Could Obama or Clinton Win the White House?

Benjamin Wallace-Wells talks about his op-ed that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post. Wallace-Wells looks at the potential Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama face-off for the Democratic nomination and asks: "Are Americans ready to put a black man or a woman in charge of the country?"

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Right now, it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Even before the final barrage of attack ads last week, candidates were gearing up for the next election, in 2008 - 2008. And as thoughts turn from midterms to who will be president, the list of wannabes grows.

Republicans - Senator John McCain, Governor Mitt Romney, even former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. On the Democratic side - former Vice President Al Gore and two of the names most linked with a run for the White House, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In the outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post, Benjamin Wallace-Wells looked at the potential Clinton/Obama face-off for the Democratic nomination and asked, are Americans ready to put a black man or a woman in charge of the country? In other words, he asks, are Americans more racist or more sexist?

We want to hear from you on this. Is race or gender a political issue for presidential candidates, and if so, is it a liability or an asset? Give us a call, 800-989-2855. That's 800-989-TALK. You can send us an e-mail to talk@npr.org.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes on national affairs for Rolling Stone. He joins us now from the studio at member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Welcome to the show.

Mr. BENJAMIN WALLACE-WELLS (National Affairs Writer, Rolling Stone Magazine): Sure. Great to be here.

NEARY: And I just want to mention that we have a link to your op-ed at our Web site. Just go to TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

So did you come up with a conclusion? Is the country more racist or more sexist?

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: I think for me the most important point, first of all, was sort of the most basic one. It was just to sort of acknowledge that if both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama launched sort of viable candidacies for president in 2008, this is going to be a sort of symbolically dense affair that has interests that's not just political, of course, but sort of cultural as well - that not whether they win, but the ways in which their candidacies are treated could provide sort of a crude measuring stick for, you know, for where the country is on its attitudes towards race and gender.

Having said that, it does seem to me that there is a kind of more vivid series of emotions that greet race in the United States at this point than gender. And I think that you can see that in the kind of, you know, the euphoria and kind of a adorement that's greeted parts of Senator Obama's book tour this fall and just the prospect of his candidacy more generally.

NEARY: What was really interesting about what you wrote is that the way the two different senators approach the two different issues, that Senator Obama in his speeches goes right to his background, that that's part of what he emphasizes. Whereas Senator Clinton doesn't talk so much about her gender.

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. I mean, I think that's right. You know, I think that if you look through not just, you know, the speeches we all have heard of Senator Obama's - particularly the speech of his at the 2004 convention - but more obscure speeches, too, about, you know, the ways in which, you know, corruption in African governments is undermining, you know, their ability to be viable about, you know, the jobs that are leaving manufacturing towns in the Midwest because of globalization. His identity, his race and his heritage are sort of always central and always seemed to form a kind of platform for his politics, and he's very explicit about this.

Senator Clinton, you know, when you see her talk - even on topics where her gender and her identity would seem to be very naturally linked, like - and the example I used in the article was this sort of extremely well-received speech she gave on family planning and reproductive rights - she doesn't really mention it at all. You know, and I think that there is a kind of - Senator Obama - at least in his public statement - seems to have a sense that his race can be an active asset for him.

And with Senator Clinton, her gender doesn't seem to be, you know, such a big deal or such a strong a part of the way that she's presenting herself and her politics and her policies.

NEARY: And that's an interesting part of this discussion, too. To what degree are gender and race assets, and to what degree are they liabilities for a candidate?

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah. I mean, I think it's complicated, you know. I think that if you look at the race that Harold Ford just ran, you know, an African-American Democratic congressman for Senate in Tennessee, there were a lot of people that he lost to Republican Bob Corker.

There were a lot of people that thought going in, you know, Tennessee will never in a million years elect a black man to the Senate. It's a Southern state, and he came pretty close. And so there's some reason, you know, to be hardened by that.

On the other hand, there was this series of sort of nasty attack ads that were ran against him, which used a kind of, you know, white woman flirting with him to kind of conjure - it was widely received this way - to conjure the specter of, the kind of old specter of, you know, the problems with interracial dating and interracial marriage. And so, you know, some pundits looked at this and said well, you know, he did come close. But on the same hand, at the same time, he fell short in the end in part because these ads were able to bring out these sort of, you know, old and racially charged sort of stereotypes.

