Is Obama playing the race card?

In "The New Republic," a Princeton historian argues that the Senator from Illinois has made race an issue in the campaign.

Published February 27, 2008 10:14PM (EST)

In a scathing article in "The New Republic," Sean Wilentz, a Princeton history professor, argues that everything you thought you knew about the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign and racial politics is wrong. Wilentz, a supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton, charges that it wasn't Clinton, but rather Sen. Barack Obama who deliberately made race an issue in the campaign. He also alleges that the media's blind love for Obama has led it to portray innocuous actions by the Clinton campaign, such as Bill Clinton's comments about Jesse Jackson in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton's statement about Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King, as race-baiting behavior.

"The Obama campaign's most effective gambits have been far more egregious and dangerous than the hypocritical deployment of deceptive and disingenuous attack ads," writes Wilentz. "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."

Wilentz then goes on to reinterpret many of the campaign's notable moments in a way that's contrary to what he sees as the accepted media version of the event. For instance, he writes that Hillary advisor Mark Penn only mentioned "cocaine" during an appearance on "Hardball" because it was "difficult to avoid [the word] in the context of the repeated questioning about drugs." But Wilentz's most controversial claim comes at the end of his piece when he calls Obama's tactics "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."

This is not Wilentz's first critique of Obama's relationship with the press in the pages of "The New Republic." Back in December 2007, he wrote an article that caused fellow "Republic" writer Cass Sunstein to pen a stinging response dubbing Wilentz's piece "A Mere Smear."

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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