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ZZ Packer Takes on Geraldine Ferraro


The author and political genius ZZ Packer, soon to be a HuffPo contributor, offers the following:

Ferraro's Barack Problem

So, forty-three white male presidents to date, and Geraldine Ferraro says Obama's gotten where he is because he's black?

If you've been following the latest statement by Geraldine Ferraro in which she said "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," you might also be operating under the assumption that our last 43 presidents have been black, or that blacks overwhelmingly make up the bulk of Fortune 500 CEOs, or for that matter, the majority of Andover kids whining about the lack of locales for spring break or the cast of The OC.

Just at the beginning of his campaign it seemed like an absolute long shot because of his race. Now, having overcome all this and other these obstacles--including the ones that contribute to high percentages of black men who are jobless, in prison, or dead by the age of 25--he is where he is because of race?

The horrible double standard is obvious. According to those of Ferraro's ilk: if you're a poor black man, or incarcerated, or jobless or homeless, you are where you are because of your own ineptitude and should take responsibility for your actions. However, if you've excelled at one of the top schools in the nation, then later on became a star attorney and later become a senator who inspires millions, then you're only there in spite of your ineptitude and you really shouldn't take responsibility for it. Talk about movin' on up.

This famous double-bind--one whose motto is that all black folks' failures are the norm and all black folks' successes are the exception--is one educated African-Americans live with daily, and it is exceptionalism at its worst. Conservatives claim blacks would be free from this damned-if-you-do-damned-if you-don't scenario if only they would renounce affirmative action and join the Republicans, and the invitation is about as sincere as inviting John McCain's illegitimate black love child to tea. Conservatives regularly twist Martin Luther King's vision of a society in which we are judged by "the content of our character, not the color of our skin," as a sort of paen to a colorblind society (read: no need for affirmative action) and conveniently invoke this line when explaining why they should be able to dismiss the concerns of poor blacks without feeling a smidgen of human compassion. What MLK actually meant was that we should be able to see the person beyond his color, not merely in spite of it. Which brings us back to Ferraro.

Perhaps if Ferraro wasn't blinded by rage and loyalty she would have been more diplomatic and said that Barack Obama has become a sort of curio, an oddity to be gawked at and admired, adored and petted. True, there exists a subset of those Iowans and Vermonters (and voters from other Arctic-white states who voted overwhelmingly for Obama) who treat him with the sort of awe and wonder that was once reserved for, disturbingly enough, Michael Jackson. He is black, and yet...he somehow isn't! Without the fear of physical threat, it seems, black men can be quite charming and respectable; Obama is like Bill Cosby, but more handsome and less funny; he is like Jesse but more inspirational, and with fewer rhyming couplets.

But that segment of the population who, by dent of their particular East Coast-Left Coast ideology have to vote for Obama to maintain their liberal street cred is relatively small, a "white guilt" demographic blown out of proportion--primarily because the media itself belongs to that demographic.

And yet it is that perceived defection of the upper-middle classes that so upsets Hillary and her surrogate, Geraldine Ferraro. Ferraro deliberately targeted white voters by appealing to their sense that Obama is filling a quota, of sorts, and that he is the undeserving beneficiary of their niggling "white guilt." How else can we view the statement, "He happens to be very lucky to be who he is," when the majority of blacks struggle in poverty and never thought they'd see a black president in their lifetime?

Yet if white guilt is so prominent, what prevented MLK, Shirley Chisolm, Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton from becoming president? The sad truth is that in much of America it's difficult for black men to become the head of households, much less heads of state. To deny that Obama had to work just as hard as Hillary Clinton to win a Senate seat and a bid for the presidency--harder, assuredly, since he has neither parent nor spouse from whom he can inherit an organization--is to play into that double bind paradox that says nothing blacks accomplish is earned by their own perspicacity and perseverance.

Educated blacks in this same double-bind paradox see themselves in Obama; for them to vote in droves for Obama was to be expected. For working-class whites and a large plurality of Hispanics to flock to Obama might have been acceptable--though they broke for Hillary. But for Obama to garner a sizable number of votes from the white upper-middle class and their Obama-maniacal progeny is nothing short of traitorous in the eyes of Clinton & Co. How can Ferraro say, with a stright face, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position" when there is a white man in a much better position than Obama's--a man by the name of John McCain who is already his party's nominee.

John McCain and the Republicans are already seizing upon this as the foundation for their opposition research, should Obama become the nominee. They will allude to--without ever saying--that Obama is the Democrats "affirmative-action candidate" because Ferraro will have already said it. And it does not matter that Ferraro has stepped down from the Clinton campaign finance committee. The damage has been done. This was, as Keith Olbermann put it, "not a campaign strategy, but a suicide pact."

