John Leo
Hillary Clinton has surprised many of us by behaving like a serious mainstream politician for more than two years. But the strain is showing.

The positive outcome of the Trent Lott affair seems to have revived the old Hillary. She has spotted yet another vast right-wing conspiracy, this time a vast Republican racist one. She said: "If anyone thinks that one person stepping down from a leadership position cleanses the Republican Party of their constant exploitation of race, then I think you're naive."

The nasty rhetoric reflects Democratic disappointment that Lott stepped down. The party seemed to have the Republicans in a bind: Either Lott stayed as a soft-on-segregation party leader, or he "cleansed himself" in the only way the Democrats can imagine -- by endorsing the full Democratic program of race preferences, set-asides and quotas. In one apology, Lott had already come out for undefined version of affirmative action. He was so desperate to please that one columnist (not very seriously) said Lott might endorse slavery reparations next.

Constant exploitation of race? In an effort to keep the charge of racism alive, umpteen Democrats in the past two weeks have pointed to the Willie Horton issue and Jesse Helms' old "hands" ad that showed a white male losing out to a black because of affirmative action. But the Willie Horton issue -- whether it makes any sense to grant dangerous felons unsupervised vacations from prison ("furloughs") -- is obviously legitimate. It was aired at great length in Massachusetts when Dukakis was governor, and was introduced into 1988 presidential politics by then-candidate Al Gore.

Beyond that, "the constant exploitation of race" in recent political ads has been a virtual Democratic monopoly. How about the 2000 ad in Texas that associated George W. Bush with the vicious dragging killing of a black man? (A vote against enhanced penalties for hate crimes was depicted as a vote for racial murders.) Or the Democrats' 1996 California ad opposing Proposition 209 that featured David Duke and burning crosses (a vote against quotas and preferences was depicted as a vote for the Klan). After the wave of church burnings, radio ads aimed at black voters suggested that a vote for Republicans was a vote for more arson at black churches.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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