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Race Man

After several weeks of swooning, news reports are finally being filed about the gap between Senator Barack Obama’s promises of a pure, soul-cleansing “new” politics and the calculated, deeply dishonest conduct of his actually-existing campaign. But it remains to be seen whether the latest ploy by the Obama camp--over allegations about the circulation of a photograph of Obama in ceremonial Somali dress--will be exposed by the press as the manipulative illusion that it is.

Most of the recent correctives have concerned outrageously deceptive advertisements approved and released by Obama’s campaign. First, in Iowa, the Obama camp aired radio ads patterned on the notorious “Harry and Louise” Republican propaganda from 1993, charging falsely that Senator Hillary Clinton’s health care proposal would “force those who cannot afford health insurance to buy it, punishing those who won’t fall in line.” In subsequent primary and caucus campaigns, the Obama campaign sent out millions of mailers, also featuring the “Harry and Louise” motif, falsely claiming that Clinton favored “punishing families who can’t afford health care in the first place.” A few bloggers and columnists, notably Paul Krugman in The New York Times, described the ads as distorting, but the national press corps mainly ignored them--until Clinton herself, seeing the fraudulent mailers reappear in Ohio over the past weekend, publicly denounced them.

The Obama mass mailings also attempt to appeal to Ohio’s labor vote by claiming that Clinton believed that the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, was a “‘boon’ to our economy.” More falsehood: In fact, Clinton had not said that; Newsday originally applied the word “boon” and has now noted the Obama campaign’s distortion. In this campaign, Clinton has called for a moratorium on all trade agreements until they are made consistent with labor and environmental standards--and account for the effect on jobs in the United States. Obama makes a big deal about how Bill Clinton signed NAFTA. But he fails to mention that, within the councils of her husband’s administration, Hillary Clinton was a skeptic of free trade agreements, and as a senator and candidate she has said that NAFTA contained flaws that need to be rectified. Ignoring all that, the Obama flyer features an alarming photograph of closed plant gates, having no connection to any action of Senator Clinton’s, as well as the dubious quotation about her from Newsday in 2006. Newsday has criticized “Obama’s use of the quotation” as “misleading ... an example of the kind of slim reeds campaigns use to try and win an office.” Obama, without retracting the mailing (and while playing to protectionist sentiment in the party) said only that he would have his staff look into the matter--long after the ad has done its dirty work.

Misleading propaganda is hardly new in American politics --although the adoption of techniques reminiscent of past Republican and special-interest hit jobs, right down to a retread of the fictional couple, seems strangely at odds with a campaign that proclaims it will redeem the country from precisely these sorts of divisive and manipulative tactics. As insidious as these tactics are, though, the Obama campaign’s most effective gambits have been far more egregious and dangerous than the hypocritical deployment of deceptive and disingenuous attack ads. To a large degree, the campaign’s strategists turned the primary and caucus race to their advantage when they deliberately, falsely, and successfully portrayed Clinton and her campaign as unscrupulous race-baiters--a campaign-within-the-campaign in which the worked-up flap over the Somali costume photograph is but the latest episode. While promoting Obama as a “post-racial” figure, his campaign has purposefully polluted the contest with a new strain of what historically has been the most toxic poison in American politics.

More than any other maneuver, this one has brought Clinton into disrepute with important portions of the Democratic Party. A review of what actually happened shows that the charges that the Clintons played the “race card” were not simply false; they were deliberately manufactured by the Obama camp and trumpeted by a credulous and/or compliant press corps in order to strip away her once formidable majority among black voters and to outrage affluent, college-educated white liberals as well as college students. The Clinton campaign, in fact, has not racialized the campaign, and never had any reason to do so. Rather the Obama campaign and its supporters, well-prepared to play the “race-baiter card” before the primaries began, launched it with a vengeance when Obama ran into dire straits after his losses in New Hampshire and Nevada--and thereby created a campaign myth that has turned into an incontrovertible truth among political pundits, reporters, and various Obama supporters. This development is the latest sad commentary on the malign power of the press, hyping its own favorites and tearing down those it dislikes, to create pseudo-scandals of the sort that hounded Al Gore during the 2000 campaign. It is also a commentary on how race can make American politics go haywire. Above all, it is a commentary on the cutthroat, fraudulent politics that lie at the foundation of Obama’s supposedly uplifting campaign.