And in case it's not clear why this is political suicide to Ferraro or Clinton, let me put it bluntly: the Democratic Party is a loosely held federation of voters whose concerns range far and wide; there are working-class whites who would otherwise be Republicans if they weren't in unions; there are Catholics and other religious voters who believe in peace and social justice issues despite being wooed by the right's pro-life extremists; there are the progressive East and West Coast middle and upper-middle class whites, Latinos in Texas and California and Arizona. There are gay and gay families who believe the Democrats' championing of civil rights is their best hope as a safeguard against bigotry. There are socially conservative African-Americans in the cities like Detroit and Chicago and New York, but also in the "Solid South;" a region whose support is absolutely necessary to for any party's nominee to win the presidency. The party is a sort of connective tissue for various issue voters; a loss of one constituent threatens the viability of the entire organism.

But we should give Ferraro another chance; perhaps she simply meant Barack Obama could never have sustained his lead without white votes? This is true. And yet Hillary will not be able to walk into the White House without black votes. But Hillary, with all her experience, has somehow forgotten this: we all hang together or we'll all hang separately. In light of Senator Clinton's political suicide, all of Senator Obama's unity-speak turns out not to be mere feel-good rhetoric after all, but a genuflection to the cold, hard math of electoral politics. Without every segment of the Democratic voting-block united behind the nominee--whomever he or she may be--the Democrats are toast.

I used to say that I would gladly vote for any one of the candidates who became our nominee--Edwards, Clinton, or Obama. I was proud of them all, each offered policies and promoted ideas which I deemed progressive. When it came down to Clinton and Obama, I was still happy to see either one win the nomination. Now, however, the Clinton camp has gone entirely too far.

The first straw was when Clinton comparing herself to LBJ and Obama to MLK--nothing wrong there, unless you stop to consider that Obama happens to be running for the exact same commander-in-chief slot as she, so why not compare them both to LBJ? Then there was the little matter of her proxy invoking Obama's erstwhile (and self-confessed) drug use. Then there was her patently Republican-esque scare tactic of leaking pictures of Obama in traditional Somali garb to--to what? Imply that he is Muslim? To invoke fears that he will bring on an al-Qaeda lovefest? There's also her supposedly playful--but entirely disingenuous--SNL send-up, asking if Obama needed another pillow during their last debate. Still, all the aforementioned are very small fry compared the possibility of her camp's role in the Canadian NAFTA leak.

The Democrats need all eight cylinders for this election, and that requires a leader who can unite, not a candidate who will shoot the party in the foot for her own self-aggrandizement. This need for unity now puts me squarely in the Obama camp. But I don't think anyone should become an Obama supporter out of a misguided sense of black pride or white guilt, but rather because one believes he can accomplish what he promises, believes his policies to be sound, and believes that he has what it takes to be a leader.

Apparently, the majority of Democrats feel the way I do, which is why Obama is currently leading. Yet for Ferraro to imply that Obama has garnered these votes from some grand white pity party for Obama--or equally perverse--some sort of strange messiah-cult around him is tantamount to stating he's accepted the same token position she herself accepted declaring, "In 1984, if my name were Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would never have been the nominee for vice president."

But we are not living in the eighties. It is 2008, and the times, they are a 'changin'. Though our first and most important qualification for president should be his/her ability to lead, our secondary and sometime tertiary concerns often do end up being ones of identity, though we hardly recognize this is the case when the candidate is a white male.

Despite this hegemony of forty three white male presidents, some of us--we used to be called Democrats--feel a need to see what other people bring to the table. In 1960, after an unbroken change of middle-aged WASPs, enough people were eager to see what a young, Irish-Catholic like John F. Kennedy would do as president to elect him over Nixon. Did he win because he was Irish-Catholic, or in spite of it?

It is understandable how Senator Obama, who is very much the political descendent of JFK (good-looking, charismatic, a great writer, an amazing speaker, and a formidable intellect), frustrates the Clintons. But let's not pretend race buoys a man who assuredly receives death threats from the Klan and who requires a security detail that rivals the current president's. Likewise understand that of all the candidates, Barack Obama alone is the one who can't afford too "racialized" a campaign, necessitating him to run from the word "race" as if it were a stick of dynamite.

Though I'm confident that Senator Clinton and Senator Obama would both hold fast to the Democratic platform if either became the party's nominee, this race has shown that one of these two candidates has abandoned the progressive spirit underpinning the Democratic party itself, and that apostate is Hillary Clinton. Both candidates are brilliant minds, but Barack Obama is in addition eloquent, sincere, inspiring and black; in short, a photonegative of George W. Bush--and Hillary.