Presidential campaigns are notorious for unleashing scurrilous rhetoric. Only George Washington was elected as an uncontroversial reflection of the nation's will. Then we got political parties, and it was downhill after that.
By 1800, when John Adams had been president for four years, he was inundated by what he called "squibs, scoffs and sarcasms" -- nasty stuff imbedded in vicious attacks on his character and reputation. Presidential campaigns are actually a lot nicer today. Paul F. Boller, the historian who collects outrageous examples in his book "Presidential Campaigns," cites speculations on the "copulative habits" of one candidate to the "prevaricative habits" of another in campaigns of yesteryear.
But impugning the motives of the voter, and not merely the candidate, is bending politics to an imaginative new standard. Some of the partisans on the left are frustrated because Republicans and other conservatives, who are supposed to be mean and vicious racists, aren't reading their assigned lines. Lee Siegel, for example, who writes about culture for several left-wing magazines, accuses Mitt Romney of having to attract racist voters with appeals that the right-thinking might not notice. Writing in The New York Times, he accuses Romney of exploiting his white skin with Americans "who find the thought of a black president unbearable."
The snappy headline above his op-ed essay asks, "What's Race Got To Do With It?" and a prominent subhead answers the question: "Mitt Romney is ahead because he is the whitest white man to run for president in years."
Lest we get the wrong idea that Siegel actually means what he says, he's not measuring the density of melanin pigment in the Romney skin. Instead, he writes, "I'm referring to the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways he telegraphs to a certain type of voter that he is the cultural alternative to America's first black president."
What's particularly pernicious about this argument is that millions of Americans, enough to win a national election, have demonstrated that, whether they agree or disagree with all of the president's politics, they elected a black man to the highest office in the land. Herman Cain held conservative Republicans in thrall for weeks until his campaign fell apart for reasons that had nothing to do with race.
But in Siegel's fanciful account, Romney cleverly exploits his "meticulously cultivated whiteness" in ways the rest of us could never imagine. For example, "he is nearly always in immaculate white shirtsleeves." White shirts? Imagine that. He has been known to hum a bar or two of "White Christmas" before the glowing yuletide log. Barack Obama, a natty dresser himself, occasionally wears white shirts, too.