The Not-So-Soft Bigotry Of Spite-Tainted Expectations.
The last 48 hours has been a deep and serious exercise in restraint, and within that restraint—reflection for me over one particular story that blew up in the news like a grenade tossed into a parade-filled porta-potty. No, it wasn't the Spitzer/prostitution/career self-immolation. The words came easily on that. There was enough distance where I could with little emotional investment just comment on the facts as they spooled out. Hypocrisy. Sex.. Flameout. Skullduggery. There was the emotional angle of its hometown implications for me, but the story itself didn't hit personally “close to home”. The story that did hit personally “close to home”...moved me to step back and really...well, what to say?
Let's begin with this, shall we?
“When we think of cruelty, we must try to remember the stupidity, the envy, the frustration from which it has arisen.”
Dame Edith Sitwell, British Poet
And taking that clear-eyed statement to heart, let us move to the following recent, patience-trying episode of awfulness...
Geraldine Ferraro (on Barack Obama's campaign):
“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”
I believe most of you are aware of this...this statement of hers, and the dizzyingly tone-deaf follow-ups to it—by Ms. Ferraro and a rightfully solar plexus-punched and defensive Clinton campaign. But for the record, let's lay those secondary statements out—naked and cold on the autopsy table, if you will.:
Geraldine Ferraro defended her remarks and went even further in another interview with the Daily Breeze, where Ferraro's original comments appeared. This time SHE claimed to be the victim of racism and said, “Sexism is a bigger problem.” ...
But far from backing off from her initial remark, Ferraro defended it and elaborated on it.
“Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says let's address reality and the problems we're facing in this world, you're accused of being racist, so you have to shut up,' Ferraro said. 'Racism works in two different directions. I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?”...
We agreed then. We agree today. Supporters from both campaigns will get overzealous. Senator Clinton today reiterated that when asked about Geraldine Ferraro’s recent comments:
“I do not agree with that and you know it’s regrettable that any of our supporters on both sides say things that veer off into the personal. We ought to keep this focused on the issues. That’s what this campaign should be about.
Senator Obama’s campaign staff seems to have forgotten his pledge. We (The Clinton campaign) have not. And, we reject these false, personal and politically calculated attacks on the eve of a primary.
And finally, as the pan heated and the oil caught fire and flames licked at the kitchen wall...the ugly denouement:
WASHINGTON (AP) — Geraldine Ferraro stepped down Wednesday from an honorary post in Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign amid a controversy regarding her comments that Barack Obama wouldn't be succeeding in the presidential race if he weren't black.
Ferraro notified Clinton by letter Wednesday that she would no longer serve on Clinton's finance committee as "Honorary New York Leadership Council Chair."
In a letter to Clinton, first reported by CNN, Ferraro says: "Dear Hillary, I am stepping down from your finance committee so I can speak for myself and you can continue to speak for yourself about what's at stake in this campaign. The Obama campaign is attacking me to hurt you. I won't let that happen. Thank you for everything you've done and continue to do to make this a better world for my children and grandchildren. You have my deep admiration and respect, Gerry."
NBC/NJ’s Athena Jones reports that Clinton had to deal with the race issue almost exclusively at last night's black newspaper conference. She was asked about Geraldine Ferraro's remarks and whether she had done enough to make sure those involved in her campaign knew that such comments were not acceptable. “Well, I said yesterday that I rejected what she said, and I certainly do repudiate it and regret deeply that, you know, it was said. Obviously, she doesn't speak for the campaign. She doesn't speak for any of my positions and she has resigned from being a member of my very large finance committee,” Clinton said, before going on to say that both she and Obama had had to remind supporters and staffers that this primary campaign should be about the issues.
“We are aware that this happens, but we are particularly sensitive to it because of the nature of this campaign and who each of is. We do stand against it. We repudiate it,” she said. “I think that given the intensity of feelings surrounding this campaign, we have been able to manage it well. It's not been common but when it happens, we both have spoken out and taken appropriate action.”
When asked afterwards if she was satisfied with Clinton's answer, Barbara Reynolds, the NNPA columnist who asked the question said she had hoped for more. “Sometimes I don't think that she can feel the racial insensitivity like we can. This is why they don't get it. It's not that she's a bad person, but when people say things, you know, she can't get it, because she doesn't feel like we feel and I think some of us are very sensitive anyway, because of how we have lived and sometimes these things can fall on her ears differently. But she should rely on her black staff people to immediately tell her, 'Oh this is horrible,' because she should have come out immediately and demanded that Geraldine Ferraro disassociate herself from the campaign.”
