Don’t beat up poor Harry

So Harry Reid is the latest politician to get caught with his foot in his mouth. I’m not a Harry Reid fan. (That’s actually an understatement.) However, I will not be joining the crowds who have been calling for his head on a stake over some 2008 comments.

According to CNN, here is what the fuss is all about.

“The controversy surrounds remarks published in the book “Game Change,” which goes on sale Monday.

It quotes Reid as saying privately in 2008 that Obama could succeed as a black candidate partly because of his “light-skinned” appearance and speaking patterns ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’”

The news stories don’t provide the full context of Harry’s “private” remarks, but I think it is safe to think that as a professional politician, he was giving his opinion on then-candidate Obama’s prospects as a presidential candidate.

Nothing he said was factually inaccurate. President Obama is a light skinned mixed-race without a natural ethnic accent. The use of the term “Negro” may have been an un-PC term, but it is not a racial slur. Light skinned? A factor of mixed-race. Black enough to be considered “black,” but still with a foot in both camps.

What do these factors have to do with Obama’s qualifications to be president?

Nothing.

But Harry didn’t comment on Obama’s qualifications to be president. He commented on his prospects as a candidate.

In an ideal world, maybe these shouldn’t be factors in an election, but we don’t live in an ideal world, certainly not when it comes to politics. In 2008 or today, issues of race, gender and sexual orientation are important factors that influence voters. The way a candidate appears and sounds can be as important as what he or she says. It can be a major influence on the voting public. A political professional who would ignore that would not be a professional politician very long.

I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if those comments were the full extent of Harry’s assessment of Candidate Obama’s qualifications. (There will be some who may argue that those were the full extent of his qualifications, but I won’t go there right now.)

To succeed in a national election, a candidate cannot be too far removed from the mainstream. Al Sharpton was an interesting candidate and certainly one who would have represented his vision of the black community, but he never had a ghost’s chance of winning the White House. He was too clearly identified as being the black candidate. And at the moment, African Americans still comprise only about 11% of the US population.

President Obama succeeded because he was crossover candidate. His message appealed to a significant percentage of mainstream America. His appearance helped with some groups and was sufficiently mainstream that it did not seriously hurt him among others. .

In President Obama, we have our first black, or at least mixed-race, president. It may not be too much longer before we see Hispanic or gay (maybe a little longer) candidates competing on the national scene. However, I doubt if we will see them succeeding nationally if they have a thick Spanish accent, or run around dressed like the Village People.

I’m not saying that’s the way it ought to be. I’m just saying that’s the way it is. Don’t crucify poor Harry for saying what darn near everyone else was thinking.

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