It used to be that the national media would demand our outrage only two or three times a year. First, someone would say something stupid or offensive. Then, we would have the ritual bloodletting, the Maoist-style confession, and finally, if the situation warranted it, the public beheading. Sometimes, as in the case of Don Imus, the offense was actually severe and detestable. Other times, as when Illinois Senator Dick Durbin compared Guantánamo to the Soviet gulag, a slight exaggeration resulted in a manufactured overreaction. Careers interrupted, ambitions destroyed, reputations shattered—all in a day's work for the empty proprietors of the 24-hour cable news networks and their stable of windup pundits.
During this election year, however, we seem to be enduring these faux outrages on a regular basis. This week, in fact, we have been treated to two such controversies in a span of barely 72 hours. Over the weekend, Barack Obama's key foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power, walked the plank after it was revealed that she had referred to Hillary Clinton as a "monster" during an interview with a Scottish newspaper. Yesterday, we learned that Geraldine Ferraro, one-time vice presidential nominee and current Clinton adviser, suggested out loud that Senator Obama would not be where he is today—that is, leading Ferraro's preferred candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination—if he were not African American.
Three days ago, the Clinton camp loudly demanded that their rival disassociate himself from Professor Power's petty insult and from Professor Power herself. Obama meekly obliged. Now, seizing on Ferraro's remarks, Team Obama insists that sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, and that Ms. Ferraro should be renounced, sacrificed, and otherwise pilloried on the talk shows for at least the remainder of the week.
For the moment, let's take the Obama complaint seriously, rather than treating it as the political ploy it so obviously is. Our first question, then, is quite simple: Did Geraldine Ferraro's comments go beyond the pale of acceptable political discourse? Is it, in fact, inherently racist to speculate about the role of skin color in the fortunes of presidential candidates and other government officials?
I believe the answer to that question would be "no". Race structures so many opinions and opportunities in the United States that it would be rather foolish to ignore it altogether. Certainly, more that a few liberals have alleged that George H.W. Bush's nomination of the marginally qualified Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court constituted a particularly cynical instance Republican affirmative action. Similarly, it rarely escapes left-wing notice that the few African Americans attending election-year Republican rallies typically enjoy choice seating assignments that happen to correspond exactly with the media's preferred camera angles. Race matters in American politics, and there is no sense pretending otherwise.
Having said that, an argument such as Ferraro's that sees race as the decisive variable is both misleading and insulting. Barack Obama is an African American. He is also a brilliant man, an inspirational speaker, and a charismatic leader. All of these things matter at least as much—and probably far more—than the color of his skin to most voters.
Does Senator Obama benefit from the media's attraction to his life story and also, perhaps, from their unwillingness to undermine a viable black presidential candidate? Maybe. Are the senator's electoral prospects enhanced by the fact that he commands somewhere in the neighborhood of 80-90% of the African American vote? Certainly. But Obama's millions of supporters, black and white, are drawn to both the message and the messenger, and race is but one of many reasons for his meteoric rise.
More pernicious is the suggestion that whatever edge Obama may enjoy on the basis of his race is somehow unfair. That is a road we dare not travel because it brings us face to face with the degree to which any of us has actually earned what we have. Hillary Clinton grew up in a comfortable upper-middle-class household and married a rising politician. Do you suppose these things might have helped ease her way to the top? John McCain's father was an admiral in the U.S. Navy and McCain himself graduated from Annapolis. Would he be on the national stage today if poppa had been a petty officer?
Unearned advantage can be found in nearly every life. Most successful politicians benefited from some accident of birth. George W. Bush was the grandson of a senator and the son of a president. The list of men who have reached the presidency with no appreciable head start is a short one, and includes Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.
Except, of course, that Clinton and Nixon also had a rather important advantage in their early lives and careers. They were white. Poor—or rich—black kids from Hope couldn't become the governor of Arkansas in 1978. The children of Mexican immigrants in Yorba Linda, California, had little hope back in the 1940s of parlaying their connections into a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. For most of American history—and even, to a significant extent, today—white skin was not simply an advantage in the quest for higher office. It was, instead, a precondition.
This is, in fact, not only the fatal flaw in Geraldine Ferraro's claim against Barack Obama, it is also the point that undermines almost every argument made against affirmative action. If you look only at the presidential election, the Supreme Court nomination, or the elite college admission, it is easy to conclude that minority status confers some sort of decisive benefit in the lives of successful men and women. This claim, however, ignores everything that happened prior to that moment of triumph.
Before he could benefit from his race (if he actually did), Barack Obama first had to overcome all of the biases and prejudices that still face black Americans, especially those whose names sound exotic to the American ear. Long before the first President Bush considered him for the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas had to make his own way out of rural Georgia, a rather considerable feat. Hell, Ms. Ferraro herself, who would never have been Walter Mondale's choice for veep had she been male, achieved that honor only after first overcoming the sexism of the 1970s and winning a House seat in working class Queens. Ultimately, affirmative action only boosts those who have risen, usually on the basis of their own transcendent talents and unyielding efforts, to the point where their goals are finally within reach. To contend that the benefits of affirmative action are somehow undeserved, therefore, is preposterous.
All of this, of course, begs the political question of the day. What should Hillary Clinton do about Geraldine Ferraro? Here's my answer: nothing. Candidates are not responsible for every stupid, misguided idea that comes from one of their aides or advisors. Obviously, there are limits. Bald-faced expressions of bigotry remain a firing offense in any decent campaign. But what Ferraro said was not racist, at least not in the sense we usually think of the term, the Don Imus sense. It was simply wrong.
A couple of days ago, I suggested that Barack Obama should have stood behind his embattled foreign policy adviser. Today, I make that same suggestion to Senator Clinton. Someone needs to take a little air out of the perpetual outrage machine. Now would be as good a time as any to start.