Video: Weighing race at the White House

updated 9/17/2009 5:10:17 PM ET 2009-09-17T21:10:17

We’ve seen this play before.

Democrat accuses Republicans of racism. Republicans fire back. Democrats retreat.

So it went Wednesday, when former President Jimmy Carter, 84, fingered racism for fueling the hysterical tone of many of President Obama’s critics.

“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man,” Carter told NBC News.

Republicans called Carter’s remarks “very destructive” (Newt Gingrich) or “an outrage” (GOP chairman Michael Steele, who happens to be black himself).

But otherwise party leaders stifled themselves, apparently on the principle that you don’t get in the way of an opponent when he’s shooting himself in the foot.

Meanwhile, it took the White House about six seconds to disassociate itself from Carter, whose pro-Palestinian views have also annoyed many Democrats.

Ironically, the shoe was on the other foot nearly 30 years ago, when Carter was running for reelection against Ronald Reagan.

In August 1980, the Republican challenger’s team chose Philadelphia, Miss., to launch their campaign.

The only noteworthy thing that had happened in Philadelphia up until then was the murder of three civil rights workers on June 21, 1964.

And the incident was not a distant memory. The FBI’s investigation was still open.

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“Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day,” New York Times columnist Bob Herbert recalled a few years ago. And Reagan served up the red meat, telling the hooting, hollering crowd of 10,000 white Mississippians at the Neshoba County Fair, “I believe in states’ rights.”

Those were code words for white supremacy so thinly veiled as to be transparent.

The Reagan speech was the application of what was euphemistically dubbed the Republicans’ “Southern strategy” to crack the Democrats’ 120-year-long hold on America south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Carter aide Andrew Young, himself a former civil rights worker (and future mayor of Atlanta), would have none of it.

He called out Reagan’s camp.

“If he had gone to Biloxi, and talked about state’s rights, if he had gone to New Orleans, or Birmingham, I would not have gotten upset,” Young told the press.

“But when you go to Philadelphia, Mississippi, where James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were killed — murdered — by the sheriff and the deputy sheriff and a government posse protecting state’s rights, and you go down there and start talking about state’s rights, that looks like a code word to me that it’s going to be all right to kill niggers when he’s President.”

The Reagan campaign reacted with mock outrage: You calling us racists?

The good ol’ boys around Carter, not to mention the south Georgia peanut farmer himself, of course agreed with Young. Where, after all, had they grown up, if not in the home of the Ku Klux Klan?

But no matter. They pursed their lips.

Calling Republicans racists was a loser, they decided.

It would eclipse their own agendas on arms control, relief for poor people and, yes, health care, not to mention their rhetoric on restoring integrity to a White House despoiled by Watergate and Vietnam.

Whatever slim chance of victory remained for an incumbent already struggling with gas rationing, stagflation and 53 American diplomats held hostage in Iran would evaporate.

So they took a pass.

Some think that Carter, and the Democrats in general, missed an opportunity to unmask the Republicans’ “Southern strategy” for what it was, on the theory that no right-thinking American would want to be associated with racism.

And many no doubt feel the same today, if the liberal blogosphere is any guide.

But on Wednesday, the Obama team turned to none other than 1980 candidate Jimmy Carter’s 30-year old playbook for how to deal with  . . .  Jimmy Carter.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president “does not believe that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin.”

“We understand that people have disagreements with some of the decisions that we’ve made and some of the extraordinary actions that had to be undertaken by this administration,” Gibbs said calmly.

There wasn’t a millisecond’s hesitation in the White House response, says a former Clinton aide who asked for anonymity in exchange for speaking freely in such a sensitive issue.

Affirming Carter’s remarks would be political poison, he said.

“You can imagine the headline in the Washington Times — ‘Carter Plays Race Card.’ Or Maureen Dowd’s column on how Obama was failing with healthcare and turned to race,” said the aide, who also worked on a prominent Southern Democrat’s congressional campaign.

“He’s our first and current black President eight months in. I don’t see how it behooves Obama in any way to make an issue out of something that (a), he can’t get traction on and (b) that gets in the way of an already very busy calendar — healthcare, two wars, the bank bailouts.”

Getting dragged into a race war of words, he said, “is the last thing this White House wants.”

More on: Jimmy Carter | Joe Wilson

CQ © 2009 All Rights Reserved | Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1255 22nd Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20037 | 202-419-8500


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