And so, you know, I think that for either - for both of these candidates, these are sort of, you know, touchy and difficult issues to play with, and complicated ones, too.

NEARY: We're talking about the role of race and gender in the upcoming presidential race, and we're discussing that with Benjamin Wallace-Wells. He covers national affairs for Rolling Stone and wrote an op-ed on this that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post.

If you'd like to join the discussion, give us a call at 800-989-8255. We're going to go to Virginia, and she is calling from Grass Valley, California. Hi, Virginia.

VIRGINIA (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on the air. I just want to say that I kind of resent this whole discussion because when I think about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, I don't think, oh, Barack Obama's black. Oh, Hillary Clinton's a woman. I think of them as people. I want to know what they stand for, and I think the media - if there's going to be any discrimination, it's the media - like this discussion - that's going to promote it.

And it's ridiculous because you're referring to how Hillary Clinton might have to distance herself from being a woman or Barack Obama might have to distance himself from being black. I mean, I just think this whole discussion is ridiculous, and I think the media is promoting this thought process which just divides this country, and it's not good for America. And that's my comment.

NEARY: Okay, thanks for your comment. You want to pose a question to Benjamin Wallace-Wells while you've got him here?

(Soundbite of phone line terminating)

NEARY: Nope. She's hung up on you, Ben.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: Um, one thing that I think is worth noting is right after Senator Obama, particularly, introduced himself on the national stage and at the 2004 Democratic convention, there were an awful lot of letters. If you go back and read through the letters-to-the-editor pages of - you know, not just papers in New York or Los Angeles but around the country in Cincinnati and Salt Lake City - there was an awful lot of excitement coming just from regular readers of newspapers that said, you know, it's really exciting to see somebody who is not just kind of charismatic and, you know, kind of modern in his views, but is also African-American on this stage and being honored in this way and treated in this way and making these points.

I think that, you know, when Senator Clinton also ran for - or when Senator Clinton as, you know, candidate Bill Clinton's wife in 1991 and 1992, first appeared on the national stage, there was also a lot of sort of grass-roots excitement that was explicitly tied to her gender and the fact that she might change the role of first lady forever.

So though I think that this is, you know, certainly - you know, race and gender are certainly objects of interest for many in the media, I think that this is also something which comes more naturally from people out there. It's not just a creation of people like me and you.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call from Mark in Denver, Colorado.

MARK (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. I disagree, I guess, with the last caller because it seems that, you know, the Democrats I don't think have ever won a presidential election without carrying the South, and there are still states - and I'm not sure if it's South or North Carolina that still flies the Confederate flag and has large supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. And you know, David Duke ran for Senate at some point.

So I think it's a very real issue. I don't think that racism is nearly as rampant and widespread as it used to be, but I think it certainly is an issue. And with President Clinton - or Senator Clinton - I think that - I hope that doesn't run, and I'm a life-long Democrat. I think that she's polarizing not so much because she's a woman but because her last name is Clinton. And I just think that she's a very polarizing figure, rightly or wrongly, but I think she is.

And I was hoping that, you know, somebody like a Mark Warner who could carry some of the South - from Virginia, the former governor. Now I know he's not going to, but I thought he would be a great candidate. But, you know, I think gender still plays a role. I mean, here it's 2006, and the presumptive House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is the first woman.

So I think those are very relevant, germane issues.

NEARY: All right, Mark, thanks so much for your call. Mark is making the point that this could still be a problem for Barack Obama in the South. I'm sure that people in the South listen to that - there are a number of people in the South listening to that who would not agree with that. But I would think more that you would have pockets throughout the country. It could be regional, but there also could be pockets throughout the country where race, indeed, would be a factor.

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: And one thing that's particularly interesting to note about race is that it's hard to know before an election. When you have - or without an election. When you have pollsters go out and make calls and say, you know, do you believe that a black man, given - or a black man or woman, given the right series of policies that you'd agree with should be president, virtually everybody says yes. You know, there's not a kind of, you know, explicit racism.

And so we don't really know, you know? There certainly would be pockets, I think, in the country, you know, whether in the South or elsewhere where sort of racist sentiments might prevail.

My sense from watching the kind of, you know, excitement that has accompanied Senator Obama over the last three or four months - and you look at newspaper reports. He did this book tour over the last few months, and you look at newspaper reports from, like, Salt Lake City and places like this, which are, you know, not left-leaning bastions, and there's, you know, citations of audiences exploding in raucous applause, just a great excitement around this character.

