Was John McCain playing the race card when he referred to Barack Obama as "that one" in Tuesday's presidential debate? Obama's campaign and its echo chamber in the media surely want us to think so. Within seconds, the campaign was sending out e-mails to reporters drawing attention to the phrase, and the media were quick to take up the charge.
The New York Times' Maureen Dowd somehow claimed that the phrase is "a cross between 'The One' and 'That Woman,'" and meant as a subtle warning to whites that they "should not open the door to the dangerous Other," namely a black man. CBS' Jeff Greenfield said, "Those two words are going to be what the water cooler conversation is tomorrow." Calling race "a particularly toxic issue in this country," NPR's Michel Martin asked a guest, "Do you think that race is becoming part of this campaign?"
This faux racism charge is as offensive as it is off base. McCain's somewhat un-artful reference was born of frustration that Obama has managed to avoid criticism for his pork-barrel spending, even when it benefits the superrich. McCain was referring to a 2005 energy bill that included huge breaks for the oil companies, which Sen. Obama supported and Sen. McCain did not. If race played any role in this calculus, it is the unspoken assumption that because Obama is both black and a liberal, he is immune from suspicion that he would ever do anything to benefit rich white guys.
Throughout the campaign, Barack Obama has tried to have it both ways on the race issue. As long as he thinks he's safely ahead and no one has the temerity to criticize him, he's the post-racial candidate who refuses to be defined or constrained by race. But when he's being challenged in any way -- say, by bringing up his 20-year relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright or his troubling association with Weather Underground terrorist William Ayers -- his supporters, if not Obama himself, are quick to claim racism must be the motive.
The Associated Press claimed Oct. 5 that vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's reference to the Obama-Ayers connection "carried a racially tinged subtext that John McCain himself may come to regret." Racially tinged? The Weather Underground were mostly over-privileged, white radicals from the '60s who tried to blow up buildings, including the Capitol and the Pentagon, and killed one policeman and maimed another in San Francisco. Obama has some explaining to do about his relationship with Ayers, and crying "racist" won't stop legitimate inquiries into whether Obama has been honest about how closely they worked together over the years or what Ayers' role was in launching Obama's political career.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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