Sean Wilentz: Obama was the first to play the race card





[Sean Wilentz is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus professor of history at Princeton University.]

Quietly, the storm over the hateful views expressed by Sen. Barack Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, has blown away the most insidious myth of the Democratic primary campaign. Obama and his surrogates have charged that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has deliberately and cleverly played the race card in order to label Obama the "black" candidate.

Having injected racial posturing into the contest, Obama's "post-racial" campaign finally seems to be all about race and sensational charges about white racism. But the mean-spirited strategy started even before the primaries began, when Obama's operatives began playing the race card - and blamed Hillary Clinton.

Had she truly conspired to inflame racial animosities in January and February, her campaign would have brought up the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his incendiary sermons. But the Clinton campaign did not. And when the Wright stories and videos finally did break through in the mass media, they came not from Clinton's supporters but from Fox News Network.

Although Wright had until recently been obscure to the American public, political insiders and reporters have long known about him. On March 6, 2007, the New York Times reported that Obama had disinvited Wright from speaking at his announcement because, as Wright said Obama told him, "You can get kind of rough in the sermons." By then, conservative commentators had widely denounced Wright. His performances in the pulpit were easily accessible on DVD, direct from his church. But Clinton, despite her travails, elected to remain silent.

Instead, she had to fight back against a deliberately contrived strategy to make her and her husband look like race-baiters. Obama's supporters and operatives, including his chief campaign strategist David Axelrod, seized on accurate and historically noncontroversial statements and supplied a supposedly covert racist subtext that they then claimed the calculating Clinton campaign had inserted.

In December, Bill Shaheen, a Clinton campaign co-chair in New Hampshire, wondered aloud whether Obama's admitted youthful abuse of cocaine might hurt him in the general election. Obama's strategists insisted that Shaheen's mere mention of cocaine was suggestive and inappropriate - even though the scourge of cocaine abuse has long cut across both racial and class lines. Pro-Obama press commentators, including New York Times columnist Frank Rich, then whipped the story into a full racial subtext, charging that the Clintons had, in Rich's words, "ghettoized" Obama "into a cocaine user."...



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