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Republicans Discover Political Correctness as a Weapon

Retreating armies blow up bridges to stop their pursuers after losing a battle. Diabolical criminals create diversions to distract the authorities before elaborate heists. Clever lawyers blurt out clearly inadmissible questions to poison the minds of the jurors in cases they have no right to win. This is all standard stuff from the movies, but why do we forget that the politicians always blow smoke to confuse the public on an issue they are losing?

That was bothering me as I finally read the stories about Senator Harry Reid's faux pas in race relations. Something about the headlines told me this was bull, yet another tempest in this country's remarkable 50-year lurch from a hideously segregated nation to one where opportunity is rapidly becoming equal.

Exactly what he said was that Obama is "light-skinned" and spoke "with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one." All the big news outlets felt this was one of the big stories on Sunday, quoting the Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who wants Reid to resign as the Senate majority leader. The august New York Times refers to Reid's remarks as "revelations" that appeared in a book about the presidential campaign in 2008. Is it a revelation that a reasonable person might observe that Obama is light skinned? Or that he doesn't speak like an inner city teen-ager? Do people forget that Obama's mother was white, and that his father was Kenyan? Is it racist to notice these things? Is it racist to notice hair color, eye color, complexion? If it is, then each and every journalist in the country has to resign immediately because they litter their articles with stock physical description about height, weight, age and color. Was it sexist to notice that Hillary Clinton is a woman?

And note that Reid was talking privately at the time of his remarks, urging Obama to run for president although a black candidate had never been a serious contender before. Reid was arguing that Obama would be a good candidate. He was merely articulating that race is a factor, an important demographic, and a black man would face a serious obstacle in a presidential campaign. Can any reasonable person deny this? Does any intelligent person think politicians don't make such hard calculations about the candidates appearance and the electorate's mood. Early in 2008, what chances did you give a black man to win the 2008 elections?

And all the reporters told us that the Democrats were busy trying to put the issue behind them. Even Al Sharpton was willing to let Reid off the hook. But, they said, the Republicans wouldn't let it go.

I read the news with some annoyance until I realized what it is about. Harry Reid is a Democrat from Nevada whose name was only vaguely familiar to me before he became the face of health-care reform in the United States Senate. Remember that the Senate is a place where the health-care bill passed with zero votes to spare. Any one of the 60 six-year millionaires who voted for the bill can deflect the Senate from health-care reform simply by refusing to stop the minority of opponents from talking it to death.

So there he is, Harry Reid, a skinny, old man apologizing for articulating a bit of political demographics that must have been chewed over by political strategists hundreds of times in the summer and fall of 2008. And various politicians of different colors somberly accepting his apology.

The craziest thing I read was in a Reuters article, where a Senator from Arizona named Jon Kyl equated Reid's remark with a furor over Trent Lott's admiration for the long-time segregationist presidential candidate Strom Thurmond in 2002. Reuters didn't bother to tell us what Lott said, but it's easy to look up. Lott said the United States would have been better off if Thurmond, who was a racist, had been elected president in 1948, and presumably avoided desegregation, the civil rights legislation, and the giant moral leap forward this country actually accomplished.

Tell me how do you equate urging a black man to run for president with a repudiation of the entire fight for civil rights? How are the Republicans getting away with this cheap shot?

One reason is that the news media is namby-pamby, strictly obeying every tenant of political correctness. The other is that it's politics as usual. My fervent wish is that the president, who is an awfully good politician and who, in my view, is on the correct side of nearly every issue, would have come out boldly and said that the Republican complaints are nothing but a smokescreen to try to gain an inch in their fight to keep the insurance industry profitable and safe from its customers.

But let's go back to political correctness for a while. Think of the faces of the last 10, or even 20 presidents. Which of them had a strong ethnic look? Is that a result of random selections, or do politicians routinely play it safe, and look for the middle, avoid shocking the voters? Remember the Chicago politicians who opposed Obama's Senate campaign a few years ago because he wasn't black enough. This is what politicians do: they practice politics and they measure candidates in electability, with a lot of attention to what the candidates look like.

Recently, Eric Holder, Obama's attorney general, who himself is rather light-skinned and speaks with a clear American university inflection, called for a forthright discussion of race in this country. Harry Reid was not expressing a personal racism, but calculating his candidate's appeal against a resilient racial undercurrent in our society. Holder is right. We should be talking about the undercurrent itself, and not try to hush the person who made this observation.

I'm much more put off by Reid's rapid apology, and by the acceptance of it by Obama, than by his observation on the political climate. But I'm outraged the cynical, underhanded attempt of the right wing to use this incident against health-care reform.

Posted 11 January 2010

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© 2010 Barry Schiffman