Readers of Philip Roth’s award-winning novel, The Human Stain, will be familiar with the race-baiter card and its uses, but so will anyone who has been exposed to the everyday tensions that can arise from the volatile mixture of race and politics. In Roth’s novel, a college professor loses his job and his reputation after he asks one of his classes whether two African American students who have regularly been absent are “spooks.” The context of the professor’s remarks make it clear that he used the term to mean “ghosts” or “specters” and intended no racial disparagement--but that makes not the slightest difference, as his enemies on the faculty fan the argument that he is a blatant and incorrigible race-baiter who can no longer be trusted to teach young minds. An innocent remark becomes a hateful one when pulled through the prism of ideology, ill will, and emotional exploitation. One day, Roth’s professor (who, ironically, turns out to be a black man passing as white) is a respected, even revered member of the faculty; then the race baiter card gets played, and his career is suddenly destroyed.

Even before the first caucus met in Iowa, the Obama campaign was ready to play a similar game. In mid-December 2007, one of the Clinton campaign’s co-chairs in New Hampshire, Bill Shaheen, remarked entirely on his own on how the Republicans might make mischievous and damaging political use of Obama’s admitted use of marijuana and cocaine during his youth. The observation was not especially astute: Since George W. Bush, both the electorate and the press have seemed to be forgiving of a candidate’s youthful substance abuse, so long as says he has reformed himself. Nor had the Clinton campaign prompted Shaheen to make his comment. But it was not a harebrained remark, given how the Republicans had once tried to exploit the cocaine addiction of Bill Clinton’s brother, Roger, and even manufactured lurid falsehoods about Clinton himself as the member of a cocaine smuggling ring during his years as governor in Arkansas. And it was not in the least a racist comment, as cocaine abuse has afflicted Americans of all colors as well as classes. Indeed, there have been persistent rumors that Bush abused cocaine as well as alcohol during his younger days--charges he addressed in the 2000 campaign by saying that when “he was young and foolish” he had done “foolish” things.

None of the reports at the time about Shaheen’s miscue (and the Clinton campaign’s decision to relieve him of his ceremonial duties) mentioned anything about racial overtones. Yet the Obama campaign kept stirring things up. After being questioned for ten minutes about the drug allegation on cable television--and repeatedly denying that the national campaign had anything to do with it--Clinton campaign pollster Mark Penn mentioned the word “cocaine” (which was difficult to avoid in the context of the repeated questioning about drugs). “I think we’ve made clear that the issue related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising, and I think that’s been made clear,” he said. Obama’s campaign aides (as well as John Edwards’s) immediately leapt on Penn and chastised him as an inflammatory demagogue for using the word that Obama himself referred to in his memoir as “blow.” Since then, Obama’s strategists and supporters in the press have whipped the story into a full racialist subtext, as if Shaheen and Penn were the executors of a well-plotted Clinton master plan to turn Obama into a stereotypical black street hoodlum--or, in the words of the fervently pro-Obama and anti-Clinton columnist Frank Rich of the New York Times, “ghettoized as a cocaine user.”

The racial innuendo seemed to fade when Obama won his remarkable victory in the Iowa caucuses. With the polling data on the upcoming New Hampshire primary auguring a large Obama triumph, it looked as if the candidate’s own appeal might sweep away everything before it. But at the last minute (as sometimes happens in statewide primaries), there was a sudden movement among the voters, this time toward Clinton. Many ascribed it to an appearance by Clinton in a Portsmouth coffee shop on the eve of the vote, where, with emotion, she spoke from the heart about why she is running for president. Others said that misogyny directed at Clinton on the campaign trail as well as on cable television and the Internet turned off women voters. The uprising was certainly sudden: As late as 6 p.m. on primary day, Clinton staff members with whom I spoke were saying that they would consider a loss by ten percentage points or less as a kind of moral victory. But instead, Clinton won outright, amazing her own delighted supporters and galling the Obama campaign.

