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Governing in Black and White

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008 9:46 AM

One of the unspoken tenets of Barack Obama's candidacy is that his election would be a milestone for race relations, healing many of the country's wounds.

That may well be the case, if it comes to pass. But there is cause for skepticism.

I have no doubt that this shattering of the ultimate glass ceiling would instill great pride in African Americans and make many white Americans proud of their country as well. But some may view an actual, flesh-and-blood Obama administration very differently.

That NYT poll I mentioned the other day found "about half of black voters said race relations would improve in an Obama administration, compared with 29 percent of whites. About 40 percent of blacks said that Mr. McCain, if elected president, would favor whites over blacks should he win the election."

But for all racial groups, I would pose this question: What happens six months after the inauguration, when the problems pile up and the glow has worn off?

I was working in New York in 1989 when David Dinkins was elected the city's first black mayor. It was a hopeful moment after a dozen years of Ed Koch, during which several high-profile racial attacks, in such places as Howard Beach and Bensonhurst, left the city scarred.

Dinkins was a courtly gentleman who once helped me put on my coat. He was also a machine hack and a mediocre mayor at best. As crime rose and the sense that the city was out of control took hold, the New York Post demanded in a famous front-page headline: "DAVE, DO SOMETHING!"

He didn't do enough, and Rudy Giuliani beat him in their 1993 rematch. Dinkins made history, but he was a one-termer.

There have been very successful black mayors, such as Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, and Doug Wilder was a reasonably successful governor of Virginia. On the other hand, two black mayors of Newark have been indicted: Ken Gibson pleaded guilty to tax fraud and Sharpe James is fighting corruption charges. Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell was convicted of tax evasion. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is battling perjury charges after getting caught having an affair with his chief of staff. Carole Moseley-Braun, from Obama's home state of Illinois, is the only African American woman ever elected to the Senate, but the voters sent her packing after one term amid allegations of ethical violations.

Yes, there have been legions of corrupt and incompetent white officials. My point is the promise of a new racial era often doesn't match the reality. Dinkins couldn't even bring racial harmony to New York; there was a race riot in Crown Heights in 1991, marked by clashes between blacks and Jews.

The presidency, of course, is different. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of his administration, Obama would become the symbol of America to the rest of the world. Michelle Obama would be a trailblazer after 41 white first ladies (James Buchanan was a bachelor). But expectations would be so sky-high it's an open question whether anyone could meet them.

Meanwhile, the Obama team is pushing back on that Times survey ("Poll Finds Obama Isn't Closing Divide on Race"), using the paper's numbers to make these points:

"A) More white voters say Obama cares about people like them, than say the same thing about McCain by 31 to 23%

"B) On the essential issue in this campaign - bringing about change in Washington - Among white voters, Obama is seen as the change agent by 52% to 30%

"C) Obama's 31% favorable rating among white voters is virtually identical to McCain's, which is at 34%.

"D) By a 2 to 1 margin over McCain, white voters are more likely to say that Obama would improve America's image in the world."

At Time, numbers-cruncher Jackson Dykman has problems with the story:

"I too was really struck by the NYT's characterization of its own poll . . . I've rarely seen a story so wildly off from the actual data on which it is based . . .

"The premise of the story is, well, utter nonsense. Are we really supposed to think that because a black man has become the Democratic nominee in recent weeks that he somehow should have cured (or markedly improved) race relations in this country? This is just a silly premise, yet the story thrust of the story seems to be shock and surprise that the mere fact of Obama's candidacy hasn't reversed--or obliterated--the slight increase in racial tensions in this country over the past 8 years."

Most interesting interview of the day: Barack Obama with Glamour:

"Q. An AP poll shows that while the positive ratings on Michelle are higher than those of Cindy McCain, her negative ratings are higher as well. I'm curious about how as a husband that makes you feel. Does it mystify you? And what do you want to say to those Americans who don't know the woman that you know?

"Obama: It's infuriating, but it's not surprising, because let's face it: What happened was that the conservative press--Fox News and the National Review and columnists of every ilk--went fairly deliberately at her in a pretty systematic way . . . and treated her as the candidate in a way that you just rarely see the Democrats try to do against Republicans. And I've said this before: I would never have my campaign engage in a concerted effort to make Cindy McCain an issue, and I would not expect the Democratic National Committee or people who were allied with me to do it. Because essentially, spouses are civilians. They didn't sign up for this. They're supporting their spouse. So it took a toll. If you start being subjected to rants by Sean Hannity and the like, day in day out, that'll drive up your negatives."

I take it we won't be seeing the Illinois senator on "Hannity & Colmes" any time soon?

On all the TV hoopla over Obama's overseas trip, Josh Marshall seizes on some mild carping by John McCain's spokeswoman:

"First McCain wanted Obama to go to Iraq; now he's complaining that people care more about Obama's trip than his dog-and-pony show last spring. I think the American people have to admit that they're biased against John McCain.

"Let's be honest. Hardly anyone cares about McCain or his campaign. No one's excited about it in any way. I don't think that's an overstatement. Caring or being excited about isn't the same as supporting. Lots of people support McCain -- but as the anti-Obama, the alternative. This isn't to say he can't win; he definitely can. But very little of this campaign is about him. Virtually all of it is about Barack Obama."

I agree the election is ultimately a referendum on Obama. But does it let the media off the hook that the candidate they cover more is deemed to be more exciting?

McCain is funnier than Obama, but has a knack for getting himself into trouble, as Politico points out:

"Ever hear that joke about waterboarding? How about the one about killing Iranians? And why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? If you aren't familiar with those witty japes, then you've missed out on John McCain's lighter side . . .

