CHARACTER, NOT COLOR

January 23, 2008

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by Charles Bierbauer

CNN got its priorities right. The Democratic candidates’ last debate before the South Carolina primary focused first on the economy. It’s presumptuous, but I’d like to think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have agreed. Even though the debate took place on Martin Luther King Day.

Dr. King’s March on Washington “was for jobs as well as justice,” Barack Obama reminded. The economy is “the #1 issue,” Hillary Clinton declared.

The first hour of Monday’s debate in Myrtle Beach provided some detail as to how the Democrats would deal with the current sub-prime mortgage crisis, the high cost of energy and the prospect of rebates, universal health care. If I heard Senator Clinton correctly, she said, “my health care covers everyone.”

There was, at times, more heat than light as Clinton and Obama aggressively challenged each other’s past voting records and current promises. “This kind of squabbling,” John Edwards chastised his competitors, “how many children is this going to get health care? How many people are going to get an education from this? How many kids are going to be able to go to college because of this?”

Earlier in the day, the three candidates had spoken at the King Day at the Dome rally at the South Carolina State House in Columbia. If the candidates could see past the waving Obama, Clinton and Edwards signs—there were some of each—they might have spotted signs that read “Ed in ‘08” (that’s Ed as in education) and buttons that warned “I’m a health care voter.”

At some point in the day, each candidate made a point of decrying the state of education in South Carolina’s now infamous “Corridor of Shame.” These are rundown schools in the old cotton belt in the eastern part of the state running from Dillon to Florence to Orangeburg. Those school districts, heavily African-American, unsuccessfully sued the state, contending the state had not even met the legislatively mandated “minimally adequate education.”

Clinton said she had seen the “mold and the holes where the rodents come in.” Obama called for turning it into a “corridor of opportunity.” Edwards suggested a “corridor of hope.” Having our state in the political spotlight also means having the spotlight shine in our dark corners.

Monday’s debate, co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, turned to the legacy of Dr. King in its second hour. It provided moments of passion, Edwards repeatedly trying to demonstrate that his mission of “ending poverty” is in lockstep with King’s mission. Moments of differentiation: Obama, the first African-American candidate with a serious chance of being nominated and elected; Clinton, the first female candidate similarly having the potential of winning the presidency; Edwards, for all his passion and southern roots still looking like all past candidates—“it’s amazing now that being the white male….”

And there were moments of blithe amusement created by this year’s unique circumstances. Asked about author Toni Morrison’s assertion that Bill Clinton was the “first black president,” Obama acknowledged the former president’s “affinity with the African-American community.” But Obama added he would have to “investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities…before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.”

Is the quest for South Carolina’s primary votes about race? Or is it about appealing to voters of all races? On the surface, it’s about appealing to voters regardless of race. Undeniably, the candidates want to capitalize on voters identifying with an African-American, a woman or a fellow southerner.

But none of the Democrats is campaigning with the notion that is enough.
To paraphrase Dr. King, the voters’ decision rests on the character of the candidates’ campaign, not the color of their skin, their gender, their place of birth…or their dancing ability.

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Charles Bierbauer covered five presidential elections from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is now Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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