The Tricky Politics of Race

The most interesting Democratic debate so far was not Monday night's slugfest, but rather the debate in Las Vegas a week earlier, when the candidates were very, very polite with each other. The Monday night fisticuffs between Clinton and Obama were about par for the course for two candidates locked in a fight-to-the-finish. More intriguing to me was the moment a week ago when the candidates peered over the precipice called race and, for the moment at least, pulled back.

It is inevitable that race, the great divider, will slip into a campaign that includes the first black presidential candidate with a serious chance to win. At the rawest level, Obama needs to sweep the black vote to win in South Carolina on Saturday. And Clinton is counting on Hispanics, many of whom have been notably cool to black politicians, to shore up her base in the southwest and in California and New York on Super Tuesday.

But what is equally notable is the degree to which the candidates, and the reporters who cover them, have tried to steer carefully around, or at least gingerly handle, racial issues. The political-media establishment is itself confounded by race, at once quick to cast conflicts in racial terms and at the same time terrified of saying anything that could be construed as racist--a tension that makes candid conversation about issues of race fraught and difficult. Obama skates a fine line, sometimes trying to have it both ways. He does not embrace the notion that he is the "post racial" candidate. He was, after all, an activist in black neighborhoods in Chicago, and he doesn't hesitate to invoke the great moments of the civil rights movement. Even so, he is no "race man" as black inner-city pols are sometimes called. He does not overtly play the race card like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. If he has a chance of winning, it is precisely because he is seen as transcending all divides--black v. white, red state v. blue state, America v. the world.

The press loves conflict, and so naturally gravitates towards stories of racial division. Arguably the press has pumped up the race story even after the politicians wanted to leave it alone. But reporters and editors tend to tread lightly on the subject of race whenever they might seem to be making invidious comparisons. In newsrooms and in editorial meetings, journalists who are normally quick to shoot their mouths off are cautious and circumspect when they discuss race. This is mostly for the healthy reason that Americans have learned, after centuries of racial abuse and insensitivity, to think twice before they pronounce on racial subjects. At the same time, self-censorship can be the result. Only recently, a wave of biographies have shown that Condoleezza Rice was a dangerously weak national security adviser during President Bush's first term (see, for instance, the just-published fair-minded account written by New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, as well as works last year by Timesman and former Newsweeker Marcus Mabry and Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler). But at the time Rice was performing poorly at the White House, very little was written in the press about her that could be called critical. Rice was an impressive, even formidable figure in an interview, and there was something grand and uplifting about a black woman is such a traditionally white male job. Journalists I have spoken to generally agree (though not for the record) that a dull white male would not likely have been given such a free pass.

For the Clinton campaign, race is a conundrum. Former President Clinton appears to be seething over the Obama campaign, in part because he thinks it's getting favored treatment by the media. The man praised by black leaders as America's "first black president" clearly wants to lash out at Obama. But he knows he has to be careful. When he seemed to suggest that Obama was engaging in a "fairy tale," he had his wrists slapped by black leaders. (Clinton protested that he was talking about Obama's statements on Iraq, not his campaign itself, and the transcript backs him up.) President Clinton often accuses the press of being too nice to Obama and too tough on Hillary. He is not just being paranoid, though there are factors other than race involved. Broadly speaking, the press likes Obama because he is a young fresh face who promises change. He is vaguely Kennedyesque--always seductive to reporters (Clinton himself benefited from this aura; after the 1992 Democratic Convention, Newsweek ran a cover with Clinton and Gore called "Young Guns"). And some reporters regard the Clinton campaign as too uptight, vengeful, and secretive. At the same time, it may be true that Obama has been handled more gently because of his race. In a tough campaign, the scrutiny will even out over time. But the press and the politicians will always be uncomfortable discussing racial issues, even as they seek to exploit them.