- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

“The race card” was for decades the most reliable card in the Democratic deck, and even today, as we’ve seen this spring, Democrats play the card with residual skill.

The card must be played carefully, and with exquisite subtlety. No place for George Wallace or Orval Faubus here. But now race is all that Democrats are talking about as they stagger and stumble toward agreement on a presidential candidate, maybe next week in Indiana and North Carolina, or if not then maybe the week after that in West Virginia, and if not then surely the week after that in Kentucky and Oregon. They’ll always have Denver. At least for now they’ve got the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the gift who keeps on giving (to John McCain).

Barack Obama’s early campaign was based on a subtle playing of race. By loudly proclaiming that his campaign was traveling the high road “above race,” race became the alligator in the bathtub. This so infuriated Bill Clinton in South Carolina that he couldn’t resist comparing Sen. Barack Obama to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Bubba, once idolized as “our first black president,” insists that race was the farthest thing from his mind when he made the comparison. (Would Bubba tell a lie?)

Sen. Obama translated his early pose as the only man in America who could rise above race and lift the nation with him into smashing victories in party primaries with a large black vote. In Mississippi, for one ironic example, he polled 100,000 votes and with that the state’s delegates. There’s growing evidence that “the black candidate” is precisely who the senator has become.

Sen. Obama is actually the Willy Loman of presidential politics, the iconic salesman of the Arthur Miller play whose success on the road was fashioned with a smile and a shoeshine. Hillary Clinton, the inevitable nominee when the new year dawned, was rendered all but insensible when the Obama frenzy rolled over her after Iowa, and now Sen. Barack Obama is equally stunned as his magic begins to wane.

Hillary is winning grudging admiration even from old foes for her grit and defiance of lengthening odds, and you have to admire Sen. Obama’s chutzpah for thinking he could get past close scrutiny of his past and his smarmy friends on the South Side of Chicago. He was lulled into a soft, sweet euphoria by the media, which cuddled and caressed him through the winter and spring, and now that questions are cutting ever closer to the bone he’s annoyed and exasperated.

If the reporters and pundits avoid the tough questions, Joe Sixpack won’t. Sen. Obama’s explanation, such as it was, of his friendship with Jeremiah Wright satisfied only the credulous. The preacher — described by Sen. Obama as his “mentor” — hurled racist invective from his pulpit with the fiery hate of the grand dragon preaching to backwoods rednecks in a remote pine grove in Alabama. Sen. Obama insists he was never there on racist Sundays, but his tithes and offerings to the Wright ministry exceeded $26,000 in a single year. He insists that he had only a nodding acquaintance with Bill Ayers, the unrepentant member of the Weather Underground, a coven of cop-killers and terrorist bombers. But it was in the Ayers parlor, after Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, had come in from years on the run, that the senator, then a mature man in his 40s, launched his career in politics.

The senator said Sunday that race is not the reason he’s struggling against Hillary Clinton, and he’s in a large measure correct. We can all be glad for it. The Obama phenomenon has demonstrated that Americans of all races are willing now, even eager, to take the right black candidate into their embrace. (If Maryland blacks had voted for Michael Steele for senator last year he would be a cinch for Sen. John McCain’s running mate this year.) Sen. Obama’s unusual friends, associates and mentors in Chicago show him to be a child of the ‘60s, that trashy decade we thought we had put behind us. The Democrats nominated a candidate of the ‘60s once before, and he didn’t do very well. Sen. Obama could ask George McGovern about that.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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