Erasing the race

By Gene Lyons

Try this political pop quiz: Can you identify the presidential candidate promising “a fresh start after a season of cynicism ... a president who can unite this nation, a president who puts aside the endless partisan bickering that seems to gridlock our nation’s capital, a president who puts the people first, a president who lifts this nation’s spirits?”

Another clue: “I want you to understand that I can’t win without you. When you go out there and tell the folks where we stand ... when it comes to bringing people together to get things done, and you tell them that the core of this campaign is the inherent trust in the American people, I believe it doesn’t matter what political party they’re in. They’re going to come our way.”

OK, it’s a trick question. The candidate’s not Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, but Texas governor George W. Bush, as quoted by The New York Times in November 2000. Actually, “folks” should be a dead giveaway. It’s what poker players call Bush’s “tell,” a sure sign he’s blowing smoke.

But, yes, Obama 2008 sounds awfully like Bush 2000, especially when he wafts into high rhetorical mode, all moonbeams and lofty emotions. Exactly what compromises he’ll make with the guns, God and gays, bigger-wars/smaller-taxes GOP hardliners come 2009 – the same ones circulating e-mails falsely claiming he’s a covert Islamic extremist – Obama’s not saying.

But no, I didn’t find Obama haughtily condescending toward Hillary Rodham Clinton during the New Hampshire debate. People make too much of these transitory moments. She’d pronounced him “likeable,” pretty much forcing him to call her likeable back. I’d call his reaction one professional’s wry acknowledgement of another’s smooth handling of a tricky question.

Nor do I credit the rumor reported by the New York Post’s chronically unreliable Page Six that Obama entered a Des Moines victory party to Jay-Z’s misogynist rap “99 Problems”: “I got 99 problems but a b**** ain’t one.” He’d have to be an idiot, and Obama’s not.

What, then, to make of the controversy over Clinton’s alleged “racially tinged comments” as one Washington Post op-ed writer called them, words “that could be taken as either insensitive or patronizing”? Citing Obama’s relative lack of experience, Clinton made the unexceptional point that it took LBJ’s political skills to turn Martin Luther King Jr.’s idealism into law.

Because Clinton’s words have been selectively edited, it’s worth quoting them in full: “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality. The power of that dream became real in people’s lives because we had a president who said, ‘We are going to do it,’ and actually got it accomplished.”

“In other words,” wrote Marjorie Valbrun in the Post, “’I have a dream’ is a nice sentiment, but King couldn’t make it reality. It took a more practical and, of course, white president, Lyndon Johnson, to get blacks to the mountaintop. ... Clinton managed to insult a beloved black leader in her eager attempt to insult a rising black leader.”

Except that King himself once told LBJ, “It is ironic, Mr. President, that after a century, a southern white President would help lead the way toward the salvation of the Negro.”

Grow up, Ms. Valbrun.

Likewise, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert accused Hillary of “taking cheap shots at, of all people, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Herbert further accused Bill Clinton of insultingly characterizing Obama’s campaign as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Virtually every “mainstream” publication and TV network jumped in. Here’s Newsweek’s formulation of the racial insult Bill Clinton “appeared” to deliver, “a remark that infuriated many African-Americans. ‘When has “black” and “fairy tale” ever been mentioned in the same sentence?’ asked Todd Boyd, professor of African-American and Critical Studies at the University of Southern California.”

When, indeed? You can scrutinize Bill Clinton’s entire 500-word statement about Obama’s shifting positions on Iraq without finding any allusion whatsoever to race. Not one. It’s online at

On “Meet the Press,” Sen. Clinton found herself confronted with video clips artfully cropped to conceal the context of both her own remarks and her husband’s. She defended herself well, but that’s not the point. Whatever his faults, Bill Clinton stood up for civil rights in Arkansas back when it was physically dangerous. Hillary was inspired by Dr. King as a high school girl. Their reward was the insanely scurrilous videotape, “The Clinton Chronicles,” partly narrated by Arkansas’ last die-hard segregationist, Justice Jim Johnson.

Leave this stuff to Rush Limbaugh and Al Sharpton. Democrats indulge in racial demagoguery at their peril. It will surely backfire in the general election.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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