Somebody who looks a lot like that good-looking junior senator from Illinois is setting an ugly tone to the presidential campaign. Barack Obama may regret it.
We thought we had moved beyond what he calls “that old stuff,” the use of race to divide and conquer. Mr. Obama himself, the son of mixed parentage, first posed as the transracial candidate who had transcended the divisive exploitation of race and would lead the rest of us to a happy place where lions lie down with lambs (with no speculation about what’s for dinner), where rough places have all been made smooth and plain, and “Kumbaya” is the national anthem.
So who was that man who told a fundraiser in Florida the other night that John McCain and the Republicans will invoke the ghosts of Cotton Ed Smith, Theodore Bilbo, Gene Talmadge and the race-baiters of an earlier, sadder time?
“It is going to be very difficult for Republicans to run on their stewardship of the economy or their outstanding foreign policy,” he said. “We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run. They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. ‘He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention that he’s black?’”
Could this be the same man who earlier thrilled America with his sadder-but-wiser goodbye to the racism of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ? Could this be the same man who cast himself as the president who would once and for all seal the cracks and erase the color line in America?
So far we haven’t seen any evidence that Mr. McCain or the people speaking for him are trying to make anyone afraid of Mr. Obama’s race. The references to what he calls his “funny name” are the references that he himself makes, and if his middle name - “Hussein” - evokes wariness, he should blame his father for giving him that name and the radical Muslims for making most of us duck and cover when we hear a word that sounds Muslim. We’re a nation of immigrants (or descendants of immigrants), after all, and we long ago became familiar with “funny names.” Funny that Mr. Obama should bring up the subject.
So far race works only to the Obama advantage. His race is what makes many white Americans eager to vote for him, and several prominent black Republicans have said they might pull the lever for Mr. Obama as a gesture of racial solidarity. “I don’t necessarily like his policies,” says Armstrong Williams, the columnist and broadcaster. “I don’t like much that he advocates, but for the first time in my life, history thrusts me to really seriously think about it. Among black conservatives, they tell me privately it would be very hard to vote against him in November.”
J.C. Watts, a former Oklahoma congressman once a rising star among Republicans, says he might vote for Mr. Obama. Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, says he thinks Mr. McCain is fully qualified, but won’t “necessarily” vote for him. Ed Brooke, a liberal Republican who was elected to the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts four decades ago, calls this “the most important election in our history” (presumably putting the election of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln in the shade of history), and hints that he’ll vote for Mr. Obama.
The temptation for black conservatives who disagree with Mr. Obama on everything to vote for him anyway as a gesture of racial solidarity is understandable. A lot of Southern whites, thrilled that one of their own could make it to the White House for the first time since the Civil War, voted for Jimmy Carter. We’ve been trying to live down the shame of it since.
Mr. Obama’s accusatory speech the other night in Florida sounds and smells like a pre-emptive strike. He plays the race card to save us from the race card, to make the skittish Mr. McCain wary of saying anything bad about his far-left background, to excuse the ‘60s bomb-throwers and radical friends and preachers from whom the presumptive Democratic nominee took sustenance in Chicago in the 20 years before he discovered to his horror that naughty things were going on upstairs. Mr. Obama is desperate to keep the national conversation away from his record, carefully hidden until now. If he has to play the race card to do it, well, stuff happens.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.