The ‘black’ president’s wife v the Democrats’ Tiger Woods
By Edward Luce
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: February 23 2007 19:40 | Last updated: February 23 2007 19:40
It has become commonplace to say that America’s Hispanic population will increasingly hold the whip hand in US politics. But in the increasingly volatile race for the 2008 Democratic nomination, African-Americans could prove the decisive arbiters.
As the wife of “America’s first black president” – in the words of Toni Morrison, the celebrated writer – Hillary Clinton can draw upon a deep well of African-American loyalty. According to polls that loyalty is holding up in spite of the meteoric rise of Barack Obama – only the third black person to be elected to the US Senate and the first with any serious shot at the White House.
A recent ABC/Washington Post poll found that 60 per cent of African-Americans supported Mrs Clinton – three times the level of support for Mr Obama. Furthermore, to many in the African-American community, particularly among the older generation that cut its teeth in the civil rights movement, Mr Obama’s identity remains in question.
In their view, to be an African-American you must be a descendent of slaves who were brought from west Africa to the United States. That would rule out Mr Obama, who was born to a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas. As the child of Jamaican immigrants, it would also rule out Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, who briefly toyed with the idea of running for the White House in the mid-1990s.
Added to that is a deep – and perfectly understandable – level of scepticism among African-Americans that a black candidate could ever successfully cross the national finishing line. Last weekend, Robert Ford, an African-American Democrat in the state of South Carolina, which will stage a critical early primary that could help decide the nominee, said that if Mr Obama were endorsed then all the other Democratic candidates running in other elections would be “doomed”.
Mr Ford, who had just endorsed Hillary Clinton, was forced to apologise. But that does not mean his opinions are not widely held. This month, Joe Biden, the senator from Delaware, who has also thrown his hat into the cluttered Democratic ring, further complicated the debate over Mr Obama when he made a spectacularly inept comment about his 45-year-old colleague from Illinois.
In a remark Mr Biden rapidly retracted, he described Mr Obama as the first “clean” and “articulate” black candidate the party had produced. Former black contenders, such as the reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, had a lot of fun talking about how often they took baths and which deodorants they used.
But Mr Biden’s comments also reminded people of the fact that whites do see Mr Obama differently – as a kind of Tiger Woods American who, unlike other black candidates, does not prompt feelings of guilt about being white because he does not remind them of what is most shameful about America’s history.
Tellingly, Mr Obama replaced his initially tepid statement about not taking Mr Biden’s remarks personally with something a lot stronger later in the day – doubtless having thought through how offensive Mr Biden’s remarks would have been to most African-Americans. All of which leaves the impression that Mr Obama, who has led a relatively charmed life until now, should prepare for harsher scrutiny in the months ahead.
Nor should it be forgotten that Mrs Clinton, too, has her own identity hurdle to clear as the first woman in American history with a serious prospect of becoming president. Last week Mr Obama, who opposed the Iraq war in 2002 at the same time as Mrs Clinton was voting for the congressional resolution that authorised George W. Bush to use force, said that the more than 3,000 American lives that had been lost in Iraq were “wasted”.
In what is fast becoming a campaign of retractions and refusals to retract, Mr Obama apologised to the families of those who have lost someone in Iraq. And there the matter rested – as a minor news story that lasted less than a day. Imagine, however, if Mrs Clinton had said the same thing. Given her gender and the deep well of hatred that much of middle America harbours towards the former first lady, it is a fair bet that the story would have hit the front pages and still be there.
Then finally, of course, and in their first direct clash of what is going to be a long campaign, Mrs Clinton this week called upon Mr Obama to repudiate the critical remarks that David Geffen, the Hollywood mogul, who hosted an Obama fund-raiser, made to a New York Times columnist about Bill and Hillary. Mr Obama declined to do so.
Whether it was Mr Geffen’s remarks about Mrs Clinton being a polarising figure or hints that her husband still had a wandering eye, they clearly touched a raw nerve. And there that minor incident also rests. Yet it is hard to escape the sense that it could turn out to be the opening salvo of a long and vitriolic clash between America’s first potential woman and first potential black occupant of the White House. What a pity for them, and for America, if they end up cutting each other to pieces.
The writer is the FT’s Washington bureau chief