Reid & Racism & Clinton & Sexism

The controversy over the revelations in the new book, Game Change, about the 2008 presidential election has so far focused on Sen. Harry Reid’s comment about then-Sen. Obama’s skin color and his lack of what Reid called a "Negro dialect." The use of the word "Negro" as an adjective is not unknown and you are not a racist if you write a check to the United Negro College Fund. Reid, of course, was not referring to the college fund and so the word, and one fears the sentiment, is old-fashioned. In the case of race relations, old-fashioned can mean racist. And, any discussion of skin color is a touchy subject best avoided by everyone who is not studying the way it affects our prejudices. For these reasons, it was appropriate for Reid to apologize to the president, but the remarks are not prima facie racist in content or intent.

But, there was another story line in the book that I find disturbing and that was the extent of almost duplicitous opposition to the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton on the part of her Democratic Senate colleagues. Senators who were either neutral during the presidential primaries or, in the case of fellow New York Sen. Charles Schumer, publicly supporting Clinton were backing Obama behind the scenes. The reasons cited in the book are that these senators thought Clinton would be a divisive candidate and provide reverse coattails in some key swing states.

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I wonder if there is not more to it than that. I expect that part of the reason these senators secretly opposed Clinton is because, in the Senate, she had a reputation for being one of the hardest working senators, she was not a "show horse" despite the name recognition and start power she brought with her into the chamber. And, even Clinton’s opponents have always acknowledged her intelligence. I suspect some of her colleagues were simply jealous.

But, was there not some "good ole’ boy" aspect to this? After all, seeing Clinton as divisive says as much about the country as it does about her. While it is not the kind of observation that one would air in public, I can see a colleague going to Sen. Clinton in 2006 and expressing worry about this perceived divisiveness and asking how she planned to address it. Why did no one do that? There are ways to address such issues after all. There is nothing indelible in American politics. There are second and third acts. Think of Richard Nixon in 1962 or Jerry Brown, Jr. today.

I will offer a theory. I think some senators were not only jealous of Clinton, they knew that she actually could win the presidency, that she actually was prepared for the job, that she could break the glass ceiling, and they just were not ready for that. It is one of the most remarkable things about Clinton’s run for the White House that not once did anyone suggest that she was not tough enough for the job. The first woman to become president must overcome centuries of cultural assumptions about women being the weaker sex and Clinton overcame that in six years on the Armed Forces Committee. The scandal of the week is not that Harry Reid is a racist. The scandal is that the chamber he leads is still filled with some closet sexists!

Kathleen Parker today finishes a column on the topic with this observation: "What's clear is that women are held to a different standard than men and, when deemed unworthy, are attacked specifically as women according to stereotypes we pretend to shun. To the extent that we truly believe women ought to play a more vital role in American society -- and this question remains open -- we have to wonder why any woman would submit to the punishments we've recently witnessed." Touche.

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