"McCain's humor . . . makes him the political counterpart of the radio host Don Imus (whom he has defended): It's sharp, unrehearsed and, at times, way, way over the line. This cycle, he's drawn winces, and worse, for everything from a joking reference to domestic violence to a now-notorious little ditty about bombing Iran. Earlier in his political career, the Arizona press reported that he'd cracked a rape joke that would now probably end any politician's career, a joke his aides then and now say he doesn't recall making.

"To McCain's friends and supporters, the humor is a mark of his authenticity. To his detractors, some of the jokes are offensive and out of touch with contemporary mores. What's undeniable, though, is that the humor, with its political risks and, to some, its charm, is intrinsic to John McCain. He is a man of a certain generation, with a machismo forged from his experience as a Navy pilot and an aviator, a candidate who is more comfortable in his own skin than with a teleprompter."

What about the old romance between Mac and the Fourth Estate? New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait, who once proudly proclaimed his Bush hatred, still feels the tug:

"Eight years ago, I was a hard-core liberal McCainiac. Here was a Republican saying things no other Republican would say and fighting, Teddy Roosevelt-style, to wrest his party from the hands of the plutocrats who controlled it. And, in the years immediately following that run, McCain established himself as perhaps the country's foremost progressive champion. He was an opponent, on moral and fiscal grounds, of tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefited the rich. He was also a fierce opponent of the extreme elements of the religious right. He was a proponent of global-warming legislation, the Law of the Sea Treaty, a moderate immigration bill, expanded public financing of elections, a tobacco tax, and many other liberal reforms.

"Today, he is none of these things . . . Yet, somehow, I still feel some pangs of affinity for the old codger. Where Bush is peevish, entitled, and insecure, McCain's charming, ironic, and self-deprecating. Bush's path to public life was trading on his father's name to run a series of business ventures into the ground before being handed a baseball team. McCain's was an episode of awe-inspiring perseverance . . .

"McCain is pretty easy to take. His demagoguery comes with an awkward forced smile, which doesn't make it more forgivable but does make it less irritating."

I guess you can call someone an old codger if you're saying nice things.

This got a bit of attention, but did the male-dominated media blow it? The Nation's Katha Pollitt:

"I realize it's not as world-shaking as the caricature of the Obamas on the cover of The New Yorker, which has the high-end media in a total tizzy. It's probably not even as important as the raunchy joke Bernie Mac told at an Obama fundraiser last week, which was bumped from the tizzy list by the New Yorker story. But can't the commentariat take a break from itself and let the world know how much John McCain opposes birth control? Vastly more people rely on contraception than read The New Yorker or know Bernie Mac from mac'n' cheese. In fact, vastly more people use birth control than believe Obama is a secret Muslim. They might like to know that when it comes to contraception, McCain is no maverick.

"Here's the story. Last week, Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who has been helping McCain look bright-eyed and estrogen-friendly, told reporters that women wanted more choice in their health care plans; for example, it bothered women when plans covered Viagra but not contraception. Big mistake! McCain had voted against a bill that would have required plans to cover birth control if they covered prescription meds at all, like, um, Viagra. McCain's nonresponse when queried about this by a reporter was astonishing. As posted on Youtube, he squirms and grins and smirks (Viagra! embarrassing!) and fumfers about evasively. 'I don't know enough about it to give you an informed answer,' he manages to splutter, 'because I don't recall the vote, I've cast thousands of votes . . . it's something I've not thought much about.'

"So. John McCain is so opposed to contraception he voted against requiring insurance plans to cover it like other drugs, and either so indifferent to women's health and rights or just so out of it he doesn't even remember how he voted. That's the way to show American women you really care."

Does a disaffected left help or hurt Obama? David Corn of Mother Jones says it's not that bad:

"A prominent liberal commentator approached me today and said, 'I'm sorry I voted for Obama.' This person was livid about Obama's vote for the FISA bill. ('Telecom immunity is a biggie for me,' s/he said.) And this commentator, after complaining Obama's plans for the economy and energy independence were not extensive enough, shared his/her big fear with me: 'He's an empty suit.'

"That's not my take. But there's obviously a liberal backlash against Obama, especially among a small cadre of bloggers who were enraged by his vote for the FISA legislation. Liberal voices, such as Arianna Huffington, have slapped or blasted Obama for supposedly moving to the center. My hunch is that these criticisms do not reach the swing, independent, moderate, whatever-you-call-'em voters who don't yet know for whom they're going to vote . . .

"But I suppose one question is whether the left-of-center complaints about Obama provide any drag on his campaign. In 1992, similar criticism of Bill Clinton did nothing to slow down Clinton, who angered (or irked) many liberals with his triangulations and connections to the Democratic Leadership Council, a corporate-backed group that spent much of its time bashing the base of the party. But the more contemporary evidence is Obama's continued success at fundraising. On Friday, his campaign announced that he had raised $52 million in June. That's $30 million more than McCain raked in--and only $3 million less than what Obama raised in his best month (February)."

Finally, the cynical press at work:

"Sometimes it's hard to tell if Barack Obama is running for president of the United States or Mr. Universe," says the AP.

"The Democratic presidential contender exercises regularly, but over a 24-hour span this week, he took it to a new extreme.

"Twice on Wednesday and again Thursday morning, Obama traveled to a lakefront apartment building near his Chicago home to work out with a friend at his gym. On Wednesday night, Obama also spent an hour at the East Bank Club, a mammoth exercise facility just north of the city's famous business Loop where he is known to play basketball . . .

"A distinct lack of visible sweat on the Illinois senator triggered questions about whether he was actually exercising or using the gym visits as cover for conducting vice presidential vetting or interviews."

I'm not going to work up a sweat investigating this.

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