- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

This time he’s not kidding. “As many of you know, over the last few months I have been thinking hard about my plans for 2008,” said Sen. Barack Obama in a groundbreaking announcement of his presidential intentions on his Web site.

In those initial moments, the Illinois Democrat reminded me of the gag video he recorded with a very similar beginning for airing on “Monday Night Football.” But this time Mr. Obama was not pulling our collective leg. He is beginning the process of a presidential run.

And unlike every other candidate of known African descent who has come before him, he actually has a chance to be nominated and — who knows? — perhaps even win the grand prize. Win or lose, he now faces the big questions, like what does he stand for? Can he take the heat and go the distance of a rigorous campaign? Does he have enough experience? Will he be hurt by his middle name, “Hussein”? Will he quit smoking?

That last one, interestingly enough, causes the most concern among Democrats with whom I have spoken. The party that reveres the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who jauntily flaunted his smokes in a fancy little cigarette holder, now is the first to exile those who pollute their own lungs. Senator, snuff it out.

Yet, as much as we wait to hear what a presidential run will tell us about Mr. Obama, I expect it to tell us even more about America.

Already the national conversation about Mr. Obama has been unlike that surrounding any other presidential candidate I’ve seen or even imagined. I hear, for example, from readers who admonish me to stop calling him “black,” since he is the mixed-race offspring of a white Nebraska mother and a black father from Kenya. Now hear this, folks: Media people call Barack “black” or “African-American” for several reasons, not the least of which is his own preference for the labels.

We are captives of this country’s peculiar custom, the almost unique one-drop rule dating back to slavery times that defines as “black” anyone who has at least one drop of black Africa-originated blood. Mr. Obama has not run away from the label unlike, say, Tiger Woods, who famously told Oprah Winfrey that he likes to call himself a “Cablinasian,” for “Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian.”

That’s just as well for Mr. Obama, since he wants to win black votes. As a long-time observer of black politics, especially in Chicago, Mr. Obama’s hometown, I can tell you a substantial number of black voters are mightily suspicious and even personally offended by black folks who don’t want to be called “black.” Many are wary of anyone who sounds, for whatever reason, a bit too eager to abandon the tribe.

Absurd? Blame the inadequacy of our language to navigate the largely political and social construct that we call “race.” The chance to cut American life loose from such absurdities may, in itself, be boosting Mr. Obama’s popularity, even among those who don’t know much about his political beliefs. His sheer winnability as a black candidate or, if you prefer, not-all-white candidate, offers a comforting reassurance to many that this country is not as racist as many Americans fear it still might be.

Black author and essayist Debra Dickerson in a Los Angeles Times quote called “the swooning from white people” about Mr. Obama “a paroxysm of self-congratulation.” That’s OK, America. Pat yourself on the back. As recently as 1967, marriages like the one that produced Mr. Obama still were illegal in 16 states.

Like then-Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, in 2004, Mr. Obama is fresh, new and exciting despite his lack of national political experience. And, unlike Mr. Edwards, he offers a bonus: He assuages white guilt.

He also offers an alternative to the more extreme race-based politics of other media-anointed leaders like, say, the Rev. Jesse Jackson or the Rev. Al Sharpton. That might explain why Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sharpton have been noticeably restrained in their critiques of Mr. Obama.

Harry Belafonte, the singer-activist who called Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice “house slaves” on the Bush plantation, says America needs to be “careful” about Mr. Obama, according to the London Times: “We don’t know what he’s truly about.” The London Times headlined that story, “Obama’s charm lost on America’s black activists.” But, really, chaps, that’s stepping a bit too far past the cricket wicket. You wouldn’t have black leaders endorse Mr. Obama just because he’s black, would you?

That’s why it’s good for America that Mr. Obama has decided to run. This is a big contest for him. It’s also a big test for the rest of us.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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