- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

If John McCain has a hard time figuring out how to run against a black man, he can take consolation from Barack Obama’s dilemma. It won’t be easy for him to campaign against a white man while remaining “black” enough to satisfy the ‘hood.

Talking about race in America is perilous. Offenses are taken when none are intended. Much goes unspoken, but keenly felt. Slights quickly become snubs; nuance is taken for evasion. Casual conversation becomes deadly when every word must be weighed. Every sentence must be carefully parsed in an age where the precise use of language is held in low regard. The successful candidate this year may turn out to be the most eloquent apologizer-in-chief.

John McCain felt he had to apologize this week after one of his supporters, a radio talk-show host, insisted on calling Barack Hussein Obama by his full legal name, reminding everyone that some of the senator’s roots are in Islam as well as in Africa. Mr. Obama was pressed to “reject” the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan after he remarked that he has “consistently denounced” anti-Jewish Farrakhan rants and rages. He “distanced” himself again from his pastor and mentor, who champions Minister Farrakhan as “a great man” and reveals himself to be someone who doesn’t like white people very much.

When Mr. Obama was asked about the Farrakhan endorsement at their final debate Tuesday night, he snapped at Tim Russert, the interrogator: “Tim, I have to say I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. If the word ‘reject’ that Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word ‘denounce,’ then I’m happy to concede the point and I would reject and denounce.” Mr. Obama, as anyone might, prefaced his answers with several “ahs,” “ummms” and “uhs,” not exactly stammering but clearly demonstrating how uncomfortable he was and eager to get back to questions about health care, the war in Iraq, NAFTA and who hates George W. Bush the most.

Where will it all stop, and when can we get on with a debate for grown-ups? Certainly not before November, and therein lies the peril. Both nominees can decry it, but there’s not much either can do to eliminate that peril while banging away at each other over genuine issues, neither pulling legitimate punches nor drowning everyone in mush and gruel.

Shelby Steele suggests in his new book, “A Bound Man,” that the senator, bound by the tangled web of race, can’t succeed because by relieving whites of their guilt he will inevitably disappoint blacks who want him to sharply confront whites for the sins and shortcomings of yesteryear.

Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Britain — where American politics is regarded as the game anyone can play — argues that not only will Barack Obama fail to bridge the racial divide but will actually deepen it. “If Obama can succeed,” he writes in Prospect magazine, “then maybe [guilt-ridden whites] can imagine that Martin Luther King’s post-racial nirvana has arrived. A vote for Obama is a pain-free negation of their own racism … so long as they don’t have to live next door to him.”

His diagnosis gets more depressing. “Obama may be helping to postpone the arrival of a post-racial America, and I think he knows it. If he wins, the cynicism may be worth it to him and his party. In the end, he is a politician and a very good one. His job is to win elections.” The more “the bargainer” soothes middle-class whites, the more he irritates blacks who cotton to “challengers” like Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, who wield power only as long as they can persuade their followers to remain “victims” of what Mr. Obama’s pastor scorns as “the United States of White America.”

John McCain, no doubt relieved that he won’t have to run against a woman, has to weigh words and parse his respect to a black man while resisting paralysis to avoid offense, giving in to the temptation to play hug-me and kissy-face with Democrats. Republicans have done it before.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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