Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sliming the Obamas

Barack Obama, as expected, took care of business yesterday in Wisconsin and Hawai'i, assuring Hillary Clinton two more weeks of negative publicity and a potential date with political oblivion on March 4. Without victories in Ohio and Texas, it becomes hard to imagine a calculus by which she wins the Democratic nomination. A blowout in one state (perhaps Ohio) combined with a narrow loss in the other might be enough to keep her going, but she'd probably still need to run the table, or come close, for the rest of the primary season.

Meanwhile, the country began to receive an unpleasant taste of what the Republicans have in store for a November campaign against the current frontrunner. It began when Michelle Obama, who is not running for anything, tried to convey to a friendly audience just how much her husband's success meant to the country. Here's what she said: "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is making a comeback…"

Suddenly, the Republican noise machine and its enablers buzzed with the sort of excitement they haven't felt since the day charismatic movie star Fred Thompson finally announced his candidacy for president back in September (ah, precious memories). By the time the GOP pundits were done with their "Barack's Wife Hates America" message and janitors were dispatched to the Fox News studios to clean the drool off the floor, the causal viewer might have assumed that Mrs. Obama has torched an American flag and shredded a couple of original copies of the Constitution. Over at MSNBC, Pat Buchanan looked so happy you would have thought Nelson Mandela had just been reincarcerated.

For good measure, a couple of the more creative right-wing blabbermouths calculated the exact year of Michelle Obama's adulthood—she turned 18 in 1982—and proceeded to pepper the airwaves with a series of increasingly hysterical rhetorical questions. Does this mean she felt no pride when the United States won the Cold War? When the first woman was appointed to the Supreme Court? When the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed? When we won the first Gulf War? When MTV aired the first episode of Beavis and Butt-head? Is there nothing that can fill this traitorous woman's heart with pride for the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Next up to bat was Cindy McCain, second wife of the presumptive Republican nominee, who was evidently so moved by this bald-faced expression of anti-American treachery that she spoke publicly for what may have been the first time. Mrs. McCain, who was 13 years old when her husband was taken prisoner in North Vietnam, used the opportunity yesterday to inform a crowd that she has always been proud of her country. It was, for the macho boys of the media, the greatest catfight since Alexis and Krystal wrestled in the mud on Dynasty in the 1980s, sending many of today's male media stars into premature puberty. (My God, can't Michelle even be proud of Dynasty!?!)

As always, cooler heads attempted to prevail, with little success. One pundit pointed out that even experienced public speakers occasionally suffer from a slip of the tongue. Someone else noticed that Mrs. Obama had talked about being "really" proud of her country, suggesting that we might be speaking about variations in the degree of her patriotic fervor, rather than her general love of country. To my knowledge, nobody—and this would have been the proper response—threw his or her microphone to the floor and bolted for the nearest shower, the better to wash away any association with the ongoing sliming.

And there was an unmistakable subtext here, too. The cable TV commentators, nearly all white and mostly male, didn't actually use the word "ingrate", but it wasn't far from the surface. You could almost sense what they really wanted to scream out: "But she's a black woman who went to a prestigious university and became a highly successful attorney, something that would have been unthinkable the year she was born! Look at the progress we've made! How can she not be humble and thankful and red, white, and blue all over? She owes us, man!" Nobody that I saw specifically mentioned race, but the message was clear. (The Civil Rights Act of 1991? Uh, why should Michelle Obama be especially proud of that particular law?)

Well, of course, there's racializing and then there's racializing. When conservatives appear on TV they know they are talking to others. Gotta watch out for the PC police, don't you know. When they write for the National Review, however, they are speaking in the privacy of their own clubhouse, where they can really let it fly. Someone named Lisa Schiffren, contributing to the magazine's blog, has decided that now is the right time to take up the issue of Barack Obama's mixed-race heritage:

"And yet, all of my mixed race, black/white classmates throughout my youth, some of whom I am still in contact with, were the product of very culturally specific unions. They were always the offspring of a white mother, (in my circles, she was usually Jewish, but elsewhere not necessarily) and usually a highly educated black father."

Now you might think that Ms. Schiffren wrote this little piece to remind racists, both the overt and the latent, that sexual relationships take place between African American men and white women and that Senator Obama is the product of such a relationship. But you would be so wrong. Her real point is, if such a thing is possible, even more repellant. What she really wants us to understand is that these relationships generally had less to do with love than with politics—Commie politics!:

"And how had [black men and white women] come together at a time when it was neither natural nor easy for such relationships to flourish? Always through politics. No, not the young Republicans. Usually the Communist Youth League. Or maybe a different arm of the CPUSA. But, for a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or 60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics."

After worrying that "readers [might] level cheap accusations of racism" (can't imagine why), Schiffren concludes that it may be "[t]ime for some investigative journalism about the Obama family's background." To his credit, someone named Andrew Stuttaford, contributing to the same blog, took his colleague to task for ordering up a new round of racist muckraking. It might, however, have been a little better if his reason had more to do with basic human decency, rather than the fact that such an effort would be "counterproductive".

Anyway, this is the sort of thing we can expect for the next nine months. Hillary, of course, would get the same treatment should she receive the nomination (if that occurs, brace yourself for another round of lesbian rumors). So my point is not that an Obama candidacy is especially risky. The hatemongers of the right would have done this to John Edwards, too. But anyone who thinks that Barack Obama will continue to enjoy anything close to the positive, upbeat run to the White House he has experienced so far is sorely mistaken. Hillary Clinton has been gentle and downright chummy compared to what's ahead.

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