That evening, the Democratic campaign became truly tangled up in racial politics--directly and forcefully introduced by the pro-Obama forces. In order to explain away the shocking loss, Obama backers vigorously spread the claim that the so-called Bradley Effect had kicked in. First used to account for the surprising defeat of Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley in the California gubernatorial race in 1982, the Bradley Effect supposedly takes hold when white voters tell opinion pollsters that they plan to vote for a black candidate but instead, driven by racial fears, pull the lever for a white candidate. Senior Clinton campaign officials later told me that reporters contacted them saying that the Obama camp was pushing them very hard to spin Clinton’s victory as the latest Bradley Effect result. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, a cheerleading advocate for Obama, went on television to suggest the Bradley Effect explained the New Hampshire outcome, then backed off--only then to write a column, “Echoes of Tom Bradley,” in which he claimed he could not be sure but that, nevertheless, “embarrassed pollsters and pundits had better be vigilant for signs that the Bradley effect, unseen in recent years, has crept back.”

In fact, the Bradley Effect claims were utterly bogus, as anyone with an elementary command of voting results could tell. If the “effect” has actually occurred, Obama’s final voting figures would have been substantially lower than his figures in the pre-election polls, as racially motivated voters turned away. Later, Bill Schneider, the respected analyst on CNN, several times went through the data on air to demonstrate conclusively that there was no such Bradley Effect in New Hampshire. But even on primary night, it was clear that Obama’s total--36.4%--was virtually identical to what the polls over the previous three weeks had predicted he would receive. Clinton won because late-deciding voters--and especially college-educated women in their twenties--broke for her by a huge majority. Yet the echoes of charges about the Bradley Effect--which blamed Obama’s loss on white racism and mendacity--lingered among Obama’s supporters.

The very next morning, Obama’s national co-chair, Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., a congressional supporter from Chicago, played the race card more directly by appearing on MSNBC to claim in a well-prepared statement that Clinton’s emotional moment on the campaign trail was actually a measure of her deeply ingrained racism and callousness about the suffering poor. “But those tears also have to be analyzed,” Jackson said, “they have to be looked at very, very carefully in light of Katrina, in light of other things that Mrs. Clinton did not cry for, particularly as we head to South Carolina where 45 percent of African-Americans will participate in the Democratic contest ... we saw tears in response to her appearance, so that her appearance brought her to tears, but not Hurricane Katrina, not other issues.” And so the Obama campaign headed south with race and racism very much on its mind--and on its lips.


By the time Clinton and Obama (along with Edwards) debated in South Carolina, it was clear that nerves had been rubbed raw. Obama’s supporters, including New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, had been making much of a lame, off-color but obviously preposterous joke that Martin Luther King’s close friend and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young had made back in December about Bill Clinton having slept with more black women than Obama. Supposedly, Young’s tasteless quip--“I’m just clowning,” he said, sounding embarrassed--was as part of some sort of concerted Clinton campaign. Likewise, also in December, former Senator Bob Kerrey’s misinformed defense of Obama, in an interview on CNN, for having attended a secular madrassa in Indonesia (he did not) became twisted by the pro-Obama camp, including Herbert once again, into some sort of sneak attack orchestrated by cynical, race-baiting Clintonites. Kerrey is a Clinton supporter, but is notoriously unscripted. Once again, the Clinton campaign had to apologize. But the Obama campaign began ratcheting up the racial politics in earnest during the run-up to the South Carolina contest.

It has never been satisfactorily explained why the pro-Clinton camp would want to racialize the primary and caucus campaign. The argument has been made that Hillary Clinton wanted to attract whites and Hispanics in the primaries and make the case that a black candidate would be unelectable in the general election. But given the actual history of the campaign, that argument makes no sense. Until late in 2007, Hillary Clinton enjoyed the backing of a substantial majority of black voters--as much as 24 percentage points over Obama according to one poll in October--as well as strong support from Hispanics and traditional working-class white Democrats. It appeared, for a time, as if she might well be able to recreate, both in the primaries and the general election, the cross-class and cross-racial alliances that had eluded Democrats for much of the previous forty years. Playing the race card against Obama could only cost her black votes, as well as offend liberal whites who normally turn out in disproportionally large numbers for Democratic caucuses and primaries. Indeed, indulging in racial politics would be a sure-fire way for the Clinton campaign to shatter its own coalition. On the other hand, especially in South Carolina where black voters made up nearly half of the Democratic turnout, and especially following the shocking disappointment in New Hampshire, playing the race card--or, more precisely, the race-baiting card--made eminent sense for the Obama campaign. Doing so would help Obama secure huge black majorities (in states such as Missouri and Virginia as well as in South Carolina and the deep South) and enlarge his activist white base in the university communities and among affluent liberals. And that is precisely what happened.

