The politics of race could be Obama's undoing

Race is difficult to write about because it opens a Pandora's box of emotions and hidden prejudices. But now that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his longtime pastor are under fire for the clergyman's hateful and racist remarks, this is a troubling issue that the American electorate is forced to face in an election year.

I've been a soldier in the struggle for racial equality for most of my adult life, ever since I tried (unsuccessfully) to integrate my fraternity at the University of Washington in Seattle more than 40 years ago. Later, I roomed with a black friend and fellow Air Force officer when we were stationed at Klamath Falls, Ore.

And finally, in 1963, I signed-on with Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer, who campaigned on a platform of equal rights for all of the citizens of our state, which was then known as "the Mississippi of the West." On the touchy subject of race relations, Gov. Sawyer was ahead of his time and I was proud to be associated with him and his administration.

With that personal preamble, let's consider the current issue involving Illinois Sen. Obama and his recently retired pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who poisoned the political atmosphere with his fiery racist and anti-American rants from the pulpit. By now everyone has seen and heard those rants, which are running continuously on cable TV.

"God damn America!" the reverend thundered from the pulpit of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where the Obama family has worshiped for more than 20 years. Wright denounced "rich white men," asserted that the U.S. government was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and charged that AIDS is a genocidal plot against blacks. Nonsense!

Obama responded in an eloquent March 18 speech in which he condemned his pastor's racist remarks; however, he claimed that he hadn't been in church when the remarks were made and tried to explain Wright's comments within the context of the black experience. The bi-racial Obama, who had an African father and a white mother from Kansas, argued that race in America has become a generational story and that older blacks, like the 66-year-old Wright, an ex-Marine, grew up with Jim Crow laws and discrimination in schools and in the workplace, which embittered them. He also made an ill-advised comparison between the preacher and his grandmother, whom Obama described as "a typical white woman" - not a good choice of words.

Obama noted the Rev. Wright taught him the Christian faith and still helps poor and underprivileged members of his congregation. While that's admirable, it doesn't excuse the raw hate that Wright spewed from the pulpit. Even liberal journalists and many Obama supporters were appalled. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen asked a couple of important questions: "Why did Obama take so long to 'reject outright' the harshly critical statements about America ... not to mention the praise the minister lavished on Louis Farrakhan just last November? How is it possible that Obama didn't know about these remarks?"


Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan called Obama's response to Rev. Wright "a thinking man's speech ... as honest a speech as one in his position could give within the limits imposed by politics." But she added Wright was wrong and that his racist sermons "denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation." Amen!

Meanwhile, the Clinton Machine and Republican bloggers mounted a concerted effort to convert Obama from a presidential candidate who just happens to be black into the black candidate for president, a la Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Such a shift in public perceptions would represent a fatal blow to Obama's candidacy, even though he now leads Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in total primary votes and pledged delegates. The more the Clintons and some GOP operatives are able to inject race into the nomination battle, the worse it is for the first-term Illinois senator.

If front-runner Obama loses the key Pennsylvania primary next month, he'll be in trouble going into the Democratic national convention at Denver in August. At that point so-called "super delegates" could throw the nomination to Mrs. Clinton, whom they tend to favor. Then all hell would break loose among Obama supporters, 37 percent of whom tell pollsters that they won't vote for Hillary under any circumstances. The Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and his backers are already salivating at the prospect of this Democratic meltdown.

As a registered Democrat, I regret that race has been injected into the campaign for the party's presidential nominee. As Ms. Noonan wrote, "(Obama's) speech will be labeled by history as the speech that saved a candidacy or the speech that helped to do it in." For the good of our country, I hope it's the former rather than the latter.

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, has been following presidential politics for nearly 50 years.


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