At the end of the day Campaign 2008 in South Carolina is about the "politics of personal destruction"--and of fear--after all. Lessons learned from the Lee Atwater School of Scorched Earth Political Warfare still frame the debate and the tactics here.
Years after the Willie Horton ads and the George W.-inspired "John McCain fathered an illegitimate black child..." push-polling mortally wounded the presidential aspirations of Michael Dukakis and Senator McCain, we are suffering Lee Atwater redux. South Carolina's claim to political fame seems to be a remarkably high tolerance for the fear-and-smear campaign. We red,white and blue Southern Christians do love our occasional wallow in the pig sty.
We're at it again. John McCain is no war hero; he's a coward who sold out to his North Vietnamese captors to save his own skin. Huckabee pardoned more Willie Hortons than Dukakis ever dreamed about turning loose on an unsuspecting public. Mitt's a bona fide member of a religious cult. Democrats? They're all tax and spend baby-killers who'll surrender to Al Qaeda and pitch us into the fiery pit of socialized medicine--which we all know is communist hell.
It's right ugly down here.
And the ugliest tactical assault by far, the most damaging, is about race. The targeting of Barack Obama is breathtaking in its depth and breadth, playing to deeply held fears and bigotry.
Those of us covering the campaigns know that South Carolina's African American voters did not rally en masse to hop aboard the O Train. In the early days of the Democratic race for the nomination, black support for Hillary Clinton was rock-solid. Southern African Americans love the Clintons, who have been consistently sensitive to issues of racial parity. She would win their vote. We writers, who spent time listening to African Americans in their barber and beauty shops, in their churches, heard the same argument time and again. A sixty-seven year old gentleman, waiting his turn in the barber's chair, told me "I'll tell you who I'm voting for. I'm voting for Hillary Clinton. We need to get Bill Clinton back in the White House...Barack Obama's smart and he's a fine young man, but he's got no business running for president...No way is any black man getting elected president of the United States of America--not in my lifetime and not in yours!"
South Carolina blacks were slow to believe Barack Obama could win.
Until December and the Obama/Oprah Event, when 30,000 South Carolinians, black and white, rallied for the senator from Illinois. Until Iowa, when a very white state said "Yes" to an African American candidacy. The notion that "White folks won't vote for a black man" was blown out of the water. The momentum shifted. Pro-Obama meetings doubled and tripled in size. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary a WCSC (CBS, Charleston)/Survey USA poll of 3000 likely voters statewide underscored the strength of the Obama surge: Barack Obama had the support of 50% of the respondents to Hillary Clinton's 30%. John Edwards trailed with 16%. A staggering 20 point spread for Obama. If you could trust a poll. If that lead held...South Carolina, home of the Klan, Dixiecrats and Jim Crow, was poised to make history.
Doubt was defeated and fear kicked in. The specter of assassination has haunted the Obama campaign here all along. America has not been kind to her visionaries, especially those of color, and success has bred violence. An electable Barack Obama may be an endangered Barack Obama. For journalists on the ground with the campaign, the question most often asked by the South Carolina African American voter was no longer "Can he win?" but "Can he survive a win?"
That concern is well-founded. The politics of racist fear and loathing has surfaced in South Carolina since the New Hampshire primary. A viral campaign is in effect here; a massive email assault, "Who Is Barack Obama?" is underway. Thousands of South Carolinians are getting the message: Barack HUSSEIN Obama is a Muslim. All Muslims are terrorists. So he's the Manchurian Candidate who will hand us over to radical Islam and destroy America from within. Everyone is talking about it.
A sixty year old white liberal woman who has not voted Republican since 1968 told me "I voted for Bill Clinton two times...I don't like Hillary. I don't like her one bit. But I got an email about Barack Obama--he's a Muslim...he won't wear the American flag pin and he won't put his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance. I just can't vote for a Muslim no matter what he says or how good he sounds...Barack Hussein Obama scares me."
A thirty-something white voter, who has no internet access, also quoted the viral smear, chapter and verse, as her reason for being adamantly anti-Obama. When asked where she got her information she said, "Why, we got copies from members of our church!"
And that's where we are: South Carolina blacks are afraid of an assassin's bullet and, as one put it, "...the death of our leader and the death of all our dreams, all over again. We just can't take it. Not again." South Carolina whites say they're afraid of a Muslim in the White House.
White Democrats here have been skittish about Obama. The mantras of "Inexperience" and "He can't possibly win" and the "Muslim/radical madrassa myth", for too many of us, may be little more than the thin veneer of the New South--the one concealing a splintery racism with a mellow sheen of respectability. We're not racists. We're not bigots. Not anymore. We'll vote for a qualified black man, honest we will. But we won't vote for an anti-American, unpatriotic closet Muslim. No way in hell.
The 527, the PAC or the candidate who stooped to conquer, who gave us the Big Terrorist-in-Waiting Lie as cover so we can vote, guilt-free, against an African American, may just win the day here on January 26th. Unless there are enough black South Carolinians who refuse to abandon their principles or their candidate to fear; unless there are enough white South Carolinians who are willing to abandon the politics of character assassination and racism. We stand to learn a great deal about our courage, about the content of our character. Maybe we've outgrown the destructive stereotypes. But it's a mighty tall order, rising above long held fears and bridging the great divide of South Carolina in black and white.