“Pulling the Race Card”

Erick Erickson (among many other right-wingers) is apoplectic over Obama’s response, here, to John McCain’s series of invective-filled, substance-free attacks on him.

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Erick is particularly incensed by these lines (bolds in original):

“Nobody thinks that Bush or McCain have a real answer for the challenges we face. So what they are going to try to do is make you scared of me,” Obama warned, “You know he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name. You know, he doesn’t look like all of those other presidents on the dollar bills.”

“Barack Obama has finally pulled the race card against John McCain and the Republicans,” he fumes. “You know, Mr. ‘I transcend politics’ has finally, tacitly admitted he is just a typical politician by accusing those who don’t like him of being racist.”

This is an old tune we all know the words to. Racism is almost never referenced directly; our American language has ways of expressing what needs to be said, while maintaining full plausible deniability. And if you are brazen enough to point out the euphemistic language, you are “pulling the race card.” It’s fine to use race, if you’re white, to gain advantage at the expense of black Americans, as long as you do it in the appropriate coded way. But pointing out the code is just plain rude.

Getting back to Erick’s fumings, Obama has, of course, never said, or implied, that he “transcends politics.” That is just a lie. He has said that he wants to bring a new kind of politics to Washington, and by extension the country — one that rises above the very real historical, socioeconomic, and political divisions between us. He didn’t say eliminate the divisions, and he didn’t say ignore the divisions. He’s talking about a dialogue, not a finish line.

Obama is certainly not the first candidate for political office to present himself as a uniter, or as someone who wanted to use the privilege of public office to bring Americans together. John F. Kennedy did — and Barack Obama has been compared to JFK many times. I don’t recall Kennedy being hammered and attacked for being arrogant or presumptuous or narcisisstic, however.

Of course, there are important differences between the two men. For one thing, Kennedy fought in World War II, and was very much considered a war hero. He had a longer national political resume than Obama has, having served in both the House and the Senate before he ran for president. But then, that is a comparison one can make between Kennedy and several other former presidents. Not least of all the current one.

How much national political or foreign policy experience did George W. Bush have when he ran for president in 2000? None, that’s how much. How much experience did he have with “winning wars,” or with fighting wars? Zero. Did anyone on the right call GWB arrogant or presumptuous or an effete snob (although he was born to wealth and by his own admission has never known or been acquainted with anyone who knows what poverty is like)?

Erick Erickson takes enormous exception to Obama’s joshing remark about not looking like all of those other presidents on the dollar bills. But the fact is, he doesn’t. Does Erick truly believe that skin color and racial background play no part at all in white Americans’ view of Obama? After 250 years of de jure slavery and another century of de facto slavery, disenfranchisement, brutality, virulent anti-black hatred, and Jim Crow segregation, when a black American — albeit a black American who does not descend from slaves — is the presumptive nominee for president of the United States for one of the two major political parties, there are no stereotypes, racist beliefs and feelings, and deeply rooted fears among white Americans that can be exploited by unscrupulous white politicians? And that, in an age when it is no longer socially acceptable to voice such opinions in the brutally direct way they were in the past, politicians’ appeals to racist feeling must be couched in euphemistic, culturally familiar language?

It’s not as if Obama was called “arrogant” or “presumptuous” or “elitist” or “narcissistic” once or twice. Those verbal attacks follow him where he goes and whatever he does and says. And mind you, these terms are used to describe Sen. Obama by people who for the past eight years have been praising and lauding the likes of Dick “had better things to do than be drafted” Cheney and Don “I’m too busy with office stuff to stay current on Iraq or intelligence” Rumsfeld, or George W. “I’m the decider” Bush for being bold, decisive, and hard-nosed.

As a woman, I am quite sensitized to the ways in which word choice conveys bias. You know what I mean: Women are pushy; men are ambitious. But it’s more than that. The same word can have entirely different connotations depending on the race or gender of the person being discussed.

Take the word “ambitious,” for instance. One would think ambition is a good thing, and that calling someone “ambitious” would be a compliment. But not always. Two months ago, I read a post by Peter Wehner, at The Corner. I didn’t write about it at the time, but it made me furious. Now, it’s very apropos, and all I had to do to find it again was type in the keywords that were glued inside my brain: “Obama very, very ambitious.”

I’m telling you, the very first hit.

