Reexamining the Ferraro fracas

Is the controversy over Geraldine Ferraro's comments overblown?

Published March 13, 2008 9:28PM (EDT)

Several readers have asked me why I hadn't covered the controversy over Geraldine Ferraro's comments about Barack Obama during the initial frenzy. First off, we just don't have time to cover everything. We also missed out, regrettably, on covering a good Wall Street Journal article about the NSA and domestic spying, and were a day later than I would have liked to have been on McClatchy's story about a Pentagon-sponsored report showing no direct operational links between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and al-Qaida. But if there was reader complaint about those omissions, I didn't see it.

Another reason I held off on coverage is that I think this whole thing has been overblown, mostly by the media but also to some degree by the Obama campaign. You can't begrudge the Obama campaign wanting a positive news cycle and a scalp of its own, considering what happened last week after former Obama advisor Samantha Power called Hillary Clinton a "monster" and that got overblown. Politics is politics, and it's refreshing that one unnamed Obama advisor was willing to admit that when he or she said to the Politico, "The [Clinton campaign has] had a really good run recently. This [Ferraro comment] was an opportunity for us to turn the tide back on them. It's an opportunity for them to have some bad press here." But there are going to be a lot of these spats, coming from both sides, over the next six weeks. It's gone under the radar, because the Obama camp dealt with it in a much faster, better manner, but the Obama campaign faced a similar problem this week when a member of its LGBT leadership team had to resign because of disparaging remarks he made about the Clintons. Dealing with two of these things every week for at least the next six weeks is going to get old very quickly, and it's likely that only a few of the incidents will actually lead to the end of the world.

Moreover, this latest controversy has left me wondering if some of the critics have lost their sense of proportion about the campaign.

It was a stupid thing for Ferraro to say, and it was not true. Moreover, her attempts to defend herself were even more ham-handed, especially because of her silly claims that she was being victimized on account of her race.

Here's the quote that touched all this off:

If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. 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.

What Ferraro said is wrong. Even looking just at a few of the political reasons for Obama's success, there are many obvious factors that contribute much more to Obama's success than his race ever could. He is a charismatic man running against someone with a whole lot of baggage. He has struck the right message in this campaign. People want change, and Obama has been the embodiment of it, while Hillary Clinton positioned herself as an incumbent and John Edwards was a flashback to 2004. And, of course, Obama was against the war in Iraq, while his opponents by and large voted for or supported it.

Also, for Ferraro to suggest that Obama is "lucky" to be black, and claim personal victimization as she has -- well, I can't sum up the ridiculousness of that argument any better than comedian Chris Rock. During one of his HBO specials, he commented:

The white man thinks he's losing the country ... If y'all losing, who's winning? ... There ain't a white man in this room that would change places with me. None of you would change places with me. And I'm rich!

But just because what Ferraro said was wrong doesn't mean that the reaction to it hasn't been over the top -- it has.

On MSNBC Tuesday night, Keith Olbermann said, "It seems remarkable to me that a campaign being run in the 21st century or even the second half of the 20th century would allow itself to be associated in any kind of way and not step back ... Does it not have disaster written all over it, or are we living in South Africa?" (Wednesday night, he followed up with one of his trademark "Special Comment" segments.)

I don't, unlike some, claim to be a mind reader. Still, I have to imagine that at least some of the South Africans who lived through apartheid -- not to mention some of those who died as a result of it -- might tell Olbermann that the comparison was perhaps a tad hyperbolic.

And suggestions that the Clinton campaign -- even the candidate herself -- had some role in Ferraro's remarks seem to some degree illogical. True, the Clintons and their staffers have historically been masters of message control and campaigning generally, but I think Kevin Drum had it right when he analyzed a comment made by the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn. Cohn had said, "Ferraro's original statement to [the] Daily Breeze, which suggested that Obama has gotten preferential political treatment because of his race, was a dog-whistle to white voters who resent affirmative action." As Drum observed, though, "if Ferraro was trying to do some dog whistling, she sure picked an unusually ineffective forum for it."

The paper Ferraro made her comments to was a small, local newspaper that few outside its distribution area had heard of. It has, according to Drum, a circulation of only about 60,000 readers. And the paper ran the interview on Page D6 -- not exactly prime placement. Beyond that, if the Clinton campaign really was pulling Ferraro's strings, and wanted to get this dog whistle out into the national discourse, it certainly has better surrogates at its disposal than a failed vice-presidential nominee who hasn't won an election since 1982, ran two unsuccessful Senate campaigns in the 1990s, had been largely forgotten until recently and has an obvious tendency to say some pretty dumb stuff.

