagree that only they in their superior wisdom are fit to tell the rest of us what to do.

"As for the charge of the protest being 'racist,' well, that's nonsense. If you're going to tar an entire movement with that epitaph based on the beliefs of a tiny fraction, then you should have no trouble referring to the civil rights movement of the 1960's as a 'Communist' movement since the CPUSA played a prominent role in the SCLC and other civil rights organizations. The same holds true for the anti-war movement where you couldn't attend a protest without tripping over a Communist or two."

By the way, when I referred Monday to efforts to cash in on his presidency by Obama's "native country," I obviously meant that Kenya was his ancestral homeland. Sorry for the sloppy choice of words.

Beyond the racial question, more journalists are examining the growth of the anti-Obama protest movement. "Amid a rebirth of conservative activism that could help Republicans win elections next year," says the L.A. Times, "some party insiders now fear that extreme rhetoric and conspiracy theories coming from the angry reaches of the conservative base are undermining the GOP's broader credibility and casting it as the party of the paranoid.

"Such insiders point to theories running rampant on the Internet, such as the idea that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is thus ineligible to be president, or that he is a communist, or that his allies want to set up Nazi-like detention camps for political opponents. Those theories, the insiders say, have stoked the GOP base and have created a 'purist' climate in which a figure such as Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) is lionized for his 'You lie!' outburst last week when Obama addressed Congress.

"They are 'wild accusations and the paranoid delusions coming from the fever swamps,' said David Frum, a conservative author and speechwriter for President George W. Bush who is among the more vocal critics of the party base and of the conservative talk show hosts helping to fan the unrest."

At the Daily Beast, John Avlon uses all kinds of adjectives other than racist:

"The weirdness of the Wingnut summer isn't over. The anger has metastasized into the body politic, and it's going to get a lot uglier from here.

"Obama Derangement Syndrome is establishing itself as a potent political force, able to rally tens of thousands of citizens to the Washington Mall after Glenn Beck's call. Joe Wilson's outburst isn't an embarrassment of incivility to these folks; it is a rallying cry for an army of useful idiots. But Republicans will soon find that they cannot contain or moderate this strain--while Democrats won't understand what hit them.

"The wave of white people that descended on Washington, D.C., this Saturday wasn't motivated by simple racism, as some liberals might wish--at least that's what the lady waving the Confederate flag told me. No, this was something else: a pent-up frustration at unprecedented Washington overspending and an individualistic resentment of the welfare state, all mixed with a dose of self-referential patriotism and a spicy dash of paranoia."

How's He Doing?

A USA Today poll has Obama at 54 percent, while a CNN survey has him at 58 percent.

Obama vs. Kanye

"Nightline" co-anchor Terry Moran tweeted Monday that "Pres. Obama just called Kanye West a 'jackass' for his outburst at VMAs when Taylor Swift won. Now THAT'S presidential."

Uh, what about the fact that Obama was right?

The president dropped the J-word during some off-the-record chatter at an interview with CNBC. The feed was available to other news outlets, which is how ABC found out about it. CNBC objected, saying that ABC -- which had considered, and rejected, doing a blog item on the exchange -- had violated the ground rules. Moran quickly un-tweeted his comment. Except by then it had already been widely re-tweeted. You can't put the toothpaste back in the digital tube.

An ABC spokesman gave me this statement: "In the process of reporting on remarks by President Obama that were made during a CNBC interview, ABC News employees prematurely tweeted a portion of those remarks that turned out to be from an off-the-record portion of the interview. This was done before our editorial process had been completed. That was wrong. We apologize to the White House and CNBC and are taking steps to ensure that it will not happen again."

As for Kanye, he went the contrition route with Jay last night, as the L.A. Times reports: "One day after the famously outspoken artist interrupted an acceptance speech from 19-year-old country star Taylor Swift at the award show, suggesting that her prize for best female video should have gone to Beyoncé, a contrite West appeared on Leno's new NBC show to deliver an apology . . . 'It was rude, period,' West, dressed in black, told Leno on Monday. 'I don't try to justify it 'cause I was in the wrong.' "

And is now milking it for more publicity.

The Beck Brigade

I wrote Monday about Glenn Beck taking on the White House, and the Atlantic's Justin Miller now argues that it's a mistake to view him as some separate entity:

"Glenn Beck's recent successes in getting Van Jones to leave the White House, a member of the National Endowment for the Arts reassigned, and pushing ACORN out of next year's census are more examples that the 'right-wing noise machine' is no more. It is now part and parcel of the mainstream media.

"The convergence between alternative, conservative media and the 'mainstream' media has been happening for years. I made the case before that the conservative media can force the press, which is a part of the MSM, to cover stories it may not otherwise give attention. One reader asked for such an example and now he has multiple ones with the NEA, ACORN, and most prominently, Jones. Right-wing media not only put a target on Jones's back, but made it so large that the White House couldn't divert attention from it -- especially the press' attention, which finished him.

"Beck was performing the basic mission of a reporter when he dug up parts of Jones's past because he brought undisclosed facts into the public record. To be sure he was not fair, objective, or disinterested in the outcome of that reporting, but it was reporting nonetheless. . . .

"Fox, Rush Limbaugh, and the Drudge Report can elevate stories into the national discourse just as CNN, NPR, and the New York Times can."

That, I would suggest, has been the case for a while. But it used to require the MSM picking up on such a story. No longer.

Bogus Bipartisanship?

It's all a charade, Politico says:

"In truth, Democratic offers to reach across the aisle -- and Republican demands that they do so -- are largely a charade, performed for the benefit of a huge bloc of practical-minded voters who hunger for the two parties to work together and are mystified that it never seems to happen.

"The answer is hardly a mystery to Obama or his adversaries. They know that the political incentives driving them toward conflict are vastly stronger than any impulses they may personally harbor for conciliation and compromise.

"This ritual -- publicly trumpeting the virtues of bipartisanship while privately navigating a Washington status quo with a bias for partisan combat -- is playing out across virtually every major issue the White House and Congress confront.

"White House officials privately acknowledge they would be lucky to get 1 percent of Republican lawmakers to vote for a final health plan. Right now, they would be happy to get just one vote: that of Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

"From the GOP perspective, most lawmakers have long since calculated that their most ardent supporters so dislike Obama and an expanded government role in health care that they would rather see the president fail -- or have health care legislation pass with all Democratic votes -- than to have Republican legislators engage with the White House to affect the bill.

"From Obama's perspective, he would be delighted if he won significant Republican support -- but he does not want it bad enough to substantially scale back his policy goals or risk alienating Democratic congressional leaders."

I do think Obama has made more gestures on health care than the other side has. But the battle lines are now clearly drawn.

Double Agent

This Las Vegas Sun scoop is a real eye-opener:

"In March, KTNV-TV, Channel 13 news aired a series of undercover exposes on Tire Works -- a Las Vegas auto repair chain the ABC affiliate reported was ripping off consumers.

"Days before the first Tire Works segment aired, recorded phone calls obtained by the Sun reveal, Channel 13 news anchor Nina Radetich was telling the Tire Works owner that her boyfriend could help the company handle media relations to counter the negative coverage coming from her newsroom.

"Radetich, who introduced a number of the auto repair sting segments during news broadcasts, was also recorded asking Tire Works owner Roshie Weightman to keep their conversations secret."

So much for that request.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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