Wehner was writing, here, about Obama’s resignation from Trinity United Church (bolds are mine):

Barack Obama’s resignation from Trinity United Church of Christ over, in part, “a cultural and a stylistic gap” raises additional doubts about him. The obvious question is what “cultural and stylistic gap” exists now that hasn’t existed during the last two decades, when Obama was a member of Trinity United and an intimate friend with its pastor, Jeremiah Wright Jr.? The answer, of course, is none. Trinity United and Jeremiah Wright are what they have always been; it is Obama — or more precisely, Obama’s political interests — that have changed.

It’s been just over two months since Obama’s Philadelphia speech on race — the one that was compared by the historian Garry Wills to Lincoln’s Cooper Union address. In that speech Obama famously said he could not more disown the Reverend Jeremiah Wright than he could disown the black community or his own grandmother and spoke about how Trinity United “embodies the black community in its entirely.”

Since that speech Wright has been tossed under the bus — and now, so has Trinity United.

Obama’s twenty-year participation at Trinity United and his close relationship with its senior pastor raised a lot of questions about Obama — both about his decision to associate himself with Trinity United and Wright in the first place and Obama’s tortured explanations since the public first learned of Wright’s anti-American tirades.

What Obama did today may have been politically necessary. It was certainly politically expedient. And it is yet one more blow to Obama’s image as a different kind of politician. In fact, as we’ve learned over the last few months, Obama appears to be a Chicago politician through and through. When he perceived a threat to his self-interest, he cut his ties to first his pastor and then his church, both of which he had expressed familial love and fidelity. This whole episode is deeply unattractive, even as it is deeply revealing.

Underneath the attractive veneer of Barack Obama beats the heart of a very, very ambitious man. Time will tell how problematic this may be and what snares this character trait may eventually lead him into.

You don’t have to be skilled at the art of close reading to figure out that Obama’s ambition is a very, very bad thing. Not good at all.

Now read this piece, also from The Corner, about McCain’s so-called “Celeb” ad (it would have been delightfully full circle if Peter Wehner had written this, but Rich Lowry is actually the same guy with a different name):

I’m warmer to it than pretty much everyone else in the political commentariat, I think. Yes, the inclusion of Paris and Britney was kind of silly, but you’ve got to look at that as cable and YouTube bait (800k hits so far). The McCain folks did a 60-second ad a few weeks ago that was inarguably “worthy” of McCain, and how much attention did it get or good did it do McCain? Oh, you don’t remember it? Never mind. McCain’s not going to win without defining Obama in a negative way. He’s just not. There are other ways to do it, but pumping Obama up as a celebrity—and pointing out how arrogant, gassy, and remote he is—is a pretty good frame that has the added advantage of being true. This post at The New Republic gets the basic idea. It says something that Obama responded to the ad so poorly—mocking may be the best weapon against him—and used the race card in a way that will likely backfire.

Note the part I’ve bolded: Lowry, obviously, is saying that if McCain wants the presidency, he has to be willing to fight dirty, to campaign negatively, to open himself up to being criticized for being so ambitious that he will do anything — whatever it takes — to achieve that goal. So, underneath the very unattractive veneer of John McCain beats the heart of a very, very ambitious man. And that’s just fine with Rich Lowry.

Does that contrast have racist implications. I think it does. Being “ambitious” and being “arrogant” or “presumptuous” are slightly differing ways of saying that Barack Obama is uppity — an uppity Negro. He’s getting above himself, presuming way too much.

What reasonable explanation could there possibly be for calling the assured Democratic presidential nominee “arrogant” or “presumptuous” because he gives a speech in Berlin about foreign policy and how he sees the role of the United States in the world? Why shouldn’t he be “acting presidential” when there is an excellent chance he will be president in four months? As Josh Marshall wrote yesterday, “Is it arrogant or above Obama’s station for him to meet with the Chairman of the Federal Reserve? If I’m not mistaken he is a sitting United States senator and also the presidential candidate of the Democratic party. Such meetings are actually the norm.”

Ooops, I guess since he’s a black man, he shouldn’t be giving himself airs. Some white Americans just can’t stand the thought that a black man may be running the country starting in January 2009. Some white folks find it intolerable that Barack Obama, an African-American, is defining the challenges this country faces, telling whites what he thinks the problems are and what the solutions might be. How dare he?

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