Injecting Race into Politics
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And now, a closer look at a Democratic race that's dealing with race. Over the past few days, there had been a lot of mentions of the race card, but who is playing it?
For more on this, we've got Robert George, associate editorial page editor for the New York Post. And Roland Martin, a CNN contributor and special correspondent for Essence magazine. Welcome, gentlemen.
Mr. ROBERT GEORGE (Associate Editor, Editorial Page, the New York Post): Glad to be here.
Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Contributor, CNN; Special Correspondent, Essence magazine): Good to be here. Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So things are heating up in more ways than one, and a lot has been set over the past few days about the back and forth between the Clinton camp and the Obama camp surrounding race. The bottom line: is anyone actually throwing the race card or is this just politics as usual? I'm going to go to you first, Roland.
Mr. MARTIN: Well, I think, when you say throw the race card, you know, I interviewed Shelby Steele on my radio show and he talked about his book about man. And he said there's no doubt for him the Clinton campaign was throwing the race card. I talked to many others who said they sense that there's race baiting and then Obama does not want to have a conversation. He really doesn't want to have a conversation about race.
I mean, his campaign people flat out or skittish about this topic. And so when you talk about what's the race card, well, when Bill Shaheen makes a comment, addressing, you know, well, they say he was a drug dealer. People (unintelligible) again to that.
And then, of course, then you hear New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo make a comment about shucking and jiving. And so, if you're talking about Obama and then what happen is they'll say, no, I wasn't talking about him. At the end, the whole brouhaha, which - I don't think it was a big deal over Clinton's MLK comments and then Bill Clinton's comments about fairytale.
And so, that's right to be like, getting this sort of coated word, coated words being thrown out that may not be in the category of the race card, but maybe in the same family.
CHIDEYA: I'm going to throw in a little bit of, a little bit more gasoline on the fire. There were comments from the Hillary camp and then Bill Clinton brought on the controversy surrounding race. Now, we have some comments by BET founder Bob Johnson that have reignited the flames. Let's take a listen.
Mr. BOB JOHNSON (Founder, Black Entertainment Television): As an African-American, I am insulted that the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid, that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues…
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. JOHNSON: …when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood - and I won't say what he was doing - but he said it in the book.
CHIDEYA: Robert, what was that wink, wink, nudge, nudge and how did it play out?
Mr. GEORGE: Well, the wink, wink, nudge, nudge, was most definitely an allusion to the drug use, and Johnson obviously was trying to possibly that way Bill Shaheen, the - Hillary's former co-chair in New Hampshire, was alluding to that. Since Obama has admitted to not just smoking pot, but actually using cocaine, now, the political game is, well, you know, was it more than just using it? Was he possibly distributing it?
So I'm not quite sure whether that's necessary, it's exactly an aspect of, say, the race card. Now, is it incredibly disingenuous for Robert Johnson to say, oh, I wasn't referring to drugs, I was referring to his community organizing in Chicago, which is absolutely silly.
So I'm not necessary sure if that really just considered part of the, part of the race card, but it is certainly a kind of a generational, cultural knife that the Clintons are certainly going to try and use against Obama.
CHIDEYA: Roland, let me…
Mr. MARTIN: Well, Farai, what's interesting is he talks about that when he was, you know, a teenager, yet - I mean, let's think about it. Fred Thompson, a former U.S. senator, he was riding around on airplanes of a guy, who very recently, as in the last decade, who was busted for trying to distribute cocaine.
I mean somebody who actually did it, riding the plane, a huge campaign supporter - that story had a life and a shelf life, maybe a couple of days. I'm not grafting part of this because he's not a frontrunner. He's sort of in the middle pack right now, but there's an illusion…
Mr. GEORGE: But Roland, we're talking about the candidate's…
Mr. MARTIN: No, no, no. I understand that…
Mr. GEORGE: …as opposed to the candidate's associate.
Mr. MARTIN: I understand that, but this is…
CHIDEYA: Well, Roland, let me redirect this a little bit, and Robert, you can jump in. The question comes to mind for me of proxies. There are the candidates and then there are people who were proxying for the candidates.
Mr. MARTIN: Yes.
Mr. GEORGE: Surrogates.
CHIDEYA: Yes, exactly. And so in this case, you have Bob Johnson being a proxy for the Hillary Clinton camp - African-American man, hyper-wealthy. What does it mean to have what some people would call crab-in-the-barrel syndrome? Is that even a fair characterization of one black man being used as a proxy against another black man?
Mr. GEORGE: No. I think what you have here is - and actually, I talked with - I was on a debate with Bob Johnson and I also talked with him regarding his comments. And he said, look, the Clintons are friends of mine. If they are in a fight, I'm in a fight. And that's what you have here, that's what surrogates do. And the politicians use them to say, we know I didn't say it. They said it and solve your concern you need to give them a call.
CHIDEYA: Robert, if you already had a situation where one of the people working for the Clinton campaign was let go because of pushing the cocaine issue, is this - not just the cocaine issue but could these racial issues be a third rail for anyone attacking Barack Obama? Is his - is Senator Barack Obama's nice guy image one where he actually could gain some support, sympathy support?
Mr. GEORGE: Yes and no. In a context of the Clintons, they have to be very, very careful because the African-American community is a significant base of the Democratic Party, and they cannot be seen as if they're trying to use race to bait Obama and to gain explicit political advantage because that same base they need if Hillary Clinton becomes a nominee, they need that same base to turn out for her.
CHIDEYA: Is it all is fair in love and politics during the primaries, or do the Democrats have to think about are we in a circular firing squad? How much do you have to play nice during the primaries with people of your own party? Roland?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, first of all, when you're running for president, your job is to win the nomination, so you worry about that drama later. Everybody always say, oh, let's not attack one another because we don't want Republicans to use this against us. But you have to win the nomination to even get to the general election. And so you're going to do everything you can to win. That's just the bottom line. And so all the people who won the nice little campaigns - guess what, they are the ones who dropped out.
There's only three standing - well, four, with Dennis Kucinich but essentially, there are three standing. But you got to be real careful when you, all of sudden, will you have a woman U.S. senator who could win the nomination, an African-American who can win the nomination that's very careful that they have this to step because again, women are going to make 60 percent of those who are voting. African-Americans are a significant, loyal group with the Democratic Party. You don't want to tick either one off. You do have to thread carefully.
CHIDEYA: All right, gentlemen. Thank you so much.
Mr. GEORGE: Thank you so, Farai.
Mr. MARTIN: Thank you so much.
CHIDEYA: We just talked about race and politics with Robert George, associate editorial page editor for the New York Post. He spoke with us from our studios in New York. And Roland Martin, CNN contributor and special correspondent for Essence magazine.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.