I can’t understand why everybody’s so mad at Hillary Clinton.
I live in a world of Barack Obama enthusiasts. It’s a world of cautious hopefulness, where a fragile optimism born of his surprisingly successful campaign for the presidency runs headlong into the certainty that race remains an unbridgeable chasm in American life.
And it’s a world where, right now, everyone is angry at Hillary. A college classmate, a lifelong Democrat, leaned across the table in a New York restaurant last week and told me, with fire in his eyes, that he’d vote for John McCain before he’d vote for “that abomination.” A teenaged Obama supporter said she “hates” Clinton, and wishes she’d “just go home.” A living room full of successful, middle-aged African-American businesspeople and professionals in Atlanta spent more than an hour throwing verbal bombs at Clinton over cocktails.
The anger emerges, I think, from a feeling of betrayal. Hillary and her husband have “played the race card,” people say, injecting Obama’s blackness into the campaign in a way that has injured his prospects for winning the Democratic nomination. To the inhabitants of my world, that’s a crime, one made more heinous by the fact that the perpetrators are people we’ve admired and supported for years.
I think that feeling of betrayal is misplaced. It is asking too much of the Clintons to expect that they would refrain from raising the race issue in this campaign. Hillary Clinton has spent her entire life working for this moment, when she has the opportunity to become the first woman nominated for President of the United States by a major party. Nothing in her history, or that of her husband, suggests that either of them would lie down and surrender, to Obama or anyone else, when they are this close to the prize.
Race has always been an inevitable issue in this campaign. So long as a black man remained a leading candidate, there was no doubt that sooner or later, the race card would hit the table. From what I hear, Clinton’s people have been pushing the Jeremiah Wright story for weeks, and once the mainstream media bought it, the Republicans and their slime machine, who would prefer to run against Clinton than Obama in the general election, have used their great skills at political character assassination to turn the Rev. Dr. Wright into a white-hating caricature and hang him around Obama’s neck.
Clinton’s use of race as an issue is well within the bounds of presidential-level political campaigning. Richard Nixon used “law and order” as his method of bringing race to the forefront. Ronald Reagan launched his campaign in Philadelphia, MS, with a speech about states’ rights. George H. W. Bush brought us Willie Horton. Bill Clinton castigated the hapless Sister Souljah. George W. Bush’s puppeteer, Karl Rove, spread the false rumor in the 2000 primary campaign that John McCain had an illegitimate black child.
Against this backdrop, the Clintons’ use of Dr. Wright as a foil for white Americans’ latent racial fears and biases is relatively mild. This is something Obama should have been ready for, and as his speech on Tuesday morning demonstrated, he was.
It was almost as if he’d been waiting for the opportunity to elevate America’s discussion of race to a new, higher plane. Because when the opportunity arose, he responded brilliantly. He used his bi-racial background to frame the disconnect between white Americans and black Americans. He correctly renounced Dr. Wright’s most inflammatory remarks, while using his understanding of the prophetic tradition in the black church to explain why he would not renounce the man. And he positioned the race issue as a barrier to meeting the challenges of education, health care, climate change and the economy that affect all Americans, regardless of the color of their skins.
So the question is not why Hillary Clinton played the race card. She played it because she’s trying to become the president. And it’s not about whether Obama would be able to trump it. He did that, indisputably, in Philadelphia.
Instead, the real question now is how white Americans will react. If they allow the senseless—and meaningless—tarring and feathering of Jeremiah Wright to derail Obama’s campaign, then the quiet voice that’s been whispering to the people in my world for months, the voice that says America is still not ready for a black president, will be proven right. But if they’re able to move beyond the Wright controversy and continue to listen to Obama’s message of hope and transcendence, then perhaps the fragile, tender optimism his campaign has stirred in us will be justified.