Friday, March 12, 2004

It’s not easy to be black. Just ask John Kerry. He recently expressed an unusual ambition. He wants to be the nation’s second black president.

“President Clinton was often known as the first black president,” Mr. Kerry told the American Urban Radio Network last week. “I wouldn’t be upset if I could earn the right to be the second.”

I’m sure he wouldn’t. In fact, I’m sure Mr. Kerry would be tickled pink — or a few shades darker than that — to be America’s second “black president.”

In case you missed it, Mr. Clinton was dubbed America’s “first black president” by a satirical piece by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, who was born black, published in the New Yorker in 1998. She was making a point about how Mr. Clinton’s hardscrabble Southern upbringing and his relentless persecution by conservatives had caused many African-Americans to circle their wagons around him as if he were an honorary soul brother.

Miss Morrison was hardly alone in her assessment. Mr. Clinton’s empathy with blacks, among other constituencies, is legendary. In 2002, the former president became the first nonblack to be inducted into the then-10-year-old Arkansas Black Hall of Fame as an honorary member. He also serves as honorary chairman of the advisory board for a planned $37 million black history museum in Charleston, S.C. Who can blame Mr. Kerry if he, too, wants to latch onto some of Mr. Clinton’s charisma with people of color?

But Miss Morrison’s was using irony, which, as any seasoned writer of newspaper columns can tell you, will automatically be misunderstood by a small but noisy percentage of readers no matter how far-fetched you try to make it sound. It has not taken Mr. Kerry long to be similarly misunderstood by some who took his remarks a bit too literally.

CNN’s conservative voice Tucker Carlson, without a hint of irony in his voice, charged blacks should be outraged with Mr. Kerry for “pandering.” At least one was. Paula Diane Harris, founding chief executive officer of the Andrew Young National Center for Social Change in Harrisburg, Penn., fumed that Mr. Kerry doesn’t have nearly enough street credibility to meet his professed black aspirations, according to the Associated Press.

“John Kerry is not a black man,” she said, according to the Associated Press. “He is a privileged white man who has no idea what it is in this country to be a poor white in this country, let alone a black man.”

Maybe. But, if Mr. Kerry wins the presidency, at least his wife would be our first African-American first lady. Theresa Heinz Kerry, whose ancestry is white Portuguese, was born and raised in Mozambique, and joined the anti-apartheid movement as a college student in nearby South Africa. She may not be black, but she’s a lot more African than most Americans are.

In the meantime, if her husband wants to develop the high comfort level Mr. Clinton seems to share with black audiences, it won’t come cheap. Despite his heroic Vietnam experience and close camaraderie with his fellow war veterans, Mr. Kerry is not widely known to be a contender in the Mr. Warmth contest.

Fortunately, help may be on the way if he wants to ratchet up his “cool” quotient. Showtime cable channel has a new makeover show it hopes to air this year called “Make Me Cool.” Similar to the surprise hit “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” the planned program features a team of black people who try to show a terminally unhip person — mostly likely white, spokesmen say—how to get his or her groove thing going.

Why blacks? “A lot of the coolest stuff emanates from the black culture,” Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment at Showtime, told the Hollywood Reporter. “That culture seems to have the hold on stuff that is going to be cool tomorrow — they know it today.”

Well, maybe my 14-year-old does. Like all parents of teens, I am terminally uncool in his eyes, and that’s the way of the world.

The same uncool quality is true of most political candidates. Detroit’s Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick calls himself the “hip-hop mayor” but he’s cool enough to get away with it.

With that in mind, I am one black American who applauds Mr. Kerry’s efforts to reach out to people of all colors who come from backgrounds quite different from his own. But I also offer a cautionary note: Be yourself. Trying too hard to be something you’re not is decidedly uncool. You don’t have to be black to know that.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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