First came the Martin Luther King-Lyndon B. Johnson controversy. Responding to early questions that he was only offering vague words of hope instead of policy substance, Obama had given a speech in New Hampshire referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. "standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial" during his "I have a dream" speech. (This rhetorical formulation was reminiscent of a campaign speech delivered in 2006 by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, another client of David Axelrod, Obama’s message and media guru; in a later speech, Obama would repeat Patrick's rhetoric word for word.) When asked about it, Clinton replied that while, indeed, King had courageously inspired and led the civil rights movement, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law. "Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act," she said, adding that "it took a president to get it done." The statement was, historically, non-controversial; the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, among others, later said that Clinton “was absolutely right.” The political implication was plainly that Clinton was claiming to have more of the experience and skills required of a president than Obama did--not that King should be denigrated. But the Obama campaign and its supporters chose to pounce on the remark as the latest example of the Clinton campaign’s race baiting. Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, a black congressman--neutral in the race, but pressured by the Obama campaign arousing his constituency--felt compelled to repeat the charge that Clinton had disparaged King, and told the New York Times that “we have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics.” Several of the Times’s op-ed columnists, including Bob Herbert and Maureen Dowd as well as Rich, rushed to amplify how Hillary was playing dirty, as did the newspaper’s editorial page, which disgracefully twisted her remarks into an implication that “a black man needed the help of a white man to effect change.”

Clinton complained that her opponent’s backers were deliberately distorting her remarks; and Obama smoothly tried to appear above the fray, as if he knew that the race-baiting charge was untrue and didn’t want to level it directly, but didn’t exactly want to discourage the idea either. “Senator Clinton made an unfortunate remark, an ill-advised remark, about King and Lyndon Johnson. I didn't make the statement,” Obama said in a conference call with reporters. “I haven't remarked on it. And she, I think, offended some folks who felt that somehow diminished King’s role in bringing about the Civil Rights Act. She is free to explain that. But the notion that somehow this is our doing is ludicrous.”

Meanwhile, below the radar, the Obama campaign pushed the race-baiting angle hard, rehearsing and sometimes inventing instances of alleged Clintonian racial insensitivity. A memo prepared by the South Carolina campaign and circulated to supporters rehashed the King-Johnson matter, while it also spliced together statements of Bill Clinton’s to make it seem as if he had given a speech that “implied Hillary Clinton is stronger than Nelson Mandela.” (The case, with its snippets and ellipses, was absurd on its face.) The memo also claimed, in a charge soon widely repeated, that he had demeaned Obama as “a kid” because he had called Obama’s account of his opposition to the war in Iraq a fanciful “fairy tale.”And a few reporters, while pushing the Obama campaign’s line that black voters had credible concerns about the Clintons’ remarks, had begun to notice that the Obama campaign was doing its utmost to fuel the racial flames. “There’s no question that there’s politics here at work too,” said Jonathan Martin of Politico. “It helps [Obama's] campaign to… push these issues into the fore in a place like South Carolina.”

When asked about the race-baiting charges, Obama campaign spokeswoman Candice Tolliver roiled the waters: "Folks are beginning to wonder: Is this really an isolated situation or is there something bigger behind all of this?" Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., the Obama co-chair, as before, was more direct and inflammatory, claiming that the “cynics” of the Clinton campaign had “resorted to distasteful and condescending language that appeals to our fears rather than our hopes. I sincerely hope that they'll turn away from such reactionary, disparaging rhetoric.” The race-baiting card was now fully in play.

Among those dismayed by Obama’s tactics and his supporters’ was Bill Moyers. In a special segment on his weekly PBS broadcast in mid-January, Moyers, who as a young man had been an aide to President Johnson, demolished the charge that Clinton had warped history in order to race-bait Obama. “There was nothing in [Clinton’s] quote about race," he observed. “It was an historical fact, an affirmation of the obvious.” Moyers rehashed what every reputable historian knows about how King and Johnson effectively divided the labor, between King the agitator and Johnson the president, in order to secure the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Moyers said was happy to see that, by the time he went on the air, the furor appeared to be dying down and that everyone seemed to be returning to their senses and apologizing--“except,” he pointedly noted, “the New York Times.” But this upbeat part of his assessment proved overly optimistic.


