Black columnists accuse McCain of playing race

Staff Reporter | Posted August 5, 2008 11:05 AM

Senator John McCain last week accused rival Senator Barack Obama of “playing the race card” in the presidential campaign, but two influential black columnists say its actually the Republicans who are playing with race.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert says McCain is operating from a Republican playbook that has used race as a wedge issue for decades. Herbert points to the McCain “celebrity” ad linking Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and a similar ad that ran against Rep. Harold Ford when he ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Tennessee in 2006.

“Gee, I wonder why, if you have a black man running for high public office — say, Barack Obama or Harold Ford — the opposition feels compelled to run low-life political ads featuring tacky, sexually provocative white women who have no connection whatsoever to the black male candidates,” writes Herbert.

In a column published on Saturday, Herbert describes Spears and Hilton as “two highly sexualized women” and says they have nothing to do with Barack Obama’s campaign. But he accuses Republicans of targeting Harold Ford “with a similarly disgusting ad” which showed a scantily clad woman whispering, “Harold, call me.”

“Both ads were foul, poisonous and emanated from the upper reaches of the Republican Party,” writes Herbert. “Both were designed to exploit the hostility, anxiety and resentment of the many white Americans who are still freakishly hung up on the idea of black men rising above their station and becoming sexually involved with white women.”

Herbert says the McCain camp has been using code language at least since the general election campaign began in March when the Arizona senator labeled himself as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”

And Herbert did not back down on Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, where he accused Republicans of exploiting race for decades.

Republicans immediately shot back, accusing Herbert of seeing phallic symbols in McCain’s “celebrity” ad that they say did not exist. But the race issue did not end with Herbert.

Eugene Robinson, another influential black columnist, also accuses the Republicans of raising the race issue. Writing in his column in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Robinson accused McCain and his surrogates of inserting race into a dialogue that wasn’t there.

Robinson noted that McCain supporter Senator Lindsey Graham on Sunday used coded language that was designed to make white voters wary of Obama. Responding to Obama’s statement that Republicans would try to scare voters, Graham said on “Fox News Sunday” that “there’s no doubt in my mind that what Senator Obama is trying to suggest — that he’s a victim of something.” Graham then added: “We’re not going to run a campaign like he did in the primary. Every time somebody brings up a challenge to who you are and what you believe, ‘You’re a racist.’ That’s not going to happen in this campaign.”

But Robinson notes that Obama and his campaign never used the words “victim” or “racist.” Instead, he says “Graham is trying to tie Obama to a stereotype” of “the Great African American Victim” and is “playing to the annoyance some whites feel at being reminded of racial sins committed long before they were born.”

Robinson suggests the GOP strategy is purposeful. Given what he calls the Democratic Party’s “formidable” structural advantages, “it’s hard to imagine how McCain could possibly win unless he generates doubt in voters’ minds about Obama,” he writes.

Although Obama polls more than 90 percent among African American voters, blacks only make up 12 percent of the population and Obama will need white voters to win in the general election. That means he can’t come off like a black stereotype, according to Robinson.

“Obama understands that in order to be elected president, he has to come off as the least-aggrieved black man in America,” says Robinson.