Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Maybe Bill Clinton wasn’t our first black president, after all.

Bubba and the missus had to interrupt Hillary’s presidential campaign yesterday to deal with an outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease. They might have to call in Trent Lott and Don Imus for tips.

This is not your grandfather’s race baiting — that giant whooshing sound is the ghosts of Theodore Bilbo, Pitchfork Ben Tillman and Ross Barnett dancing in the graveyard — but the Clintons, with a little help from Barack Obama, have loosed the race issue on us just when we thought all that had been put to rest.

Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic attorney general of New York, a partisan for Hillary, set off the contretemps when he called Mr. Obama’s policies a “shuck and jive.” Several Obama folks cried that “shuck and jive” is racial code for deceit and cheating. Indeed it can be, but “shuck” was the rustic’s euphemism for something you get on your shoes in the barnyard and “jive” is the euphemism for a lot of things, including the sex act.

But we no longer have to pay attention to the actual meaning of words. Everyone is entitled to take offense when he just thinks what he hears is an insult. Bubba has played the race card before, once at the expense of old friends at home when he said he remembered the shame he felt for the black churches torched when he was a barefoot boy in Arkansas. It turned out that he remembered something no one else, black or white, did. An investigation revealed that no church black or white had ever been torched in Arkansas.

While Hillary was trying yesterday to make amends for saying something taken as a slight to the memory of Martin Luther King, Bubba was going from talk show to talk show trying to defuse black anger over remarks made by a black Hillary partisan suggesting that Mr. Obama had once used drugs. This was particularly ironic since the senator himself wrote in his autobiography that he had once used drugs. (Dissing yourself doesn’t count.)

The formerly black president conceded that he had said something about the Obama rhetoric being “a fairy tale,” but that was after somebody in the Obama campaign called Hillary an India Indian, “the senator from Punjab.” This was after — or maybe it was before — Robert Johnson, the president of Black Entertainment Network, accused Mr. Obama of once “doing something in the neighborhood, and I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in his book.”

Race-baiting was simpler in the old days. Everybody understood what was insult or not, whether by the early George Wallace, the late Orval Faubus, or Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Now a lot of explanation, argument and counterargument, is necessary to plumb whether anyone was actually insulted, dissed or affronted.

We live in the age of insensitivity, called and raised. Bubba thinks Mr. Obama is getting the best of a double standard. “We have been much kinder to him than he has been to her.” (Besides his daddy can lick your daddy.) Maybe we should take this campaign out in the schoolyard and take a switch to the candidates. Some feminists are miffed that blacks enjoy a double standard of another kind. Using racist language may be more unforgivable in polite company, says Marie Wilson of the White House project, which encourages women in politics. “With women, you can get away with it. With race, you can hardly say anything.”

But what’s wrong with that? What we need is for everybody to shut up.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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