Playing a frayed and faded ‘race card’

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is making a truly impressive run for the White House, and in doing so is being considered by many as America’s first mainstream “black” candidate — in other words a “black” candidate not running on a near-exclusive agenda of identity politics.

In fact, Obama’s soaring stump rhetoric often speaks about the nation needing to transcend racial divisions, arguing that “we are one nation” as he did in his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses. In doing so Obama, the product of a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya, became the nation’s first “black” presidential candidate who was not appealing directly to the politics of racial identity.

However, it didn’t take long for this race-transcendent rhetoric to become mired in the same old tired politics of blame and guilt that have for too long been the un-natural state of America’s racial affairs. As the race has became increasingly heated between Obama and his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the gloves have come off and race has emerged as an issue that has dominated all discussions of the Democrats’ run for the White House.

The series of comments began back in December, when the chair of the Clinton campaign in Michigan speculated whether Obama has ever dealt drugs. Just prior to the New Hampshire vote, Bill Clinton referred to the increasingly successful Obama campaign as a “fairy tale.” Then Sen. Clinton told an audience of supporters that it took the work of then-president Lyndon Johnson to begin realizing the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — which seemed to some sensitive ears to diminish the importance of the great civil rights leader. Candice Tolliver, a Obama spokesperson, said that “a cross section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of these statements.”

Predictably, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the Clintons, his old friends and allies, “Regrettably … have resorted to distasteful and condescending language….”

Democratic Rep. Jim Clayburn, a critical voice in black South Carolina politics, said he’d now consider endorsing Obama due to what he termed a lack of respect in the Clinton campaign’s approach to Obama.

Bill Clinton went on Al Sharpton’s radio show to explain his comments, and Sen. Clinton appeared on numerous news shows engaging in damage control. But the racial silliness seemed to have a momentum all its own. While campaigning with Sen. Clinton in South Carolina, Bob Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, again raised the specter of Obama’s drug use while a teenager. Clinton refused to repudiate the comments, even though she was standing on the stage as the over-the-top statements were made.

It is impossible to know, at this point, whether the Clintons, stung by the strength of the Obama campaign, decided to reach back for the race card as a device to weaken the cross-race appeal of Obama’s message. The Clintons’ electoral machine is known to “take no prisoners” and to do so with a fair amount of ruthlessness. That said, it is also a stretch to attempt to portray the Clintons as racially bigoted — having been devoted to liberal racial politics their entire lives.

On the other hand, why did it take Barack Obama more than a week to attempt to defuse the growing argument that somehow the Clintons are neo-racists? Only within the past few days has Obama spoken out, saying “Bill and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. I think they care about the African American community and that they care about all Americans and that they want to see equal rights and justice in this country.”

So will this issue go away now? Most likely it will not. Once unloosed, the beast of racial identity politics will be tamed only with great difficulty.

Speculation about racial motivations regarding elections is nothing new. A prime example are the views of folks like Michael Eric Dyson, a black Georgetown University professor — a guy who could turn a visit from Santa Claus into a racial issue — who recently made featured appearances on various 24-hour news channels, peddling the view that the so-called “Bradley effect” defeated Obama in New Hampshire. In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, a black man, was defeated in his race for governor, even though polls indicated he’d win. The continuing claim is that whites lied to pollsters, then went into the voting booth to vote for the “white” candidate, George Deukmejian.

This is, of course, all rank speculation, but the view has become enshrined as reality among those with transparent racial agendas. No one knows what was in the minds and hearts of California’s voters in that 1982 Gubernatorial race — just as race-conscious pundits like Dyson now speculate wildly that New Hampshire’s mostly white voters were mindful of race when they handed Hillary Clinton a narrow three-point win over Barack Obama.

But wouldn’t a more thoughtful analysis have led to the conclusion that Clinton had a more effective New Hampshire ground operation? Or what about the fact that many uncommitted voters waited until the last moment (nearly 40 percent made up their minds in the last three days prior to the election), with women and older voters perhaps influenced by Clinton’s “humanizing” emotional moment in front of television cameras?