Full disclosure: Part of the reason I feel this has been overblown is that I also believe Ferraro's original comments were -- if read in their original form, and not in the shoddy paraphrasing that has been done of them -- not automatically racist on their face. (Hold your tomatoes until the end, please. Obama himself, asked at a press conference whether he interpreted what Ferraro said as racist, said, "I'm always hesitant to throw around words like 'racist.' I don't think she intended them in that way.")

Ferraro's remarks have been twisted in the retelling. I've heard and seen some claim that what she said was that Obama is in the position he's in solely because of his race, that she'd implied he was a beneficiary of affirmative action, that she'd denigrated his accomplishments and qualifications or that she'd said black people in general have it easy in the United States. She didn't. What she said was absolutely false, but read in context, it's not the horrific thing nearly everyone has made it out to be. Remember that she has said essentially the same thing about two other people. And yes, one of those people was Jesse Jackson, but the other one was Geraldine Ferraro. Appearing on Fox News earlier this week, Ferraro said, "In 1984, if my name were Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would never have been the nominee for vice president. Now, does that mean I wasn't qualified to do the job? No." And so what she said about Obama -- and about herself -- can easily be interpreted as an observation of political reality. Sadly, in American politics sometimes intangibles like race and gender matter much more than political beliefs or credentials.

Actually, I have to say I'm surprised that over the past couple of days we've all apparently become so willfully ignorant about the bad side of our voting habits. We (and by we I mean the American media and the American public as a whole) are intensely superficial when it comes to choosing our elected officials. Plenty of talented, qualified people have had their political careers stalled or doomed because they weren't the right race or gender or sexual orientation or height or age or because they were from the wrong part of the country. For God's sake, the colors in Al Gore's wardrobe were discussed as a serious campaign issue in 2000. And there was a reason that President Bush pulled that flight suit stunt.

Here's the reality of American politics today: If Franklin D. Roosevelt himself were to come back from the grave tomorrow with a continued taste for cigarettes and a desire for the presidency, fully 21 percent of Americans say they would look at him, notice he smoked and be less likely to vote for him simply because of that.

No, seriously. In a poll the Washington Post and ABC News conducted in 2007, 21 percent of respondents said they'd be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate just because that person was a smoker, 29 percent would be less likely to vote for someone because he or she was a Mormon and 26 percent would be less likely to vote for someone who'd been divorced twice. Six percent said they'd be less likely to vote for an African-American candidate; 7 percent said they'd be more likely to do so.

So you can at least make a devil's advocate's argument that despite the history of racism in the U.S. and despite the underrepresentation of African-Americans in government that continues to this day, Obama happened to come to national attention at a time when an African-American candidate could be seen as having some advantages in the Democratic primary system. There is a laudable desire within the Democratic Party and among its voters to support African-American candidates, a deserved excitement at the prospect of electing an African-American to the highest office in the land for the first time. An African-American candidate with a legitimate shot at the presidency was bound to energize two important segments of the Democratic base -- white liberals and African-Americans -- as Obama has. And though that argument breaks down pretty rapidly once you get to the general election, at least Americans' attitudes about voting for an African-American are finally improved, even compared with just a decade ago.

Again, none of that is to say that Ferraro was right. She was wrong to say Obama wouldn't be where he is if he were white; he'd probably be in a better election position if he were. But some intangibles, including his race but also his good looks, his age and his charisma, have mattered to at least some small degree for Obama, as they would have for -- and I imagine I can't stress this part enough -- any other candidate of any race.

And yes, I understand that we're in totally different territory when we move on from a discussion of the other kinds of intangibles that can make or break a politician and start discussing race. I understand the long, awful history of how this country has treated African-Americans, and I'm definitely not one of those who argue that the problem of racism has magically disappeared. (Actually, I think you can make a good case that some facets of institutional racism in the U.S. are as bad, or almost as bad, as ever. Look at the schools and the justice system, not to mention the media.) Nor do I think that Obama won't unfairly face serious electoral difficulties because of his race, or that his detractors and opponents on both the Democratic and Republican sides haven't tried to exploit his race. That's patently obvious. But that doesn't mean that people responding to Ferraro should have flown off the handle as they did.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Geraldine Ferraro Hillary Rodham Clinton War Room