By the time the Obama campaign backed off from agitating the King-Johnson pseudo-scandal, it had already trained its sights on Bill Clinton--by far the most popular U.S. president among African Americans over the past quarter-century. Not only were Bill and Hillary supposedly ganging up on Obama in South Carolina--“I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” Obama complained during the South Carolina debate--the former president was supposedly off on a race-baiting tear of his own. Yet, once again, the charges were either distortions or outright inventions.

The Obama campaign’s “fairy tale” gambit was particularly transparent. Commenting on Obama’s explanation of why he is more against the war in Iraq than Hillary Clinton, and disturbed by the news media’s failure to report Obama’s actual voting record on Iraq in the Senate, the former president referred to what had become the conventional wisdom as a “fairy tale” concocted by Obama and his supporters. Time to play the race-baiter card! One of Obama’s most prominent backers, the mayor of Atlanta, Shirley Franklin, stretched Clinton's remarks and implied that he had called Obama’s entire candidacy a fairy tale. (The mayor later coyly told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she had not intended to criticize Clinton: “Surely you don’t mean he’s the only one who can use the phrase ‘fairy tale,’” Franklin said, in a tone that the reporter described as "mock indignation.") Appearing on CNN, one of its pundits, Donna Brazile, hurled the wild charge that Clinton had likened Obama to a child. “And I will tell you,” she concluded, "as an African American I find his words and his tone to be very depressing.” With those kinds of remarks--“as an African American”--the race card and the race-baiter card both came back into play. Although Brazile is formally not part of Obama’s campaign, her comments made their way to the South Carolina memo, offered as evidence that Clinton’s comment was racially insensitive.

On January 26, Obama won a major victory in South Carolina by gaining the overwhelming majority of the black vote and a much smaller percentage of the white vote, for a grand total of 55 percent. Although the turnout, of course, was much larger for the 2008 primaries than for any previous primary or caucus, Obama had assembled a victorious coalition analogous to that built by Jesse Jackson in the 1984 and 1988 South Carolina caucuses. (Bill Clinton won the 1992 state primary with 69 percent of the vote, far outstripping either Jackson’s or Obama’s percentages.)

When asked by a reporter on primary day why it would take two Clintons to beat Obama, the former president, in good humor, laughed and said that he would not take the bait:

Jesse Jackson won in South Carolina twice in ’84 and ’88 and he ran a good campaign. And Senator Obama’s run a good campaign. He’s run a good campaign everywhere. He’s a good candidate with a good organization.

According to Obama and his supporters, here was yet another example of subtle race-baiting. Clinton had made no mention of race. But by likening Jackson’s victories and Obama’s impending victory and by praising Obama as a good candidate not simply in South Carolina but everywhere, Clinton was trying to turn Obama into the “black” candidate and racialize the campaign. Or so the pro-Obama camp charged.

Clinton’s sly trick, supposedly, was to mention Jackson and no other Democrat who had previously prevailed in South Carolina--thereby demeaning Obama’s almost certain victory as a “black” thing. But the fact remains that Clinton, who watches internal polls closely and is an astute observer, knew whereof he spoke: when the returns were counted, Obama’s and Jackson’s percentages of the overall vote and the key to their victories--a heavy majority among blacks--truly were comparable. The only other Democrats Clinton could have mentioned would have been himself (who won more than two-thirds of the vote in 1992, far more than either Jackson or Obama) and John Edwards (who won only 45 percent in 2004, far less than either Jackson or Obama). Given the differences, given that by mentioning himself, Clinton could have easily been criticized for being self-congratulatory, and given that Edwards had not yet dropped out of the 2008 race, the omissions were not at all surprising. By mentioning Jackson alone, the former president was being accurate--and, perhaps, both modest and polite. But Obama’s supporters willfully hammered him as a cagey race-baiter.

Not everyone agreed with the race-baiting charge--including Jesse Jackson himself. Jackson noted proudly to Essence magazine that he had, indeed, won in 1984 and 1988, and, even though he had endorsed Obama, criticized the Obama campaign, saying, “again, I think it’s some more gotcha politics.”