Why are some racial “traditionalists” so distraught by what Obama’s electoral successes represent? I think the obvious willingness of white voters to disregard the candidate’s skin color is a direct challenge to the argument that racism dominates the nation’s social, political and economic life. Already, Obama’s highly credible run for the highest office in the land has caused the country’s professional racial complainers to scramble in order to put their spin on things.

It is obvious that if Obama were to win the Oval Office not all racism would be eliminated by this feat. However, I have not heard anyone making that claim. Racism and bigotry will perhaps always exist in some form. There will always be those idiots and fools who define others exclusively by their skin color, ethnicity or religion. But so what? At least 10 percent of the American people believe that Elvis Presley is still alive.

Washington Watch

Clark Looks for Jewish Money

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who jumped into the crowded Democratic ring last week, isn’t Jewish, but his Jewish roots could figure prominently in his strategy for winning the 2004 presidential nomination.

The reason: Clark, a latecomer to the race, needs lots of money — and fast.

“He has to raise a ton of money,” said a top Jewish Democrat this week. “And he has to avoid gaffes for the next few weeks so he can put together position papers. You look at the top 100 givers in the party, and a very high percentage of them are Jews. A lot of them have been sitting on the sidelines so far. So they’re ripe for the picking.”

But to do that picking, this source said, Clark has to demonstrate that he is a credible candidate with a good chance of beating President George W. Bush next November. And he has to demonstrate a sensitivity to the hot-button issues that have a big impact on pro-Israel campaign contributors — a lesson another surprise frontrunner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, learned the hard way recently.

“He’s intelligent, he’s articulate but he’s fallen on his face in the first days of the campaign,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “He needs to be handled better; his learning curve has to be extremely steep. He doesn’t have the luxury of making mistakes.”

Clark will be pressed hard to explain his Mideast views in detail in the coming weeks; how he responds will have a significant impact on the flow of badly needed Jewish dollars, Kahn said.

Those views include a call for greater international involvement in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and cautious endorsement of NATO peacekeepers for the region, both ideas that are regarded warily by most pro-Israel groups and vehemently opposed by some.

This week, the former NATO Supreme Commander and Democratic newcomer was burning up the phone-lines, touching base with potential contributors across the country. He was also aggressively working Capitol Hill, seeking endorsements — including endorsements from Jewish lawmakers.

He is also building a campaign machine that includes a number of former Clinton administration officials. On the Clark team so far: former National Service director Eli Segal, former Commerce secretary Mickey Kantor and Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), a top White House aide during the Clinton years.

Clark is also basking in the glow of a successful fundraising forays to Hollywood, Silicon Valley and New York.

Clark reportedly hopes to raise up to $5 million before the end of the current reporting period next week, a total that would reinforce his standing as a serious candidate — and possibly convince some of his less-successful rivals to drop out.

“He needs money, he needs important backers and he needs something only he can provide: giving people an affirmative reason to support him,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.

And that means courting Jewish campaign contributors who traditionally provide “the bulk of the money for Democratic candidates,” he said. “Because of that, I think he will rediscover his Jewish roots very quickly.”

In 1999 Clark revealed that while he grew up a Baptist and later converted to Catholicism, his father was Jewish.

“Our community doesn’t have a lot of generals,” Ginsberg said. If a general comes along and wants to be Jewish, who’s going to turn him away?”

Mixed News for Lieberman

The impending end of the quarter for campaign donations is touching off last-minute money blitzes in other Democratic presidential campaigns as well; the upcoming Federal Election Commission report card on contributions could prove critical for several.

This week supporters of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who continues to rank near the top in national polls, sent an urgent “Third Quarter Countdown” e-mail to potential contributors. The goal: to make sure the campaign “finishes the quarter with lots of momentum.”

The critical thing for Lieberman now: keeping up the appearance of momentum until after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, where he, Gen. Wesley Clark, Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) among others will slug it out.

“We have said from the beginning that Feb. 3 would be an important day for our campaign,” said campaign director Craig Smith in the e-mail to potential contributors. “This is the day we will start to win the nomination.”

That date marks the Arizona, Delaware and South Carolina primaries, among others, in which Lieberman is expected to run strong.

“He’s running an effective, steady, unspectacular race,” said a top Jewish politico here. “His strategy is clearly to hold until after New Hampshire and Iowa, when there could be utter confusion among the other frontrunners, and Joe will have his chance.”

