Last week, I wrote of the recent successes of Senator Barack Obama - his trip abroad to Iraq and Europe and his reception in Germany where 200,000 people came to hear him speak and cheer him. I compared Obama with Julius Caesar, evoking Caesar’s boast of “Veni, Vidi, Vici.”
But Caesar also made his share of mistakes. This week, I'm writing about a gaffe by Senator Obama, in which he appeared to be playing what has come to be known as "the race card."
On August 1st The New York Times summed up the situation: “Senator John McCain’s campaign accused Senator Barack Obama on Thursday of playing ‘the race card,’ citing his remarks that Republicans would try to scare voters by pointing out that he ‘doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.’” The Times went on to state, “The exchange injected racial politics front and center into the general election campaign for the first time, after it became a subtext in the primary between Mr. Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton.”
The Times’ reference to the primary relates primarily to the fallout from former president Bill Clinton’s remarks concerning Senator Obama when he said, “Give me a break. This is the biggest fairy tale…,” referring to Obama’s anti-Iraq war efforts, and Clinton’s comparing Obama’s victory in South Carolina where he received 92 percent of the black vote with Rev. Jesse Jackson’s similar victory.
Bill Clinton’s remarks were attacked by Obama supporters as racist. Clinton who had a well-deserved reputation among African-Americans as being “our first black president,” was, and it appears continues to be, outraged by this accusation.
Is the McCain campaign’s charge that Obama is playing the race card valid, in view of Obama’s recent remarks on his own appearance compared to “other presidents?” I think so. Others do not agree.
New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert wrote on August 2nd, “So there he was this week speaking evenly, and with a touch of humor, to a nearly all-white audience in Missouri. His goal was to reassure his listeners, to let them know he’s not some kind of unpatriotic ogre. Mr. Obama told them: ‘What they’re going to try to do is make you 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 those dollar bills, you know. He’s risky.”
“What they’re going to try to do is make you scared of me.” The meaning of those words could not be any clearer. McCain, he is saying, will try to scare you by constantly raising the fact of Obama’s race. But McCain has not said any such thing. The thoughts that Obama attributes to the McCain campaign came out of Obama's mouth, not McCain's.
The Obama campaign quickly realized that Obama made a serious mistake, and is now backtracking. According to Newsday of August 1st, “…Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said, ‘We weren’t suggesting in any way he’s [McCain] using race as an issue.’”
Really? Then what were they suggesting?
Obama has used this tactic before. The Times reported on August 1st that Obama stated in June, “We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run. They’re gong 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?’”
Steve Schmidt of the McCain campaign said, “The McCain campaign was compelled to respond to this outrageous attack because we will not allow John McCain to be smeared by Senator Obama as a racist for offering legitimate criticism. We have waited for months with a sick feeling knowing this moment would come because we watched it occur with President Clinton. Say whatever you want about President Clinton, his record on this issue is above reproach.”
CNN political analysts Roland Martin, radio talk show host, himself an African-American, and David Gergen had the following insights on the use of the race card in the presidential race. In discussing the issue, moderator Wolf Blitzer, asked, “Roland, when – when Senator Obama says Republicans will try scaring voters because he looks different than other presidents on dollar bills, what do you think he means by that?”
Roland Martin responded, “The problem here is that he tried to link Bush and McCain specifically with those comments. Now, you might have bloggers, you might have conservative talk show hosts, you might have columnists who are making all kind of comments like that, who are raising these whole – these various issues. Frankly, Obama made a mistake. And that’s why they did change their tune. They haven’t even wanted to talk about it even further.
"And, so, when the candidate brings that up, you need to have facts to back it up, if you’re going to link to it. That’s why the McCain comment was very specific. He said, we did none of this. Obama’s mistake was not saying the larger sort of arena people who might be supporting McCain, those folks may be making these kinds of comments. That’s a mistake he made. They must own up to the mistakes they made.”
Gergen responded, “I agree with Roland. He went too far. But it is also true that, in all of the – that, in the overall Republican attacks, race has not been directly mentioned by McCain and his campaign, but it’s been heavily hanging over the attacks.”
In politics, like no other field of endeavor, the wheel constantly turns, and will turn again. Stay tuned.