Monday, January 14, 2008

Race in the Race

The upcoming South Carolina primary has traditionally been the place where dirty politics really come to the fore in America's presidential contest and '08 is turning out to be no exception, with the classic cat fight going on between Hillary and Obama over the black vote there. Obama alleges that Hillary gave more credit to Lyndon Baines Johnson than Martin Luther King Jr. for the 1964 Civil Rights Act--what he called "an unfortunate...ill-advised remark" was merely Hillary saying last week that "it took a president" to get the Act passed, despite King's efforts. Even John Edwards jumped in on the LBJ/Martin Luther King controversy, saying: “As someone who grew up in the segregated South, I feel an enormous amount of pride when I see the success that Senator Barack Obama is having in this campaign. I was troubled recently to see a suggestion that real change came not through the Rev. Martin Luther King, but through a Washington politician. I fundamentally disagree with that.”
Calling Lyndon Baines Johnson "a Washington politician" is like referring to Franklin Delano Roosevelt as "the former New York governor"--there is tons and tons of information that description leaves out. Edwards is not prone normally-speaking to such ludicrous misstatements--one wonders just how hard he is pushing to become Obama's running mate.
In the meantime, a prominent Hillary supporter, Robert L. Johnson, founder of the Black Entertainment Network, made a veiled allusion to Obama's youthful cokehead status, saying that while Hillary and Bill were working away for civil rights, Obama was "doing something in the neighborhood — and I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in the book." Johnson then had the temerity to issue a further statement claiming that he was only referring to Obama's work as a labor organizer in Chicago.
All of this biting and snapping, undignified though it is, is racial politics as usual in the South, albeit with the new twist of the race being between a woman and a black man. In the presidential contest of 1844 between Jimmy Polk and Henry Clay, Polk's Whig opponents tried to brand Polk as a man who owned slaves in order to elicit votes from abolitionists, but this was a little tricky, since both Polk and Clay were slave-owners. The Whigs got around this by claiming it was all a matter of degree—that Polk was really “an ultra slaveholder,” in slavery “up to his ears.” For their side, Democrats accused Clay of being a white slaver (“If we cannot have black slaves we must have white ones,” he is most improbably quoted as saying).
As I found constantly in the writing of Anything for a Vote--anytime we think something really disagreeable is going on in current presidential politics, it pays to take a look back a century or so for a bit of perspective.

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