Lieberman and several other Democratic contenders were buoyed by a new CNN poll showing them all gaining on or beating President Bush, whose job-approval ratings continue to sink in the face of job losses, the government budget crisis and mounting anarchy and terrorism in Iraq.

Less pleasing to the other Democratic candidates, including Lieberman: the fact that after only five days as an official candidate, Clark did better against Bush than any of them.

In the sample of 877 registered voters, 49 percent said they would vote for Clark, 46 for Bush, while the President beat Dean, Gephardt and Lieberman by slim margins.

Administration Accelerates Faith-Based

The Bush administration’s faith-based initiative may be bogged down in Congress, but it is on the fast-track inside the executive branch, where the president is intensifying his effort to use already-existing authority to expand government help for religious institutions.

But that hasn’t produced a bonanza for Jewish social service providers; in a series of grants announced this week, no Jewish groups were among the lucky recipients, although at least one applied.

On Monday the Bush cabinet convened to report back to the boss about progress in opening up government health and human service contracts to religious groups.

The administration also announced a series of new regulations lowering barriers for religious group participation in grant programs — changes that critics say will lead to the improper use of government money for things like proselytizing.

And the Department of Health and Human Services announced $30.5 million in grants to support 81 community groups and faith-based charities, and another $24 million for programs that received funding last year under the administration’s “Compassion Capital Fund.”

According to an analysis by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, regulatory changes announced by the administration will provide up to $20 billion to religious groups that operate substance and mental health service programs.

Under the Compassion Capital Fund, the list of grantees includes interfaith, community and Christian groups but no Jewish social service providers, despite the fact that at least one — the Orthodox Union — applied.

Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington representative, said that shows the faith-based initiative “will not be a political patronage program. Given how supportive we’ve been of the faith-based program, we would have been a candidate if there had been any interest in using this for political payoffs.”

Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, which opposes much of the administration’s faith-based thrust, said there were no surprises at the White House this week.

“What we’re seeing is the administration following through on what has always been a priority,” he said.

But Foltin conceded that by shifting the focus from legislation to executive action, the administration has made things much harder for opponents.

Options for opponents include court action against individual faith based programs and public education, he said; legislative efforts to roll back some of the President’s actions, as proposed by several liberal lawmakers, are unlikely to advance in the GOP-controlled Congress.

The administration has not given up on Capitol Hill, but shifted the emphasis from sweeping faith-based legislation to “piecemeal” changes in legislation reauthorizing existing programs, Foltin said.

That includes efforts to remove provisions prohibiting employment discrimination by religious groups that use government money in programs such as Head Start.

But Orthodox groups applauded the acceleration of the administration’s faith-based effort.

“We welcome these developments that will lower the barriers that prevent religious groups from participating on an equal footing in administering social service programs,” said Abba Cohen, Washington representative for Agudath Israel of America. “We’re very pleased that the administration is steadfast in moving forward.”

Gore’s Campaign Stop

Vice President Al Gore’s visit to the Middle Eastlast week may have been the biggest and best event yet in his 2000presidential campaign, political observers here say.

During a five-day swing through Egypt, SaudiArabia, Israel and the West Bank, Gore adroitly positioned himself asa player in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, they say –but not too muchof a player.

“It was the best of all worlds for him,” said aleading Jewish Democrat this week. “He got to portray himself as anegotiator without doing the risky things negotiators have to do,especially in Israeli-Palestinian talks.”

Throughout his visit, Gore insisted that he was”not a negotiator.” Instead, his role was to reinforce relations withthe principals in the Israeli-Palestinian drama, and especially PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose relationship with PresidentClinton has been stormy — and could get stormier after this week’sLondon negotiation sessions, which ended on an ambiguous note.

Gore’s unscheduled, late-night airport meetingwith Netanyahu and his emotional words at ceremonies marking Israel’s50th anniversary had a big impact on the Israelis, said MalcolmHoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents ofMajor Jewish Organizations, who was with the vice president duringsome of his Israel visit.

“He charmed the people of Israel with his styleand his Hebrew and his warmth,” Hoenlein said. “His role was tore-establish the personal chemistry in the relationship. Ithink he did that.”

