January 12, 2010

Gotcha! The art of the political sucker punch

The handsome, charismatic Barack Obama came upon the national scene a few years ago, breathlessly touted in Ebony magazine and on the Oprah Winfrey Show. He had served in the U.S. Senate for only a short time, when the news media began to talk him up as a credible candidate for the presidency.  And at every turn, the enthusiastic correspondents and commentators pointed out something that I never would have figured out on my own:

“Look, he’s black!”

(In truth he’s equally Caucasian, and everyone knows it.  But that wouldn’t be newsworthy, and it wouldn’t give us much to talk about.)

Last week it came to light that Senator Harry Reid made an (allegedly) insensitive remark in a private conversation with a colleague during the 2008 campaign.  He noted that Obama’s blackness shouldn’t be an impediment because he’s “light-skinned” and has “no Negro dialect.”

Could it be?

Republicans quickly pounced on this opportunity to label him a racist, and called for him to resign from his post as majority leader.  They recalled an incident in 2002 when then-majority leader Trent Lott made a similarly “racist” comment in praise of Senator Strom Thurmond which enraged the Democrats and led to Lott’s resignation from his leadership role.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right?

Good grief, Charlie Brown.

Until someone invents a machine to read peoples’ brains, none of us can know the true nature of Sen. Reid’s motives. But I’m not so sure that these words prove anything.  His analysis, even if unpleasant, was spot-on; would any serious pundit disagree?  In this TV-and-Internet era, the physical appearance and speech patterns of a candidate are vitally important.  Call it shallow, call it unfair, call it un-American, whatever you like, that’s just the way it is.  Would even Honest Abe even stand a chance in a televised debate opposite a younger, more polished opponent?

Sen. Reid has lived his entire 69 years in a state that (according to the 2000 census) has a black population of about six percent, so I suspect that he has never had a huge number of “negro” neighbors and friends.  In his generation the word wasn’t a pejorative; it was the descriptive nomenclature that black folks used to identify themselves. If this brave new world of political correctness (with its ever-changing rules and vocabulary) should cause him a few awkward moments, I’m willing to give him a break on this one.  Even the president himself, allegedly the victim in this affair, is mystified by the outpouring of outrage; he paid me a compliment, right?

As for Sen. Lott’s praise of Thurmond, that he might have done some good things if elected as president in 1948, so what?  Could it be that the Gentleman from Mississippi was familiar with his colleague’s voting record in the Senate?  Could it be that they were personal friends, and shared an interest in fishing, or football, or chess?  To suggest that they could only have bonded over a common racist sentiment, is absurd.

On the occasion of his centennial Thurmond was a feeble old man with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, the lamest of all ducks, no longer a danger to anyone.  Even war criminals in his condition have been known to receive clemency, sprung from prison and allowed to live out their remaining years at home.  Must we hold a grudge forever?  Must we demonize anyone who ever shook his hand or offered a kindness?  Where does it end?

If you insist on finding a villain in this story, I suggest that you begin with the voters of Nevada, since they’ve elected Reid to the Senate four times.  Or the residents of South Carolina who chose Thurmond, first for governor and then for the U.S. Senate, again and again for over a half-century.  Every six years they have a chance to throw the bums out, to find someone new; but it’s so easy to pull that lever for the incumbent or the familiar face.  It saves thinking.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Mr. Reid or Mr. Thurmond.  But we shouldn’t be so eager to pounce on their smallest mistakes, just because we can.  We enjoy living in a democratic (small-d) society, yet that very democracy is a double-edged sword.  We can choose our government leaders, but the flip side of that blessing is that we must live with the choices we make.

They say that Nero fiddled while Rome burned.  Well, I’m beginning to smell smoke in Washington these days; is that a string quartet I hear?  Please, spare me the manufactured righteous indignation, the infinite pettiness over things that don’t really matter.

If you want to makes yourself useful, go grab a hose.

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