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EDITORIAL: THE OBAMA COMFORT FACTOR

Published in The Bennington Banner, March 20, 2008

As a serious candidate for president, Sen. Barack Obama faces special hurdles unique to his background. These include his identity as the son of a white American woman and a black father from Kenya, the fact that as a boy he lived for a time with his mother in Indonesia and, of course, there is his unusual name.

Indeed, beyond the usual challenges of presenting himself as a qualified and appealing candidate, Obama has in the last few months had to again and again reassure the public in one way or other that he is, indeed, 100 percent American.

Whether it be snide insinuations about his name or the false assertion that he attended a Muslim religious school in Indonesia, whether it be whispers about the absence of an American-flag lapel pin on his jacket or his donning of an unusual native costume years ago on a visit to Africa, Obama in one way or other has had to reassure the public that yes, indeed, he is a loyal citizen of the United States of America.

As a biracial man, Obama reflects the reality of an increasingly diverse United States, but we aren’t yet at a “post-racial” point in our politics. The angry, inflammatory and just plain loony anti-white and anti-American statements of Obama’s now-retired pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, have brought this to the fore. The senator has had to come down off his pedestal as a new kind of candidate and grapple with messy issues of race and religion head on.

And grapple he did, in a 6,500-word speech Tuesday in Philadelphia.

While condemning Wright’s controversial statements, Obama spoke of how he, like all of us, could be close to someone and not agree with everything they say, whether it be his African-American pastor in Chicago or the white grandmother who helped raise him. Obama spoke about America’s long and troubled racial history and he spoke about racial anger, both black and white.

The latter is important, for the issue of anger is another potential stumbling block for any black candidate who needs the votes of whites. Unlike the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the past, Obama exudes calmness, reasonableness — even gentleness — to the point even where some question his toughness for the job.

The association of Obama with Wright’s racial anger, however indirectly, has no doubt made some whites less comfortable with his candidacy. Only time will tell if his remarkable speech will prove effective in making Wright’s comments a non-issue in the primary race.

Interestingly, there seems to be a double standard this year when it comes to anger and bigotry. For not only is presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain widely known in political and military circles as a hothead, but he was recently endorsed by a white extremist preacher with little notice or fuss.

Indeed, McCain seems to have gotten a free ride after being endorsed by Texas mega-church pastor John C. Hagee, who calls Catholicism a religion of hate and wants the U.S. and Israel to launch a preemptive strike on Iran that will lead to the second coming of Christ. Asked about Hagee’s beliefs, McCain said, “all I can tell you is that I am very proud to have Pastor John Hagee’s support.”

Yes, there is a double standard here, both racial and political. No one apparently is concerned about angry white pastors who make bigoted and lunatic statements and endorse the white Republican candidate for president. White, evangelical anger is a staple of the GOP coalition, after all.

And given the fact that the GOP will have to run on — or rather away from  — the abysmal record of George W. Bush, expect the Republicans to run under their tried and true standards of race and fear — particularly if Obama is at the top of the Democratic ticket.
 
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