And that could produce both diplomatic andpolitical dividends.

“There >have been concerns about theimpression of American pressure,” Hoenlein said. “The vice presidenthelped alleviate that and dispelled some of the fears about where theUnited States is. That could help the negotiations.”

Politically, “it was an extraordinaryperformance,” said presidential historian Allan Lichtman, of AmericanUniversity. “It’s the best we’ve seen from him. He comes out of thisa major player on a vital and sensitive issue.”

Gore, he said, won stature with Americans ingeneral by appearing diplomatic-without losing points with Jews, avital constituency in his expensive quest to win the Democraticpresidential nomination in two years.

Other observers noted that Gore’s Mideast missionboosted his presidential prospects by demonstrating a level ofinvolvement in high-level policy unusual for vice presidents.

“He set himself up to win no matter whathappened,” Lichtman said.

“It was very good politics.”

Vice President Al Gore with Israeli PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu at the Israel at 50 festivities inJerusalem. Photo by Peter Halmagyi

Clinton Honors Israel

By James D. Besser,Washington Correspondent

Did the White House reception marking Israel’s50th birthday last week provide any clues about how the Clintonadministration plans to proceed with its latest Mideast peace processrescue effort?

Maybe, according to several who witnessedPresident Bill Clinton’s legendary shmoozing skills up close.

“It was very reassuring,” said Rep. Ben Cardin(D-Md.), who joined Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and about 400Jewish bigwigs on the White House lawn and, later, inside theexecutive mansion. “The president made it very clear he was speakingas a friend. I came away convinced there would be none of thepressure on Israel that some of us have been concerned about.”

Clinton told the crowd that “as a Christian, I donot know how God, if He were to come to Earth, would divide the landover which there is dispute now. I suspect neither does anyone elsein this audience.”

That, Rep. Cardin said, was another signal thatthe administration does not plan to “force Israel to make anyconcessions that will compromise its security.”

Administration insiders continue to report intensefrustration over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s approach to thestalled talks, but Clinton went out of his way to seek a personalconnection with the Israeli leader.

In speaking about the pioneers who created amodern, secure Israel, he referred to “the valor of citizen soldiersand military and political leaders like Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan,Yonni Netanyahu.”

That was a reference to the prime minister’sbrother, Jonathan, the only Israeli officer killed in the 1976hostage rescue mission at Entebbe.

“There was a very deliberate effort made toexpress warmth, not just to Israel and its people but to thegovernment and to Mr. Netanyahu,” said a longtime pro-Israel leaderwho attended.

Clinton, awarded an honorary degree at the eventby Hebrew University, said that he accepted the honor “on behalf ofmy predecessors, beginning with Harry Truman — nine Americanpresidents, all devoted to Israel’s security and freedom, allcommitted to peace in the Middle East. I accept it on behalf of theAmerican people who have formed not just an alliance, but a profoundfriendship with the people of Israel over these last 50years.”

Jewish leaders were impressed.

“It was an effective program and it was conductedon the level of state to state, rather than government togovernment,” said Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the JewishTheological Seminary and one of the religious leaders featured in theceremony. “It transcended the tensions of the moment. The presidentwas at his very best, and gave lots of reassurance as to theunbreakable character of the friendship, which is more than analliance.”


As Bibi Smiles, the Palestinians Sweat

For the record, the Netanyahu administration isexpecting business as usual from President Clinton, despite histroubles with the likes of Monica Lewinsky.

“I have no doubt that President Clinton willcontinue to be personally involved in the peace process as he hasbeen up until now,” said Cabinet secretary Danny Naveh, one ofBinyamin Netanyahu’s closest aides.

But it was hard not to detect a certain gloatingin the Prime Minister’s Office, an inescapable sense of satisfactionthat Clinton, who has been trying to push Netanyahu to give more thanhe wants to give to the Palestinians, was now up to his neck introuble.

This perceived satisfaction on Netanyahu’s partgrew partly out of personal considerations. Clinton had hardly triedto hide his distaste and lack of trust for the Israeli primeminister, and he had treated him in cavalier fashion duringNetanyahu’s visit to Washington last week. House Speaker NewtGingrich, Clinton’s political enemy and Netanyahu’s ally, called it”snub diplomacy.”

