The racial trump card

By E.P. Unum | October 29, 2008

Last week, John Lewis accused Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin of being racists. Anyone who has read his prepared statement knows that this was his intent. The words were carefully chosen. He knew what he was doing. He knew how he would be understood. He knew what the impact of the statement would be.

Anyone with even a shred of decency and objectivity knows that the statement is baseless and despicable.

I want to believe that Sen. Obama didn’t know that Lewis was going to issue this statement. The cynic in me is screaming that Lewis, who deserted Sen. Clinton to endorse Sen. Obama at a critical point in the primaries, didn’t act on his own. But no evidence of coordination exists. So let’s assume that the statement caught both campaigns off guard. The fact that Lewis made such a charge is not surprising or, for that matter, terribly important. After all, this is the same man who took to the floor of the House in 1994 and compared Republicans to Nazis.

The reaction of the Obama campaign to the statement is far more important.

“Senator Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies. But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night, as well as the baseless and profoundly irresponsible charges from his own running mate that the Democratic nominee for President of the United States pals around with terrorists. As Barack Obama has said himself, the last thing we need from either party is the kind of angry, divisive rhetoric that tears us apart at a time of crisis when we desperately need to come together. That is the kind of campaign Senator Obama will continue to run in the weeks ahead.”

In some ways, this mealy-mouthed attempt to have it both ways is even more disheartening than the statement that prompted it. Sen. Obama was given an opportunity to demonstrate that he will not exploit race when he thinks it will be to his benefit. He’s well aware that he could and should have thrown Lewis under the bus for such a baseless, incendiary statement. By failing to repudiate Lewis, Sen. Obama decided to allow the stench from this exchange to linger. In doing so, he’s shown that he’s willing to use race to muffle debate regarding subjects that might lose him votes.

There have been many tough exchanges in this campaign. Some of them have been fair. Some not so fair. Neither side has a better claim to the moral high ground. If Sen. Obama believes that his past association with Bill Ayers, or anyone else he’s associated with, is not a legitimate subject for discussion, he should say so. He won’t because he knows he’d look silly if he did. We’re choosing a President. The rough and tumble of the vetting process is our way of ensuring that we’ve taken a hard look at the candidates from every conceivable angle. The suggestion that questions regarding these associations have a racial overtone is an outrage. By not clearly disavowing John Lewis, Sen. Obama has done his campaign and, more sadly, the country real harm. This one act of political expediency speaks louder than a hundred thoughtful speeches from the candidate on racial harmony.