Cose: A Dispute Over The Dream

The Age of Aquarius was not supposed to be quite so mean. But somehow, things got out of hand. So last week, just before the Democratic debate in Nevada, Hillary Clinton appealed for civility. Words had been exchanged, she said in a prepared statement, that did not reflect "what is in our hearts." She was alluding to the wallow in racially charged silliness and innuendo that the Democratic campaign had suddenly become. Did Clinton really mean to denigrate Martin Luther King Jr.? Was Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson seriously suggesting Barack Obama had been a drug abuser? Had former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young lost his mind—suggesting (albeit apparently in jest) that blacks should vote for Hillary because of Bill's exploits with black women?

In last Tuesday's debate, she evoked the legacy of Dr. King: "The three of us [former senator John Edwards rounds out the threesome] are here in large measure because his dreams have been realized." And she and Obama essentially agreed to put the ugliness behind them. Their fans and friends, it seems, didn't get the message.

Two days before last Saturday's bitterly contested Nevada caucus, the Clinton camp pushed forth two Latina heavyweights to counter a Spanish language radio ad accusing Clinton of disrespecting Latinos. The ad, whose provenance was unclear, was apparently sparked by a challenge to Democratic caucus rules. In a conference call with reporters, Maria Echaveste, deputy chief of staff in Bill Clinton's White House, praised Hillary's 20-year record of support for Latino workers and questioned Obama's commitment to that constituency. Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the United Farm Workers, was more dismissive. In years of fighting for Latinos, said Huerta, she had never encountered the man. "Mr. Obama has not had a relationship with the Hispanic community in Nevada," she said. Obama's camp rejected demands that Obama denounce the anti-Clinton radio ad. "Coming from a campaign that is repeatedly launching absolutely false attacks against Senator Obama, it takes some chutzpah," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

The candidates themselves were not far above the fray. Clinton repeatedly portrayed Obama as a more liberal version of a disengaged George Bush, pressing a line of attack opened up by Obama's admission that he was not an "operating officer." She also slammed Obama's approach to Social Security as a tax on the middle class, while surrogates questioned the depth of his opposition to the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository. "When I was 20 points down, everybody loved me," Obama sardonically responded at a rally last Thursday night and then proceeded to tear into what he described as Clinton's willful misrepresentation of his positions. She was part of the tired, old, Washington gang "willing to say anything just to get elected," he said. He dismissed her criticisms of his inexperience and optimism, rooted, he said, in the misguided thinking of a Washington establishment that believed "we have to season and stew [Obama] a little bit more … boil all the hope out of him, so he sounds just like us."

The angry tone of the campaigns reflected not just the tightening of the race, but also something more emotional: the feeling of many supporters of both candidates that this campaign is about making history and that the other candidate stands in the way. Gloria Steinem made the case in a New York Times op-ed that essentially argued that it was a woman's turn to be president. In introducing her husband last week, Michelle Obama expressed another view. Obama's election, she said, would lift "the veil of impossibility … off the heads off thousands and millions of kids like me and Barack who have been told all their lives, 'No. You can't. You're not ready. You're not good enough. Your turn is later.' But our turn is now." The crowd roared in approval.

Michelle did not spell out who the "our" included; but in a state whose caucus date was pushed up in part to give minority voters a bigger say in the process, the implication seemed clear. Indeed, part of what made the campaign in Nevada so fraught, and will make the upcoming primary in South Carolina even more so, is uncertainty about how race plays out in this era when multiple groups claim to embody King's dream, and when clan affinity cannot be taken for granted.

"The race thing is so delicate," Nevada Assemblyman Harvey Munford told me. Yet virtually no one I spoke to in the state thought race (or gender, for that matter) would be the determining factor in the presidential contest. Instead, voters said, they were trying to look at the candidates and size up their proposals on their own merits.

When I asked Edwards to give me the strongest argument for his candidacy in light of the two campaigns striving so hard to make their candidates "the first," he spoke of "a huge moral test for the country," one bound up in the nation's ability to see beyond the symbolism to the essence of the candidates themselves. Talk about a dream. Yet it is one of the few dreams that, in the end, may truly have the power to take us to a better place.