Published March 14, 2008
This week Geraldine Ferraro, former congresswoman and vice-presidential candidate and fundraiser with Senator Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign's finance committee, acquiesced to pressure to step down from Clinton's campaign after she shared her opinions on Senator Barack Obama's success.
Here's what she said, in an interview with the Torrance, California Daily Breeze:
"I think what America feels about a woman becoming president takes a very secondary place to Obama's campaign - to a kind of campaign that it would be hard for anyone to run against," she said. "For one thing, you have the press, which has been uniquely hard on her. It's been a very sexist media. Some just don't like her. The others have gotten caught up in the Obama campaign.
"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," she continued. "And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."
Ferraro's is simply saying that Barack Obama has built an image that has amassed some kind of superstar cult icon status, not unlike a political Tiger Woods. Ferraro and the Clinton campaign are no doubt frustrated by their standing in the delegate count, and they want to blame the media for some share of their fate as they dig for better traction in the race. And now, having worked the refs so vociferously that the press isn't scrutinizing Obama closely enough and having won concessions there and, famously, on Saturday Night Live, the campaign feels further emboldened in its storyline that Obama is undeserving of his status because of his lack of accomplishments.
This is a story about speech, which we'll return to in a moment. But the reason Ferraro felt emboldened to make her comments comes to the heart of the point she was trying—but failed—to make about Obama, needs to be touched on here. Few stories in politics right now are as compelling and inspirational as Obama's, and two bestselling books helped spread that tale, with some help from Oprah. There's no question that his heritage and background play a role in his character and his mystique. But that's just part of the story, as it is a part of all of our stories. Words, actions, and choices are part of this mix, too.
So, no, Obama isn't white. And in the race for President of the United States, that makes him remarkable. And that's the lead of what Ferraro was trying to say. (The subtext, that there's not enough else remarkable about Obama to put him in this position, we'll leave aside.) Is this an objectionable statement? I don't think so. But that doesn't mean they were savvy. Anyone with Ferraro's experience in politics should know how statements get used and spun and could have foreseen how things like this get used in a cable-news world where pontificating pundits are paid to parse pols for hours on end.
And though she blamed the Obama campaign for the reaction, I'm not sure they necessarily overreacted. Though he certainly didn't miss the opportunity to reiterate talking points:
"I think that her comments were ... ridiculous. ... I think they were wrong-headed. I think they are not borne out by our history or by the facts."
"The notion that it is a great advantage to me, an African-American named Barack Obama, in pursuit of the presidency I think is not a view that has been commonly shared by the general public," [Obama] said during a campaign event at the Chicago History Museum.
"Divisions of race, gender, of region are precisely what has [sic] inhibited us from moving effectively forward to solve big problems like health care, energy, the war on terror," he said.
So, Clinton was forced to "repudiate" Ferraro's comments, even though I'm guessing privately she didn't see anything wrong with them. Publicly, she knew they were a firestorm and a liability with an important constituency. Can we talk about race yet? Can we speak bluntly without worrying about crushing eggshells, or do we have to worry so much about offending sensibilities that nothing meaningful comes across?
Of course we should be able to say whatever we want. This is America. The question is what do we do then; how do we feel about it? What do we do with it? How do we react toward the speaker?
I'm not suggesting we go all Sally Kern, who is the Oklahoma State Representative who spoke to a small group of constituents and whose hate rant about homosexuals was recorded for posterity. What we say when we believe we are speaking privately reveals our true nature. Sally Kern thought she was speaking privately and without consequence, so she spoke freely and vividly. My favorite is when she says "I'm not gay bashing, but … I honestly think it's the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism or Islam."
Sally Kern defended herself by saying she was just practicing free speech. As a leader, when free speech is hate speech, that's beside the point. She should be ashamed off herself, but she's not; and that's the sad part.
Of course I'm not equating Kern and Ferraro. It was just interesting to contrast two free speech items in the news this week. Kern is a zealot and a bigot who clearly needs to get out some more and meet cooler people. I feel sorry for her and hope all the gay and lesbian friends she doesn't know she already has don't take her comments to heart. I believe that Ferraro is an intelligent woman with her heart in the right place. She just needs to polish her rhetorical skills. There was a message in what she said that could have been delivered more effectively. I'm imagining her words might go something like,
"Senator Obama has found himself in a remarkable position in this campaign, and it's hard for many people to look away. They want to be a part of that movement, even if it's about history and not Mr. Obama himself."
More bite, less perceived racist tenor.