The revelation that Democratic senate majority leader Harry Reid “praised” then-senator Barack Obama by noting his light-hued skin tones and speaking style is the newest wrinkle in the how-black-is-Obama right-wing obsession. And further proof that politicians have to learn when to keep their mouths shut.
The difference is that, rather than being a put-down by those who worried that Obama wasn’t black enough or resonantly enough a part of the African-American experience, this time it was apparently in the guise of urging the guy to take up the challenge of becoming a vibrant presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries.
Reid’s comments are reported in a new book about the 2008 presidential campaign by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, called “Game Change.” Reid’s comments are strikingly similar to those of Joe Biden (himself a potential presidential candidate at the time, a senator from Delaware who became Obama’s eventual running mate and the man who is now vice president). Biden had said Obama was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”. In contrast to whom? Snoop Doggy Dog?
The conventional wisdom had always been that no black candidate could win in a national election, even if they succeeded in various primaries – just as Jesse Jackson did the last time he threw his metaphorical hat into the ring – because of entrenched racism, or fear of minorities or simply the failure of such a candidate to connect viscerally with the rest of the American population. By that analysis, any black candidate became, in effect, a “race man”, a man whose claim to electoral success was ultimately pegged to a connection with and a history in the civil rights revolution, rather than larger electoral issues that transcend racial questions or are irrelevant to them.
Jesse Jackson, a couple of election cycles ago, tried to parlay his national presence in the civil rights world into becoming the avatar of a broader coalition of the poor, the previously disenfranchised and those who were losing out as the then-go-go economy was exporting blue-collar jobs to Asia. It achieved for him solid wins in several primaries of 1984, but that very success was used as the basis for the argument that he couldn’t win in the wider electoral universe as he was too closely tied to the bottom layers of American society.
In making his comments, putting the best possible face on a fairly ham-handed vocabulary, Harry Reid was apparently trying to articulate a distinction between a cool, confident, presidential Barack Obama and the “race men”, ostensibly as a way of boosting Obama’s stature and chances. While Biden’s comments might have had a subliminal edge to them to punch up Obama’s race as a way of waving off broader support for Obama and allowing Biden to garner some of that support among liberals, Reid’s clearly were not an attempt to besmirch Obama in any way – although it must be said that they seem to have been rooted in some old-style way of speaking about African-Americans.
Prominent African-American politicians and intellectuals were quick to offer sympathy and support to Reid, in part because of his long-time proactive civil rights record. Harvard University’s Lani Guinier added that, while Reid’s comment seemed to be “an unfortunate truth about the present”, nonetheless, Obama would have had a more difficult time getting elected if his skin were darker and if he spoke in a dialect more identifiable as “black”.
And yes, this skin tone thing has lots of semi-forgotten resonances with an earlier time in American history and race relations, what with desperate efforts by some black Americans to pass for white or even prejudices within the black community by lighter-skinned members against those whose skin, hair and facial features seemed more “African”.
Republicans, of course, never ones to let a good racial row in the Democratic party escape their attention, were quick to draw attention to Reid’s reported remarks and draw a line to then Republican senate leader Trent Lott’s long-time opposition to the Martin Luther King holiday and his supportive remarks in 2002 about arch-segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. (Yes, Thurmond had lived long enough and been in the senate for so many years that he outgrew his racist past, but it still seems quite a stretch to line up Reid’s comments with those of Lott.)
Michael Steele, Republican national chairman (and just incidentally a rather darker-hued former lieutenant governor of Maryland), complained on national TV that “there’s a big double standard” in how Harry Reid’s and Trent Lott’s comments are being treated. Steele added, “What’s interesting here is when Democrats get caught saying racist things, an apology is enough. If that had been Mitch McConnell, the current senate minority leader, saying that about an African-American candidate for president of the US, Democrats would be screaming for his head, very much as they were with Trent Lott”. And two Republican senators, Jon Kyl and John Cornyn, even called for Reid to resign.
The real import of this political catfight should not be forgotten, however. It is more than about the role of race in American politics. Reid and Obama have already spoken about it, Reid apologised and Obama accepted it.
The lesson is that we now operate in a 24-7-365 political universe. Everything, and I mean everything, a politician says, writes, emails or tweets, is inevitably going to find its way into print, in the airwaves or in the blogosphere. There have been some near-legendary microphone blunders – Reagan’s “we start bombing the Soviet Union in fine minutes”, Dick Cheney’s disparaging remarks about a certain New York Times reporter – politicians are clearly beginning to recalibrate their relationships with media confidants like Bob Woodward (of the Watergate fame, who was also the early court troubadour of the Bush administration’s war policies who later used his privileged status to severely criticise their efforts). But they’re also extending this to their BlackBerry pen pals, their own blogs and even their casual, off-the-cuff, ad hoc, off-the-record remarks.
Seventy or 80 years ago, the White House press corps was a tight group of gruff white guys who knew each other, drank together and were privy to the thoughts of a president or his advisors. To keep it that way, they didn’t print the “good stuff”. For the entire 12-plus years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, no pictures were every used in the media showing the fact that he couldn’t walk unaided and used a wheelchair, braces or crutches. That would never happen today. However, it is now true with private asides, tweets and emails as well, and politicians – at least those that don’t want to be serially embarrassed – will learn this and assimilate it.
Just as certainly, however, there are candidates and their entourages and advisors who have already done so and who know how to use the multimedia environment. In a way, the first truly modern candidate was Abraham Lincoln back in 1860. With a reputation gained from a series of public debates with Stephen Douglass over a senate seat from Illinois two years previously, Lincoln and his handlers created a candidate who was the repository of backwoods wisdom and insight, who couldn’t tell a lie, and who would save the nation from secession. This from a guy who was a rich and successful lawyer for many of the country’s railroads (the then new technology of the mid-19th century). He also became the first successful Republican party candidate to win the presidency.
A hundred years later, Richard Nixon and his handlers learned another lesson – control the media’s access, control the content of what they see and hear, and you gain mastery of the media’s message. Through a series of precisely and meticulously staged public events, they created a Richard Nixon who had learned the lessons of defeat in 1960, had studied the public pulse, who understood the realpolitik universe of foreign affairs and who could be trusted to run the government. Gotcha.
This current contretemps with Harry Reid’s comments will almost certainly blow over, but the real impact of the discussion will be on politicians who finally learn that they are on show, centre stage and up-front all the time. Nothing is private, nothing is off-the-record. Nothing whatsoever.
By J. Brooks Spector
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