It's not easy being sensitive enough to qualify as a modern Democrat. Political correctness runs amok, and it's only January. If the squawking between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is about race-baiting, as the most easily excited among us are saying, these are not your grandfather's race-baiters.
Nor is it necessarily ironic that the accusations of race-baiting are heard in the Democratic primaries. The Democrats invented race politics, after all, dating from the days when the party of Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson and FDR was the party of white supremacy. Abraham Lincoln and the early Republicans were against slavery — though certainly not against white supremacy — as long as abolition wouldn't personally inconvenience them, and some of the instinctive differences endure.
Bill Clinton, not necessarily the most liberal of the liberals, imagined he was immune to accusations of racial zealotry no matter what he says and does because, after all, he was christened by novelist Toni Morrison as "America's first black president." Hillary no doubt imagined that as the wife of the first black president, though still a white girl, she had acquired immunity-by-association in the way that infants acquire immunity in the womb. The Clintons were among the sensitivity police who fashioned the trap of political correctness, meant to eradicate everyone who trespassed against the code.
"They embraced Anita Hill and her (unproved) story of feminist grievance, and helped ride it to victory in the Year of the Woman," writes Noemie Emery in the Weekly Standard. "They promised a Cabinet that 'looked like America' (though not quite as much so as George W. Bush's), hectored opponents of affirmative action, and suggested that impeachment was a device thought up by Southern conservatives to punish Clinton for having black friends. Now they find themselves unable to criticize a black man for what they think are legitimate reasons, because they helped to teach people that criticism is bias in disguise ... they can't complain that their words have been misinterpreted, because the theory of hate speech maintains that the listener can project on to words uttered by others whatever motives he wants to see in them. If he declares himself offended, the listener has the last word."
But it's something new for Bonnie and Clod to be cast as racists themselves, as the villains in what columnist David Brooks calls a Tom Wolfe novel unfolding beyond even Wolfe's imagining. It's not so much what Bubba and the missus have been saying, but the "tone" they employ in saying it. All these years we thought only conservatives had a tone problem.
Some of the remarks described as racist, or at least bigoted, are soggy tea bags indeed, and if this were a white-on-white argument it would hardly have raised an eyebrow at the New York Times or The Washington Post. In fact, anyone not paying close attention would have thought the anger at Bubba's characterization of Mr. Obama's views of the war in Iraq as "a fairy tale" was a bit of mean-spirited gay-bashing, and wondered what the controversy had to do with the senator. Hillary's unremarkable observation that Martin Luther King did the heavy lifting but it took Lyndon Johnson to get a civil rights bill through Congress was merely stating the obvious — that a preacher's pulpit prowess inspires but only a president's pen can turn legislation into law.
Even blacks can be racists in the super-heated competition to be the most sensitive pol in town. When Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, observed, with a certain soupcon of acid, that when the Clintons were working for blacks in the '90s "Obama was doing something in the neighborhood, I won't say what he was doing," he was hotly accused of exploiting a racial stereotype: the young Barack Obama must have been doing drugs. This was exactly what the senator, in his campaign autobiography, said he was doing in the neighborhood. But accuracy and facts are no defense against political incorrectness. Falling into a trap of your own design stings a right smart, as Bonnie and Clod are learning through her tears.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.