Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

MICHEL MARTIN, host: Finally, there's a saying that you shouldn't kick a person when he's down. But my commentary today is about Anthony Weiner, so let's just say I don't think anybody will mind if I suspend that rule.

Congressman Weiner, of course, is the lawmaker from New York, a rising progressive star mentioned as a possible future candidate for New York City mayor, who trashed his career by sending those tweets of himself in various states of undress to a number of young women and then, when it was discovered, repeatedly lied about it.

He finally resigned last Thursday after a painful week in denial of how much trouble he was in. He chose to announce his decision to resign at the senior citizens' center where he announced his first campaign for office 20 years ago for an open seat on the New York City Council. He won that race and thus, launched his career.

Well, about that city council race. Recently, Salon.com's news editor, Steve Kornacki, reminded us of just how Weiner won. It turns out one of the contributing factors was very likely his decision to blanket his predominantly white district with anonymous flyers that claimed that the favorite in the three way race, Adele Cohen , was somehow tied to the single quote/unquote, "agenda" of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and former mayor David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor.

It's not as if the race card came out of nowhere. This move came just weeks after the deadly and destructive Crown Heights riots that surfaced serious tensions between the area's black and Jewish residents. After Weiner had safely won the primary, in which he had been trailing, he admitted that his campaign had distributed the leaflets. The New York Times said his victory was diminished by what it called his hit and run tactics. But by then it didn't matter.

Can I just tell you? Anthony Weiner is certainly not the first pol who's found himself unable to resist playing dirty tricks with race at election time, especially with that old chestnut: the scary black man.

Former President George H.W. Bush, a manifestly decent man, apparently couldn't resist putting wild-haired Willie Horton out there in his 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis; Horton being the convicted felon who walked away from a weekend furlough program in Massachusetts and went on to rape and rob.

Right now in Maryland, a former campaign aide and a former consultant to unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial contender Bob Erlich have been charged with conspiring to suppress the black vote by directing annoying taped phone calls to certain households. The calls imply that residents didn't need to vote because the Democratic candidate had already won. It didn't work, obviously, but what's interesting is that prosecutors say the campaign aide had an explicit philosophy around promoting confusion, emotionalism and frustration among African-American Democrats.

And what's also interesting is that anybody bothered to follow up. Normally people just endure these dirty tricks or call the media to register their disgust, but forget about it once the election is over. There are exceptions. Some conservative activists are still up in arms about the two men from the New Black Panther Party who stood outside a Philadelphia polling place dressed up in military gear back in 2008. Then there's an outrage that they haven't mustered for any other voter intimidation cases that I can think of.

But that brings me back to Congressman Weiner. As I said, this isn't new stuff, and the question is still: what does it mean? Does it mean he's a bad person? A scoundrel? A racist? I doubt it. But what it does show is that early in his career he was willing to play on racial fears when it suited him, even at an extremely sensitive time in the life of the city. Nice work, especially for a so-called progressive.

Race is such a combustible and uncomfortable topic, people tend not to want to talk about it. But as Weinergate shows, if reasonable people don't talk about it, perhaps they shouldn't be surprised that somebody willing to take the low road on race gets lost trying to find the high road when it comes to something else.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?

Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You?

NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues