The language of politicians

January 10, 2010 at 11:55 pm (By Rodjean)

Lost in the firestorm that has erupted over revelations of Sen. Reid’s comments about then Senator Obama’s election prospects and race is the context of those comments. It explains why African American political leaders were so quick to forgive his “poor word choice.” They knew he was not a racist from his lifetime commitment to civil rights, but I believe they also knew that Sen. Reid was not expressing a racist opinion because the subject he was discussing was how voters might react to an African American candidate.

It is easy to forget that two years ago many Americans wondered whether this country could elect a black man to the Presidency. Early in the Obama campaign, a majority of African American leaders in the Democratic Party still supported Hillary Clinton. Were they racists? Of course not. But, they accepted the conventional political wisdom at that moment, which held that sufficient latent racism probably existed among voters to deny the Presidency to an African American candidate.

To a certain extent, voters need to identify with a candidate to vote for him. In that sense, Sen. Reid was stating a truism: the more Obama was perceived as a “black” candidate, instead of a candidate who happened to be black, the more difficult it would be for some white voters to identify with him. To handicap a political race, politicians and political analysts must assess the possible prejudices of voters, be they racial, regional, religious, or class based. The problem is that a candid discussion of those prejudices is not politically correct, and it can be portrayed as racist or bigoted by those willing to repeat it out of context in our “sound bite” culture.


  1. Icepick said,

    And of course, if Reid had choosen a word other than ‘Negro’ then there would be even less to this “story” than there is.

    That the line has caused such a ruckus is even funnier given that the book it comes from asserts that Reid was one of the earliest people urging Obama to run in 2008. From an execrpt of the book published in NY Magazine:

    The Democratic Establishment agreed that there would be—and certainly should be—a viable challenger to Clinton. The party’s pooh-bahs on Capitol Hill were privately terrified about the prospect of Hillary rolling to the nomination. They feared that she was too polarizing to win, that she would drag down House and Senate candidates in red and purple states; and they worried, too, about Bill’s putative affairs. But while the Clintons themselves regarded Edwards as Hillary’s most formidable rival, there existed a deep wariness about the North Carolinian among his fellow Democrats. In the Senate, in particular, Edwards was regarded almost universally by his former colleagues as a callow, shallow phony. Quietly, the Establishment began a quest to find a different alternative, eventually settling on the unlikely horse that was Obama—with Harry Reid personally, and secretly, urging the Illinois senator to run against Clinton. [emphasis added]

  2. realpc said,

    Of course his comment wasn’t racist. It is not racist to simply point out a fact. But political correctness has gone wild among progressives. Recently I was describing someone to a n extreme progressive. I mentioned that he looked Norwegian (because he was) and she got all offended. We are not supposed to mention any ethnic traits when describing someone.

    I mean, I didn’t say he looked like ” one of those darned good-for-nothin Norwegians.” So how was there anything racist or ethnicist in what I said? There wasn’t.

    But we are no longer permitted, in progressive company, to acknowledge any differences between men and women, or between different ethnic groups.

    Next thing you know, we won’t be allowed to acknowledge any difference between humans and other species. If you say, for example, “He looks like a dog” (because he is a dog), some progressive will get all offended.

  3. Rod said,

    I am from Nevada and I know Harry Reid. I had the feeling that he thought Hillary was inevitable in late 2007. (His son, who is now running for Governor, was the had of Hillary’s campaign committee until after Obama carried Nevada in the primary.) I think the Democratic leadership did not consider Obama viable at first, and got surprised by his showings in the early primaries.

  4. amba12 said,

    Ever since I read this post, I have been ignoring — but out of the corner of my eye, astonished by — the dust-up over Reid’s remarks, which goes on and ON and ON (and would still be going on — and may still go on — (as) if there hadn’t been a terrible earthquake in Haiti). What you point out is such an “of course.” Not that I’m any fan of Harry Reid, but for Christ’s sake. And the Republicans are acting the MOST outraged because they can claim it represents Democrat hypocrisy (of which there is plenty, just not here). And then Reid abjectly apologizes, perpetuating the absurdity.

    Taking offense at any racial observation, as real observes, has become a hair-trigger knee-jerk response. It’s mostly used as an excuse to bash your political opponent. It’s so tiresome and childish. If we never get over race, it will only be because it’s so convenient as a push button for shallow, phony outrage.

  5. amba12 said,

  6. Rod said,

    Reid has a long history of commitment to Civil Rights causes. In Nevada (where he is in political trouble for other reasons), nobody is trying to suggest he is a racist. His potential opponents are spinning it as they can – as an example of “poor judgment.” In truth, it is not even that. It is an example of how the public discussion of race has been transformed into theater.

    30 years ago, I attended a meeting of a Jimmy Carter statewide campaign committee, which contained members of variopus racial and ethnic groups. At first, I was taken aback when the committee head quized a Jewish member, saying “How is Jimmy doing with Jews in Las Vegas,” and to the African American, asking “What problems will blacks have relating to Carter,” etc. Then I realized the political operatives had to understand how voters reacted in relation to the voters’ most important identifications. Talking about that is not racist, sexist, anti semitic, or anything else.

    What we were really treated to with the Reid quote is the curtain being drawn back on how sitting politicians really think about potential candidates – in terms of how voters will react. That said, there is a cute twist to Sen. Reid’s observation about Obama not speaking with a dialect, “unless he wants to.” There was a hint of admiration for Obama’s capacity to be all things to all people in that comment.

  7. Icepick said,

    [T]here is a cute twist to Sen. Reid’s observation about Obama not speaking with a dialect, “unless he wants to.” There was a hint of admiration for Obama’s capacity to be all things to all people in that comment.

    Yeah, to the extent ther is anything to this story, it is in the “unless he wants to” bit. “All things to all people” reads like “big phony” to many of us. This also is an eye-of-the-beholder thing.

    Otherwise, this story is a nothing burger.

  8. Gary N said,

    “In Denver, you can’t even serve fried chicken on MLK day.”

    Been gone from the net for a long time …. love this article ….. good find, Amba … happens that as a child I watched MLK eat fried chicken at Crozer Seminary ….. I don’t think he would be offended. If it weren’t so cumbersome to board a plane, I would head for Denver with a (3) piece meal from KFC.

    The reaction of republicans to the Reid comment has all of the characteristics of the Clinton impeachment and the weekend congressional confab over the demise of one citizen who could “no longer” verbalize desires.

    The RNC and DNC are both whacked but neccesary entiries, but let’s not forget that a

    Committee is a noun of magnitude, signifying many, but not neccesarily very much

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