Thursday, September 17, 2009

Is Jimmy Carter right on race? -- Sept. 17, 2009 column


In 2006 Jimmy Carter told PBS’ Charlie Rose about Barack Obama, “I just don’t think he’s got the proven substance or experience to be president.”

This was before Obama announced his candidacy, and the former president was supporting Al Gore. Carter backed Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries.

When Carter finally endorsed Obama in June 2008, the Republican National Committee gleefully trotted out a YouTube video of Carter’s remark to show what he had thought about Obama earlier.

I mention this to remind that Jimmy Carter is no babe in the peanut patch when it comes to the news media in the electronic age. His words, spoken and written, on Palestinians, Israel and the Middle East long have stirred controversy.

So when he told NBC News’s Brian Williams in an interview Tuesday, “An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man,” Carter knew what he was doing. He was causing a headache for the president who has worked assiduously to keep race off the table.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Carter intended to send Obama running for the Tylenol. I accept that he was speaking from the heart to Williams and at a town hall meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

Many people, myself included, are deeply troubled by the harsh tone of the protests against Obama and health-care reform. But what’s unclear is how widespread the hatred is and its source.

A questioner at the Carter Center asked about the “You lie” outburst by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., and protests portraying Obama as Hitler. Carter replied, “There’s an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.”

He told Williams the “racism inclination still exists. And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.”

Carter, who will celebrate his 85th birthday Oct. 1, is a lifelong proponent of civil rights. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, and he’s not alone in sensing racial prejudice in anti-Obama protests.

But his comments weren’t helpful to the current national debate about health-care reform or race relations in America. If he wanted to start a serious conversation about either, the way to do it was not to attack Obama’s critics as bigots.

As with Carter’s earlier comments, the RNC made hay of his words about racism. Michael Steele, the first African-American chairman of the Republican Party, said in a statement, “President Carter is flat-out wrong. This isn’t about race. It is about policy.”

Carter was speaking his own mind; the White House wanted nothing to do with him. But Steele cast it as a strategy, saying, “This is a pathetic distraction by Democrats to shift attention away from the president’s wildly unpopular government-run health care plan that the American people simply oppose.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs tried to downplay Carter’s remarks. Obama does not believe the criticism “comes based on the color of his skin,” nor should Carter’s remarks be the impetus for larger discussions about hostile protests, Gibbs said. The president ignored a reporter’s question on Carter’s comments.

Republicans jumped on the comments as Carter’s “playing the race card.”

“Playing the race card shows that Democrats are willing to deal from the bottom of the deck,” Steele said.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same rhetoric John McCain’s campaign used against Obama last year.

Obama warned then that Republicans were trying to scare voters -- “You know, he’s not patriotic enough. He’s got a funny name…he doesn’t look like those other presidents on those dollar bills.”

McCain’s campaign manager fired off a statement, saying, “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck.”

Republicans are happy to associate Obama with a failed, one-term Democratic president.

Jimmy Carter should know by now that even if he’s sure he’s right, it’s sometimes better to savor the glory of the unexpressed thought.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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