Racist attacks on Barack Obama are few and far between, but that hasn't stopped the media from sensationalising them
Liberal journalists are combing the back roads of America looking for evidence of the resurgent racism being generated by the prospect of a black man becoming president. The striking thing is how little they've turned up in a country of 300m people with plenty of racial conflict in its history.
Here's how the Associated Press led a roundup story on Friday: "Race, an inescapable but explosive issue on which both presidential candidates have tread carefully if not tried to ignore, is increasingly popping up as it's becoming more likely the country will elect its first black president."
But since they couldn't find anything coming from John McCain, Sarah Palin or any of their staff or surrogates that would justify such a claim, the first evidence cited was that Democratic congressmen John Murtha and John Lewis had accused Barack Obama's opponents of racism.
Eventually the AP story got around to citing the evidence of racism directed toward Obama that its vast nationwide reporting staff had turned up:
• In San Bernardino County, California, the October newsletter of the Chaffey Community Republican Women, Federated, showed Obama's face on a phoney $10 government food stamp coupon adorned with a watermelon, ribs and a bucket of fried chicken. Diane Fedele, president of the group, apologised and she had no racist intent: "It was just food to me. It didn't mean anything else." The state GOP denounced the newsletter.
• In Nevada, Colorado and Michigan, TV ads show a clip of [the Rev Jeremiah] Wright declaring "God damn America!" in a sermon. "How can we forget these hateful sermons from Obama's pastor for over 20 years?" says one ad by the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, a Sacramento, California-based group that was formed to campaign against Obama.
• In Danville, Virginia, The Voice, a local newspaper, published a column by McCain's Buchanan County campaign chairman, Bobby May, that mocked an Obama administration. It said he would change the national anthem to the "Black National Anthem" while mandating that churches teach black liberation theology. Also, it said Obama would appoint Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to the Cabinet and put prominent blacks like Oprah Winfrey on currency. McCain's campaign dropped May from his job.
• In West Plains, Missouri, a remote town of 10,000 people near the Arkansas border, a prominent highway sign by an unknown creator shows a turban-wearing cartoon caricature of Obama, with an exaggerated smile, full lips and oversized teeth. It says: "Barack 'Hussein' Obama equals more abortions, same-sex marriages, taxes, gun regulations."
So what do we have here? One unknown group in Sacramento has run some ads reminding voters that Obama's decades-long pastor and spiritual adviser is pretty radical. The fact that Wright is black doesn't make that a racist argument. If McCain had sat in the pew for 20 years listening to a pastor who said, say, that "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians are responsible for the 9/11 attacks because they caused God to withdraw his protection for America," you can bet that would be an issue.
Otherwise, the AP has found three individuals in remote towns who have directed racial slurs at the first black candidate with a real chance to be president. That's pretty remarkable. We've made great progress since the civil rights revolution, but who would have guessed there'd be so little backlash?
That won't stop journalists from looking for it, though. Google "Obama racism", and you'll find hits like "Racism is the only reason Obama might lose" (because of course the most liberal Democrat in the Senate would be a shoo-in otherwise) and "Racist attacks on Obama growing more heated" (yes, on white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites) and "Racist Obama effigy hung in Ohio" (yes, one guy in rural Ohio hung a white-sheeted ghost labelled "Obama" in his yard, and his white neighbours are appalled).
On the web Sunday we got the headline "'Socialist', 'Muslim' – Ugly reception for Obama", who campaigned in the Cape Fear BBQ and Chicken in Fayetteville, North Carolina. But in fact it appears that there was just one woman who shouted "socialist" at him and also told a reporter that she suspected he was a "closet Muslim". The other white diners told her to quiet down and be civil. Reporters descended on her, though, and she did manage to direct a slur at General Colin Powell, who had endorsed Obama that morning: She called him "a Rino, R-I-N-O, Republican In Name Only".
Compared to the level of open anti-Catholic bias against John Kennedy in 1960, racism in the 2008 campaign is a dog that didn't bark.
US elections 2008: If John McCain wins the nomination, he shouldn't put a foreign policy novice like Mike Huckabee a heartbeat away from the presidency
With John McCain's narrow wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina making him a shaky Republican frontrunner, people have engaged in some absurdly early speculation as to whom he might choose as a running mate. One early favourite is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the darling of the evangelicals. But if McCain is the man he and his supporters say he is, he won't do that to the country.
McCain's official campaign biography says: "As the son and grandson of distinguished Navy admirals, John McCain deeply values duty, honour and service of country." That's the theme of his campaign. His determination to prove his own integrity inspired his decade-long fight to impose strict new regulations on campaign finance. Told that his support for the Iraq war might doom his presidential candidacy, McCain repeatedly says: "I'd rather lose an election than a war." Newspaper endorsements, like this one from the State in South Carolina, echo those sentiments:
John McCain has shown more clearly than anyone on the American political scene today that he loves his country, and would never mislead or dishonour it. He is almost unique in his determination to do what is right, whatever the cost.
McCain will also be 72 years old if he is inaugurated a year from now, however, making him the oldest man ever to enter the White House. He likes to talk about his 95-year-old mother to illustrate his good genes, but the presidency is a very stressful job, there are indeed terrorists out to get the American president, five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison can't be good for your health and he has had a bout with skin cancer. Furthermore, his mother's age notwithstanding, his father died at 70 and his grandfather at 61. So he has to recognise the possibility at least that he might not serve out his term. At a time of international turmoil, it is essential that a president, especially one so committed to duty, honour and country, leave the country in capable hands in that eventuality.
Could McCain honourably serve his country by putting Mike Huckabee a heartbeat from the presidency? There's some political plausibility. Huckabee is younger. He would reassure religious conservatives who might be sceptical of McCain. He's a charming and effective campaigner.
But from a policy perspective, he's a conservative candidate who is also a big-spending nanny statist. He bills himself as a "Christian leader" and says that his rise in the polls can only be attributed to God's will. As I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Huckabee doesn't just want a government that will stamp out sin. He wants a government that will worry about your body as much as your soul." He says that "it is government's responsibility to try to create a culture of health", including pressuring employers to "encourage" healthier lifestyles among their employees. He wants a federal ban on smoking in the workplace and other public places. He's even threatened to ban cigarettes altogether. He wants federal regulation of local schools and restaurant menus.
But more importantly for McCain, Huckabee has no experience and apparently no knowledge of foreign policy. When the journal Foreign Affairs inexplicably asked him for an essay, he wrote about the "Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality" - and then, when his remarks were reported, he ran away from them. He demonstrated his minimal knowledge about Pakistan in his remarks on Benazir Bhutto's assassination. He spouts the usual nonsense about energy independence and veiled protectionist rhetoric like "We can't have free trade if it's not fair trade." When asked about the blockbuster National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear capability, he said that "nobody's going to be able, if they've been campaigning as hard as we have been, to keep up with every single thing, from what happened to Britney last night to who won Dancing with the Stars."
To be sure, neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush had much foreign policy experience as governor either (and we've seen how well that worked out), but Huckabee seems to have far less background even than they did.
It's hard to imagine that a man who values national security and his own duty as much as McCain does would put a self-styled "Christian leader" who doesn't read foreign policy stories in the newspaper a heartbeat from the Oval Office.
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