Okay. Let's do this.
As a New Yorker, I am quite familiar with Ms. Ferraro. I remember her tenure in Congress well as she was part of that wonderful wave of woman polticos that came out of New York City in the late sixties through the seventies. The groundbreaking Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and Liz Holtzman were her congressional forerunners and Ferraro acquitted herself well during her time on the hill. I remember her VP run verrrry well as I worked for a woman who knew Ms. Ferraro and her family and found myself in her old neighborhood off Deepdene Road in Queens. It was a madhouse in those pre-cable days with reporters darting to and fro amongst the dark Tudor-style homes in Kew Gardens.
I remember the media's hubbub around her candidacy and the buzz over her being the first woman to realistically have a chance at that high a level of executive office. It was by and large, fawning press. The country was coming off the pitched and heavily-covered battles of the women's movement of the seventies and her being elevated to that position on the Democratic ticket was looked on as a good thing.
It was a good thing.
Was her being a woman a factor in her being put in that position?
It probably was, what with the tenor of the time all about us saying as Jack Nicholson did in “Batman”, “Let's broaden our minds!”
Many of us did. I voted for her without compunction.
But alas, not enough voters did. It was the age of Reagan, and America was in the midst of a bender with Ronnie at the bar, handing out shot after shot after shot until the country eventually walked to it's collective car and plowed into the abutment called post-Reagan reality. During that drunken haze though, we—America laughed with alcohol-vapored breath in Mondale's and Ferraro's faces for their daring to ask for the keys to get us home safely. To this day, that run is looked at historically as a bad joke, with Reagan holding the seltzer bottle and Mondale and Ferraro taking the blast in the mug, time after time.
It was cruel. They got smoked electorally. The story was all about the ineffectual Mondale and the woman who Barbara Bush said made her think of the “word that rhymes with rich”. Barbara Bush whose husband G.H.W. Bush had said of Ferraro after their lone debate “I kicked a little ass”. Ferraro would say twenty years later that she could understand Mrs. Bush's words as she was merely “protecting her husband”. It's amazing how...understanding people can be when they want to be.
I think that understanding was at best, superficial, and at worst—an absolute load of self-serving bullshit.
She, Ms. Ferraro is still seething. I think about the country's basic dismissal of her in 1984 and the subsequent trail-out of her political career comet. She would run for Senate in New York and lose in primary. She would then be appointed to an ambassadorship by President Bill Clinton, but from there—politics was ultimately over for her. She would enter private life after another fated run at the Senate, losing to Chuck Schumer in the primary. There would be seats on corporate boards and oddly, a spot on Fox News as an analyst. Six years in congress, two as an ambassador. All in all, a rather brief career considering her status in Democratic circles. I don't think it's a stretch to say that there's a lot of “could have been” floating about her, along with a lingering and unfair aroma of “novelty”.
Flash forward to 2008. The Hillary Clinton candidacy in which Ferraro has invested a lot of time and energy and perhaps deep personal empathy is not going as well as envisioned a year ago. The reason? Beyond the serious strategic errors, her Democratic opponent is savvy, has a “gift of gab”, a boatload of charisma, money and an outstanding on-the-ground and behind-the-scenes team. There was, up until a few months ago an air of...“inevitability” to the Clinton candidacy, and now...a markedly different air. That of bad math, doomsday scenarios and time and opportunity growing short.
Senator Clinton has made a few eyebrow-lifting remarks in the heat of the campaign, as has Mr. Clinton. Plans go awry, emotions get hot, people lash out—for sake of release, and in the employ of strategy. Some have allowed a narrow corridor for campaign statements, while others have allowed a wider berth. I have allowed the latter in my consideration of campaign season rhetoric because of the unique nature of this run. It's longer, more heavily covered and analyzed and maybe more fraught with emotion considering we're coming off the eight years of Bush-Horror. I have let a lot slide. I said the following about the Clinton camp's questionable-at-best “South Carolina” strategy:
Obama on that Iowa night was attempting to transcend race—and the only thing that would counter that was to move the conversation back to race—the great, fallen 400-year old redwood across the road of American discourse.