But aside from whatever personal glow Netanyahumay have been getting from Clinton’s problems, he stood to reap agreat political benefit from the Lewinsky accusations: With Clintonweakened and preoccupied with survival, he had far less ability topress Netanyahu for concessions on the peace process.

With Clinton’s status falling, the RepublicanParty’s status stood to rise, and the GOP, which controls the Senateand House, is Netanyahu’s single-most important foreign ally. TheIsraeli government, it seemed, could breathe much easier, at leastuntil “Naughtygate,” or “Monicagate,” or whatever it was beingcalled, sorted itself out. The scandal broke just as Netanyahu,followed by Yasser Arafat, arrived in Washington to meet withClinton. Monica Lewinsky made them disappear, and, for Netanyahu, atleast, that was just fine.

Some of Netanyahu’s colleagues didn’t bother tohide their good cheer over the sex-lies-and-audiotapes controversy.”American pressure will diminish, and I see this as a positivedevelopment,” said Likud Knesset Member Naomi Blumenthal.

In general, Israelis who favored Netanyahu’stight-fisted line on the peace process were happy about the Lewinsky”Affair,” while the more dovish saw it as a serious blow to Israel’sinterests. Some of the latter, however, tried to advise the Netanyahuadministration against overconfidence.

“I would recommend that the Israeli government notbank on false hopes,” said Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo, a Likud dove whoopposes Netanyahu. “It might be that precisely because Clinton is introuble, he will have that much more motivation to achieve a majorforeign policy success, and will press the Israelis and Palestiniansharder toward agreement.”

There was yet another point of view: that MonicaLewinsky would have no effect on the fortunes of the Middle East.This was the opinion held by one of Israel’s premier politicalscientists, Hebrew University Professor Shlomo Avineri. He arguedthat Clinton, like all U.S. presidents, has a marginal effect onIsraeli-Arab affairs, so the diminution of Clinton’s powers would notmake much difference to the people of the region.

“The U.S. only has real leverage on Middle Eastpeace talks in times of acute crisis — such as in the Yom KippurWar, the Lebanon War, and the Gulf War — or when there is politicalwill on both sides — such as in the Camp David Accords,” Avinerisaid. “We are not in an acute crisis, and there is no evidence ofpolitical will for an agreement. Obviously, Netanyahu and Arafatdon’t see eye to eye.”

On the Palestinian street, there was talk of aJewish conspiracy. “In the Arab world and among the Palestinians,many people believe that because Monica Lewinsky is Jewish, theWashington sex scandal is nothing but another stunt by the IsraeliMossad intended to distract the attention of the American public andof President Clinton away from the peace process. In East Jerusalem,you could hear perfectly serious people saying that the timing of thenew scandal could not possibly be a coincidence. According to thatversion, the Israelis were alarmed by the possibility that thepresident might take a pro-Palestinian stance, and quickly cooked upthe new sex scandal,” wrote Ha’aretz’s Danny Rubinstein, one ofIsrael’s premier Palestinian-affairs journalists.

Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had nodoubt who was behind the “bimbo eruption” in Washington. “The Zionistlobby and world Zionism creates disasters for anyone who may cause itproblems,” the sheikh said.

It was widely noted in Israel that Monicagatebroke almost exactly one year after the Bar-On Affair corruptionaffair surfaced here. It was also noted that the principals in theBar-On Affair, chiefly Netanyahu, emerged untouched, if notstrengthened. Finally, it was noted that while Americans make such abig deal out of their presidents’ sex lives, Netanyahu’s 1993admission of an extramarital affair never hurt him a whit. Israel, itwas remembered, is not America.

Clinton remains a popular figure in Israel, and,in his hour of need, Israelis felt sympathy for him. In a poll takena few days after Monicagate hit the news, the respectedGeocartography Institute found that 56 percent of Israelis sided withthe president, and 29 percent opposed him. Recalling Clinton’s famousfarewell, “Shalom, Haver,” to Yitzhak Rabin, billboards featuringClinton’s picture began appearing. The caption read: “We’re with you,haver.”