Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, it must be remembered, is a native Minnesotan. So let no one misunderstand the purity of his motives in rising to the defense of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, under fire for having discussed Barack Obama’s pre-presidential political prospects in terms of Mr. Obama’s light skin and lack of a “Negro dialect.”
After all, Mr. Kaine is a post-massive-resistance, moderately liberal national Democratic governor of a once decidedly and even defiantly Southern and conservative but now up-for-grabs “purple” state.
The way people are playing Mr. Reid’s remarks, one would assume the Nevada Democrat had been caught delivering a racist rant. In fact, he was merely expressing a probable truism that Mr. Obama, though of part African heritage, had enough characteristics commonly associated with the shrinking white majority to avoid arousing the guard-ed suspiciousness often still found around America’s diminishing racial divide. If anything, the majority leader’s remarks were less embarrassing than those of fellow Democrat Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who during the 2008 contests described Mr. Obama as “clean” and “articulate,” as if those attributes surprised.
To some, it seems Mr. Reid is especially guilty in using the word Negro, a term out of the playbook of the past. In fact, Martin Luther King used the word frequently, even during his summer 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech on the Mall in Washington. It was the advent of the black-power and “black is beautiful” movement that made once-respectable terms such as Negro and colored almost as objectionable as an epithet.
Negro just sounds so antiquated, a term of another era that bespeaks another mentality - that of patronizing whites and reserved seats in the back of the bus for those with dark skins. Such segregation was common in the Virginia of four and five decades ago, and the commonwealth mounted a spirited but mostly (thank heaven) nonviolent resistance to the dismantling of its domestic arrangements.
Still, there’s something about Harry. Ah, yes. Harry Reid is a Mormon, and his church once had something of a special policy on blacks. They could join the church, but black men, unlike white men in good standing with the denomination, were not admitted to its priesthood. Could this be a dark secret of Mr. Reid’s past? Somehow, it seems unlikely. Somewhere deep in the civil rights revolution, his church had a revelation, and that wall of Jericho fell, too, along with so many others.
Mr. Reid is merely an older gentleman who made what might have been a defensible observation if offered in less dated and anachronistic language.
I would suggest it is along the same lines that John F. Kennedy - like Mr. Kaine, a man of Irish Catholic extraction - was electable in part because he seemed so, well, Anglo-Saxon and privileged. Poor Al Smith never had it so good, with all that sailboating at Hyannisport and so on. And who are today’s Anglo-Saxons, anyway? Perhaps they are often in part the descendants of those “Palatine boors” who Benjamin Franklin feared might “Germanize us before we can Anglify them.”
It is precisely politicians and social leaders who transcend the narrow bounds of caste who are often the trailblazers and pathfinders for others. This is exactly because they reassure the hopes rather than arouse the fears or antagonize the anxieties of the majority. They resonate as familiar and have much in common with the majority rather than comprising some mysterious “other.”
Mr. Kaine and Mark Warner before him (and earlier, the fiscally prudent, er, black former Gov. Douglas Wilder) and now Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (and actually the California-born Republican “Confederate” George Allen even earlier) represent new paradigms in a changing and increasingly heterogeneous Virginia. No longer need one be a member of First Families of Virginia (like the Byrds) to occupy Mr. Jefferson’s chair. One even can be born elsewhere - like Mr. Kaine, Mr. Allen, Mr. Warner and now Mr. McDonnell - move to the state from outside the region and build a successful life and political career in Virginia, as in most other places in America. Virginia no longer is, as Harry Byrd Sr. once said, “a place apart.” Nowadays you don’t even have to take communion in the Episcopal Church.
Virginia still has deep conservative currents, but it no longer challenges the national consensus as it once did - practically a thumb firmly in the eye socket of the nearby North. Comfortably enough removed from those older Dixiecrat days of division, the born-elsewhere governor of Virginia can present himself as an arbiter of tolerance.
Things change, and people - especially public persons - need to keep pace, at least a little. Mr. Reid should update his vocabulary a tad. Maybe someday the rest of us also will update ours and we’ll find some other way to refer to members of his Latter-day Saints faith besides calling them Mormons.
There may be good reasons to replace Mr. Reid as majority leader (the best way could be by voting in a Republican majority). But this clumsy yet well-meant misstep in discussing Mr. Obama’s appeal does not seem to be one of them.
As for Mr. Kaine, nice try. Let the Democratic leader sweat a bit. His party has practiced the politics of outrage when Republicans have misspoken.
But after just a little bit, let’s all take a deep breath and try to go a bit easier on each other. No one is helped much by hurling around these imputations of a racism that is for the most part, where it exists at all, a fading reflection of its former self.