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Two smart candidates, but one Supreme edge

LAS VEGAS -- What's the difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? First, the obvious: She's a white woman, he's a black, or black enough, man. Beyond that, it gets muddled.

LAS VEGAS -- What's the difference between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? First, the obvious: She's a white woman, he's a black, or black enough, man. Beyond that, it gets muddled.

Both are liberal Democratic senators. Both are running for president. And both spoke to 3,000-plus attendees at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Las Vegas last week. (The other major candidates of both parties were invited but declined.)

"I want to apologize for being a little late," Obama said, opening his Friday address, "but you guys keep asking whether I am black enough."

For the uninitiated, the reference was to Colored People's Time, an African-American in-joke about stereotypical unpunctuality. Laughter on cue, Obama freed himself from the notion that the child of an African father and white American mother isn't "really" black. Score one for the senator from Illinois.

Yet the senator from New York who was born in Illinois (another similarity, though Obama was born in Hawaii) has her own multicultural credentials. In a side meeting the day before with about two dozen members of the Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists, Clinton explained her use of black vernacular in a speech in Selma, Ala.

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"I was quoting a spiritual and it is written in dialect, and so to some extent I got criticized for being true to what I was trying to say," she said of the song "I Don't Feel No Ways Tired" by the Rev. James Cleveland.

But there was another reason.

"I lived all those years in Arkansas," she continued, "and I'm in this interracial marriage."

Cue even greater laughter, and an extra point for the joke's spontaneity, or at least her sense of timing.

The difference, then? Clinton, long a no-nonsense lawyer infamously referred to by Newt Gingrich's mother as a word that rhymes with witch, has discovered warmth and humor. Obama, while allowing an occasional nod to levity, is basically just-the-facts.

There's good reason for his serious demeanor. Along with being late, another stereotype of African Americans is that they're entertainers, or worse, Steppin Fetchit buffoons. Even if Obama is perceived as being just a little bit black, it's enough to require him to work overtime to dispel the myth.

By no means should geniality determine who sits in the Oval Office, though in recent elections Americans seem to be leaning that way. Electoral irregularities aside, a folksy George W. Bush was more of a regular guy than the wooden Al Gore or John Kerry.

Years ago, it was different. The president was viewed as the smartest man in the world. The change came with Ronald Reagan, who elevated aw-shucks to an art form. It was perfected by Bill Clinton, a very smart guy who mastered it so well he could feel your pain.

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None of this is to say candidates should be shy about displaying their intellect on subjects beyond the ken of the average voter. One such disagreement involves foreign policy, in which Clinton has painted Obama as a novice for saying he would meet with dictators.

"You don't promise any personal meetings without preconditions. You have to lay the ground rules," Clinton said. "The biggest bargaining chip we have is a meeting with our president, which really bestows importance and prestige on people, particularly those who can use it for propaganda purposes."

Obama defended his stance. "Sen. Clinton tried to conflate preparation with preconditions, the argument being I would kind of invite Hugo Chavez over to my house and we would pop open a beer and start talking," he said.

"Preconditions refer to something very specific. For example, we have refused to talk to Iran until they meet preconditions, which is essentially the whole thing you would talk to Iran about. So of course Iran refuses, and the world generally sees us as intransigent because we said the terms of talking [are] you'll agree to everything we want. Now, that's a substantive disagreement [with Clinton]."

The candidates also are armed with substantive statements on everything from an apology for slavery (she's for it, he isn't quite) to infrastructure (she proposes a$10 billion Emergency Repair Fund) to affordable housing (he'd start a trust fund creating 14,000 new affordable units per year).

So they're both smart, but Clinton, taking endearment lessons from her husband, may have found an edge. How planned it was, I don't know, but sitting behind me in Clinton's meeting with the columnists was Mary Wilson of the Supremes, a supporter guaranteed to impress everybody. When the two stood for a picture, Wilson stretched out her arm in "Stop!" mode. So did Clinton.

Smart. And hip.

Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the News Tribune and a commentator on public radio stations across the country.

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