Hillary Clinton’s unexpected popular victory in Nevada and her crushing Super Tuesday wins in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and California seemed, according to media reports, to have been offset by Obama’s more numerous victories in much smaller states that Democrats are highly unlikely to win in a general election. His string of victories in caucuses and primaries over the next four weeks gave the Obama campaign undeniable momentum. But Obama and his strategists kept the race and race-baiter cards near the top of their campaign deck--and the news media continued to report on the contest (or decline to report Obama’s role as instigator) as if they had fallen in line.

The New York Times, for example, opened its front page on February 15th to report an utterly inaccurate and possibly wishful story that Representative John Lewis of Georgia--a genuine hero of the civil rights movement, a courageous voice for integration, and a stalwart Clinton supporter--had announced that he had decided that, in his role as superdelegate, he would vote for Obama. Lewis quickly called the story false, although he added that he was wrestling with his conscience over whether to switch. Meanwhile, the press generally ignored a report, confirmed by all involved, that Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., had warned one of Clinton’s unshakable black supporters, Representative Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, that he’d better line up behind Obama. Jackson, once again playing the role of the Obama campaign’s “race man” enforcer, posed a leading question: “Do you want to go down in history as the one to prevent a black from winning the White House?” Black congressmen were threatened to fall or line or face primary challenges. “So you wake up without the carpet under your feet. You might find some young primary challenger placing you in a difficult position," Jackson said. Yet for the Obama-inspired press corps, it was the Clintons who were playing the race card. “The question now is how much more racial friction the Clinton campaign will gin up,” wrote Frank Rich, Obama’s vehement advocate in the New York Times.

The Obama campaign has yet to reach bottom in its race-baiter accusations. On February 25, Hillary Clinton planned to deliver a major foreign policy address, an area in which Obama’s broad expertise is relatively weak. Clinton was also riding high in the Ohio polls, despite the Obama campaign’s false charges about her health plan and support for NAFTA. That same day, the notoriously right-wing, scandal-mongering Drudge Report website ran a photograph of Obama dressed in the traditional clothing of a Somali elder during a tour of Africa, attached to an assertion, without evidence, that the Clinton campaign was “circulating” the picture. The story was silly on its face--there are plenty of photographs of Hillary Clinton and virtually every other major American elected official dressed in the traditional garb of other countries, and Obama’s was no different. The alleged “circulation” amounted, on close reading, to what Drudge’s dispatch said was an e-mail from one unnamed Clinton “staffer” to another idly wondering what the coverage might have been if the picture had been of Clinton. Possible e-mail chatter about an inoffensive picture as spun by the Drudge Report would not normally be deemed newsworthy, even in these degraded times.

Except by Obama and his campaign, who jumped on the insinuating circumstances as a kind of vindication. The Drudge posting included reaction from the pinnacle of Obama’s campaign team. “It’s exactly the kind of divisive politics that turns away Americans of all parties and diminishes respect for America in the world," said Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe, who also described the non-story as “the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we’ve seen from either party in this election” and “part of a disturbing pattern.” Although he never explicitly spelled out the contours of this pattern, he was clearly alluding to race baiting. Later in the day, Obama himself jumped in, repeating the nasty, slippery charge that the Clinton campaign “was trying to circulate this [picture] as a negative” and calling it a political trick of the sort “you start seeing at the end of campaigns.”

Although finally skewered, for the first time, on "Saturday Night Live" over the past weekend for its pro-Obama tilt, the press corps once again fell for this latest throw of the race-baiter card, turning the Drudge rumor into its number one story, obscuring Clinton’s major national security address. In doing so, the media has confirmed what has been the true pattern in the race for the Democratic nomination--the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988 and the most insidious since Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, praising states’ rights.

It may strike some as ironic that the racializing should be coming from a black candidate’s campaign and its supporters. But this is an American presidential campaign--and there is a long history of candidates who are willing to inflame the most deadly passions in our national life in order to get elected. Sadly, it is what Barack Obama and his campaign gurus have been doing for months--with the aid of their media helpers on the news and op-ed pages and on cable television, mocked by "SNL" as in the tank for Obama. They promise to continue until they win the nomination, by any means necessary.

Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton).