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Geraldine Ferraro's Ugly Words - Accidental, or Campaign Ploy?

03/12/2008 12:47 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Geraldine Ferraro, once a beacon of hope for the possibility of a new era in American politics, has now disgraced herself for a second time. Today's 'clarifying' comments regarding last week's racist remarks were, if anything, even more offensive. They, and now Ms. Ferraro herself, symbolize a dark and ugly political era that belongs firmly in the past. And by allowing her to remain with her campaign in an official capacity, Hillary Clinton has brought the shadow of Ms. Ferraro's disgrace upon herself.

I remember the pleasure my then-wife and I felt when Rep. Ferraro was nominated as the Democratic Party's Vice Presidential candidate. As parents of a small girl who was already showing leadership traits, we -- and many others -- saw her as the harbinger of a better and more inclusive politics, the politics of the future.

What a disappointment yesterday, then, to read of Ms. Ferraro's ugly and bigoted comment that Barack Obama is "lucky" to be black, and that he would not be where he is today "if he were a white man" or "a woman." Make that ugly, bigoted -- and incorrect. There are no serious political observers of any political orientation who doubt Sen. Obama's political skills, including Republicans or the Clintons themselves.

Ms. Ferraro's comment may be offensive and wrong, but that doesn't mean it's stupid. On the contrary: It looks pretty shrewd. Her words play very well into white resentment of affirmative action, by harping on the notion that less-qualified black people are getting jobs that should go to hard-working and experienced white people.

Ferraro's words suggest a coded play for the bigot vote, with the "woman" reference thrown in to somehow link Obama with the oppression of women (a little something for the Erica Jong set.) It fits in nicely with the "accidental" darkening of Obama's skin in a Clinton campaign photo, or Sen. Clinton's recent statement that Sen. Obama isn't a Muslim - "as far as I know."

If that weren't bad enough, Geraldine Ferraro went back to the well today: "I really think they're attacking me because I'm white," she said. "How's that?"

How "that" is, Ms. Ferraro, is offensive and shameful. You have dishonored the country that has given you so much.

Still, are her statements the uncensored ravings of a bigot - or yet another example of the Clinton campaign playing the race card and then saying "who, me"? Comments like Ms. Ferraro's play into the fears and resentments of some lower-income white voters - the same voters who just so happen to be Sen. Clinton's strongest voting bloc.

Before Hillary's devoted followers weigh in, they should consider this: Geraldine Ferraro still has a position with the Clinton campaign. (See update, below.) Clinton's waffling rejection of Ferraro's comments stands in sharp contrast to Samantha Power's immediate resignation. (And the Powers comment was personal in nature, not a play to bigotry.)

Here's what Senator Clinton had to say today: "It is regrettable that any of our supporters on both sides, because we've both had that experience, say things that kind of veer off into the personal," she said. "We ought to keep this on the issues." Apparently she can't resist exploiting the victim role, even when an official in her campaign has transgressed the bounds of political decency.

And Ferraro isn't just some "supporter." She has an official role with the campaign as finance chair. She speaks as a Clinton surrogate. By allowing Ferraro to keep her role in the campaign, Sen. Clinton is giving Ferraro's remarks her tacit approval. She's confirming the worst fears of those who believe she will stoop at nothing to become President.

Do I believe that Sen. Clinton has a secret command center dedicated exclusively to transmitting coded messages of racial bigotry? Of course not - er, I mean, not as far as I know. Do I think she and her staff use coded appeals to bigotry when it's convenient? Put it this way: A pattern of "accidental" racial slurs has persisted throughout the campaign, despite all the controversy, and has yet to be explained. (And, as a commenter noted, Ferraro used the same line in 1988.)

It's still possible, given enough public pressure, that Ferraro will resign from the Clinton campaign. That would be appropriate. But given the waffling today, even that would now leave the suspicion that this was an example of a time-worn and dirty political tradition: Have a surrogate inject hateful ideas in the campaign, then let them take the fall for it once the ugly message has been set loose.

Either way, it's time for Geraldine Ferraro to retire from the public stage. At this point she's no longer just an embarrassment to the Clinton campaign. Her continued presence as a Democratic figure tarnishes the entire party. At a time when American politics needs to lift its sights toward higher purpose, she is a reminder of its ugly past - one that, sadly, is apparently still alive and well in some quarters.

Oh, and one last question: Is Geraldine Ferraro by any chance a superdelegate?

UPDATE: Geraldine's latest gem - "I will not be discriminated against because I'm white." And, as of this writing, she is still an official representative of the Clinton campaign.

UPDATE II: As I thought likely, the continued public pressure has finally led to Ferraro's resignation from the Clinton campaign (see third-to-last graf). They tried to weather it out, but thankfully the negative reaction was too great. That says good things about the party and the general public, if not the campaign itself. Ferraro's self-pitying resignation letter, and her promise to keep speaking out, cries out for repudiation from every single one of Clinton's supporters.