Part of that is, no doubt, down to particular attributes that he possesses. But I do think that given the limited exposure that most Americans have had to him, it's hard to look at that and not think that there is - you know, along with a sort of possible latent racism in the electorate - there's also a latent hunger for a black candidate for president and for a black president that might sort of permit the country to have a national, you know, goodbye-to-all-that moment where we say, you know, all that old racial history is kind of behind us.

But you know, the interesting thing - this is what makes politics, for me, not just…

NEARY: Benjamin, I'm going to interrupt you one second.

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: Oh, sure.

NEARY: Because I need to remind our audience that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Go ahead.

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: Oh, no, I was just going to say that for me, this is what makes politics not just important but fun, you know, these kind of big, fascinating questions, so…

NEARY: All right, let's take a call. And if you'd like to join our discussion about the role that race and gender might play in the 2008 presidential election, the number to call is 800-989-8255. And we're going to go now to Robert in San Carlos, California. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi. Excellent program. I think that probably both these issues, race and gender, are falling by the wayside. I think Obama's callowness and inexperience is a far greater factor against him than his race. If you consider the reality that, in all likelihood, Colin Powell could've been president of this country six years ago had he chosen to run against the extremely callow and inexperienced Bush.

Furthermore, if you look at someone like Condi Rice instead of Hillary Clinton - who is an extremely polarizing figure. With Rice's personality and brilliance for her, she probably could be president were it not for the fact that she caved in completely to the policies of the Bush administration. So I think it's far less race and gender than particular personalities.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for the point, Robert.

ROBERT: Thank you.

NEARY: And, you know, Barack Obama has been called, quote, “post-racial.” What exactly does that mean, Ben, and how does that play into his potential candidacy?

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: Right. It's kind of a generational sort of thing going on here, where, you know, there were a series of black politicians that began to emerge in the 1970s, 1980s - Jesse Jackson perhaps the most prominent among them - who sort of came out of the civil rights movement and had a, you know, series of ideas about how government should work that was, you know, not palatable to a lot of Americans yet - too liberal, too focused on redistributionist - excuse me - sort of ideas about how government should work.

Obama has sort of gone out of his way to separate himself from that tradition, and there's a - maybe my favorite photograph of Barack Obama is one in which he and Jesse Jackson are hugging right on the steps of the Capitol. And the photographer from the Chicago Tribune took a photo of the hug from - so you can see Jackson's face, and he's grinning, just a huge grin. And then he runs around to the other side and takes a photo of Obama's face, and it's just completely flat, you know.

So there's sort of a - Obama's been pretty explicit about saying, you know, I'm a different, more modern, kind of politician and sort of, you know, rejecting associations with this older school.

With Senator Clinton, just the simple fact of her generation makes this a little bit more difficult. You know, there are some ideas about what liberal women in politics are like, you know, this kind of feminist label, or whatever that means at this point. But it's a little harder for Senator Clinton to separate herself from those ideas and attitudes, generationally.

NEARY: Let's see if we can get one more call in here. Sean in Kansas City. Hi, Sean.

(Soundbite of phone line terminating)

NEARY: Oh, Sean just hung up on us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: I think Sean was going to suggest, if I understand correctly, that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama should run together. I'm not sure which one should be president and which should be vice president. But, you know, it's interesting that there's probably a lot of people out there that think maybe that's not a bad combination. And just the fact that that's being thought about, doesn't that in a way belie what you're saying about - I mean, maybe we really are ready for a woman and a black man to lead the country.

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: I think we very well might be, you know. I think that an earlier caller mentioned Colin Powell. You know, Condoleezza Rice's poll numbers before, you know, before the last couple of years when the president's were still strong were terrific. I think that, you know, the largest part of what I was sort of trying to suggest in the piece is that there is a kind of excitement and a readiness for black and women candidates that's kind of nice to see, you know?

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: And that, you know - yeah, that there is a sense, that kind of a moment when we can say, you know, definitively and proudly look, we've gotten beyond all this old nasty stuff - might be not too far off.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for joining us today, Ben.

Mr. WALLACE-WELLS: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes on national affairs for Rolling Stone. His op-ed ran in Sunday's Washington Post. We have a link to it at our Web site, and we're now podcasting the Opinion Page. You can download the recent segments at npr.org/talk. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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