Suzanne Fields

Stereotypes are tempting shortcuts, framing individuals and groups with identifying characteristics that may or may not be accurate. Stereotypes can quickly become the basis for either demeaning prejudice or genuine admiration, and usually tell us more about the stereotyper than the stereotypee. Good or bad, they often work, like the cartoonist's device for exaggeration to make a point. Stereotypes particularly thrive in religion and politics.

Candidates for high office -- particularly candidates for president -- would never admit they employ stereotypes to make their cases, but they often do, even when running against type. Hillary Clinton tries to escape from her vote for the Iraq war, but she's still the toughest of the Democratic candidates, defending her vote even though she does it badly. She's looking ahead to the general election, when she will have to appeal to voters who may be suspicious of a woman as commander in chief in a time of war.

Barack Obama has another kind of problem. He no longer has to run against the cruel Amos 'n' Andy stereotypes of clownish racial inferiority. He has to run against the stereotypes of black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who have manipulated the plantation metaphor by emphasizing black victimhood. Obama is trying to plant himself in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., who stressed the content of character rather than the color of skin. He talks about black as well as white responsibility, as "the post-racial politician" who doesn't play the race card. He's betting that this approach will resonate with both white and black voters.

Republican candidates have different problems with stereotypes. John McCain, who capitalized on his reputation as the brave warrior who stood up to his brutal Vietnamese captors, refusing early release as a prisoner of war to stay with his friends at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, suffers from prolonged shelf life. He looks a little over the hill, stereotyped as a veteran of the wrong war. Republicans may prefer the younger Rudy Giuliani, who looks more vigorous as the leader to take the fight against a new enemy. The stereotype of hero changes with the public mood. After Harry Truman, voters wanted a genial general, not the stern commander in chief who presided over the end of a world war and the beginning of a new cold one.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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