When Bill Clinton likened Barack Obama to Rev. Jesse Jackson during the Democratic primaries, he was pilloried as a racial agitator. How dare the former president imply that Obama – the great hope of “post-racial” politics – belonged in the same mold as race-baiting hucksters like Jackson? But mounting evidence from the campaign trail seems to vindicate Clinton’s comparison.
An undercurrent of Obama’s bitter contest with the Clintons, the race issue resurfaced anew last week. In contention was a John McCain campaign ad mocking Obama’s global celebrity. Juxtaposing clips of Obama with paparazzi favorites Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, the ad was intended to point up the superficiality of the candidate’s appeal.
In this it did not entirely succeed. Although there does appear to be an inverse correlation between Obama’s conspicuously thin political résumé and the mass adulation that has greeted his campaign, the point did not translate well in the ad: the contrast between the polished senator and the airhead icons seemed strained. Errors of execution apart, the ad played directly into the rival campaign’s theme that the election was all about Obama. All in all, it was a clumsy effort.
What it plainly was not was racist. But that was the charge hurled almost immediately by the Obama campaign. Addressing a Missouri crowd, Obama warned darkly that McCain would try to make Americans “scared of me. You know, ‘He’s not patriotic enough, he’s got a funny name.’ You know, ‘He doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.’” In other words, McCain was trying to make an issue of his race. “That’s essentially the argument they’re making,” Obama said.
In fact, of course, that was not the argument the McCain camp was making – as would have been obvious to any fair-minded campaign watcher. And indeed Obama’s spokesmen promptly retreated from the racism accusation, insisting that Obama’s dollar-bills reference was not about race at all.
That defense was difficult to credit, not least because Obama had made a nearly identical claim in early June. “We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run,” he said then. “They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?’” Obama’s comments last week were a marginally more subtle version of the same spurious claim – namely, that McCain aims to stoke fears about his skin color.
The claim reverses reality. Not only has McCain avoided the sensitive subject of race but he has gone out of his way to condemn all criticism of Obama that could be interpreted, however implausibly, as racially motivated. In April, when the Republican Party of North Carolina released a television spot linking Obama with his radical ex-pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, McCain urged that the ad be pulled. To the extent that any demographic is voting along racial lines in the current race it is the black electorate – a July Wall Street Journal poll found that 20 percent of black voters consider race the “single most important factor” in their vote – that is overwhelmingly supporting Obama.
None of this has deterred the Obama campaign from playing the race card. Indeed, the sleazy dollar-bills quip was but one of the racially divisive comments Obama débuted last week. Speaking at a UNITY '08 Convention in Chicago, Obama offered a curious take on the issue of reparations for slavery: “I consistently believe that when it comes to whether it's Native Americans or African-American issues or reparations, the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just offer words, but offer deeds.” Obama’s exact meaning was elusive, but the statement seemed to signal his support for reparations, a fringe cause much beloved by the more demagogic black leaders. The apparent endorsement was all the more mystifying given that Obama had declined to support reparations during the primaries. Now he seemed to side with the most extreme voices in the black community.
This is not the turn Obama’s “change” script was supposed to take. To his credit, Obama had previously made some attempts to forge a new way on race. In his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he showed an understanding of the racial divide far more sophisticated than the catechism of victimology preached by Revs. Jackson and Sharpton, and there was reason to think that he would be a unifying force on the issue.
During the primaries, Obama fulfilled some of these expectations. He distanced himself from his Afro-centric Trinity United Church and its militant former leader, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. More recently, he has talked up the importance of parental responsibility, especially in the black community, arousing the ire of those who, like Rev. Jackson, have made a career of claiming that systemic American “racism” is to blame for black misfortunes.
Commendable in their way, these splits with the more polarizing elements of the black leadership can also be overstated. Obama’s decision to leave his church came late in his campaign, and then only after sustained criticism made his continued membership a political liability. Hopes that he would decisively break with the more radical figures in the black community have likewise gone unfulfilled. After the latter’s off-air blowup, Obama rushed to make amends with Rev. Jackson. No sooner had Jackson recanted his famous castration threat than Obama spokesman Bill Burton insisted that “of course [Obama] accepts Reverend Jackson's apology.” Apparently, Jackson was too important an ally to alienate.
That Obama has not quite been the uniter he promised is only part of the problem. More troubling is what the newly racial tenor of his campaign bodes for the future. It suggests, for instance, that an Obama presidency would be a grueling affair, one in which every policy question is framed as a take-sides referendum on race. Disagree with President Obama and you could be denounced as a racist.
Instructive in this regard was the backlash against McCain’s “Celebrity” spot. As Obama intimated sinister motives his allies followed suit in even more abrasive terms. Liberal writer Rick Perlstein hysterically charged that the Hilton-Spears ad had “Barack Obama will rape yo daughters overtones,” and suggested, even more hysterically, that the images of Obama’s recent Berlin speech were a conscious allusion to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda vehicle Triumph of the Will. (It was apparently McCain’s fault that Obama had chosen to speak before a mass of cheering Germans.)
Lest one dismiss Perlstein as a lone crank, his suggestion that McCain was trying to inspire fears of black men raping white women was echoed in the media. One blog, hosted by Newsday.com, alleged that the McCain ad had picked “two sexually available white women” precisely for that purpose. It’s hard to think of a stronger case against an Obama presidency than the possibility that each debate during his tenure will play out in the same enlightening fashion. But whatever happens in November, one thing already seems clear: the hope that electing the first black president will move the country past its racial fissures seems to be just that. For all the hype that he is a transcendent politician, Obama has shown himself to be just as cynical as the black leaders of the past. Somewhere Bill Clinton must be smiling knowingly.