Now, does that make the Clinton camp (Bill included) racist?
I honestly don't think so. It's such an amazingly freighted word and is so easy to abuse when more precise language should be used. What I think the Clinton camp is is not above using America's longstanding issues with race in politics as a distraction to put another candidate off his game and distract would-be voters from Mrs. Clinton's exposed flaws when matched against a Barack Obama.
Geraldine Ferraro's words though—crudely bolting on some clunky, imagined “privilege” or leg-up to one's being a Black man in America (as opposed to a White woman) are also born of “frustration”. Except her frustration seems a deep-rooted one drawing not only from Senator Clinton's campaign travails, but also from an underground lake of venom and bitterness over how her own big electoral moment in the sun went so horribly awry. There seemed a decidedly personal edge to her knifing words. Considering what she went through humiliation-wise in that smackdown of a run in '84, I think some bitterness is understandable. But the differences in her run and his are stark enough that you think she'd be savvy enough to see them. She was chosen, he chose to run. Re-active versus pro-active. And so on, and so on, and so on...
At it's core—what she said wasn't merely bitter or fucked-up.
It was condescending. It was spiteful. It was odious. And it smacked of the angry beneficiary-as-victim, Alan Bakke-ish, bigoted double-speak we've all come to mock.
“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.“
Really? And what of our present C-plus, reknowned half-wit-in-chief? Or the grinning, mentally-addled man who bested her and Mondale in 1984. What of those poor, ill-advantaged White male unfortunates?
“And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.“
I was out late on Tuesday night and missed much of the primary news. When I got in, I saw that Obama had won Mississippi handily. It was later that night when I heard Ferraro's remarks, and I took them in the context of the night's events. The idea of a Black man winning a presidential primary in Mississippi over a White woman is frankly stunning to me and many people of color. Especially when you factor in that state's lethally loaded racial history. When I thought of ‘lucky” Black men that night, this young man came to mind.
If you don't know him, his name is Emmitt Till. He was 14 years old in 1955 when he “recklessly eyeballed” a White woman in the town of Money, Mississippi and for that was brutally beaten, repatedly shot and then had a 75-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire just before his body was dumped in the Tallahatchie River. It is a seminal event in the mid-fifties tipping point in the American Civil Rights movement and is a touchstone of the shared history of African Americans in the second half of the 20th Century. I've written on it here before and its implications. The infamous photo of Till's horrifically damaged body I will not show here. For those who wish to see that, here is the link. Till's mother fought for an open-casket funeral so that America could see what racism had done to her son. It's not for the weak-stomached.
This was not a “lucky” Black boy.
Neither was this man.
Medgar Evers dropped out of high school during WW2 and enlisted and served in Europe at 17. He returned to America and found himself having to fight for the right to vote in his native Mississippi. He would go to college and then work as an NAACP field secretary in his home state, specifically battling for voting rights in that job when he was shot down on his front porch by a rifle bullet fired by violent local segregationists.
I could run pictures and bios of James Byrd, Michael Griffith, Yusuf Hawkins and any number of the same of the hundreds of anonymous Black men lynched, burned and slaughtered in this country in the last 100 years because they were unlucky enough to be who they were. I'd like to think that a reasonably intelligent person like Ms. Ferraro is aware of America's legacy on this—a tape still sadly unspooling—and if she is, it makes you wonder that much more about the wellspring of her patently inane and insane remarks.
I must have missed the big rabbit-foot handout at “BMOC” (Black Men On the Charge) headquarters. Was I lucky back when my old boss T. used to drive me the four blocks to the Union Turnpike subway station instead of letting me walk from her home on Deepdene Road after dark—where Ms. Ferraro lived, because she was afraid of what would happen to me were I caught out on the street by toughs who didn't look like me? “Lucky?” Maybe I was. Just as “lucky” as I was a month ago when I was not-subtly accused of plagiarism by an entertainment industry exec when a piece of writing came across his desk that looked a lot like something I'd given him a year before. My piece was first, but somehow I'm the plagiarist? Of course, that second piece was sent in by a White guy I'd dealt with a few months before—a producer's assistant who'd never written anything before. But I'm the guy who has to produce evidence of provenence? “Lucky-ass me” I guess. I'm lucky every time I'm followed 'round a store or incredulously asked “where are you from” when I open my mouth, or get an “I had no idea you were Black!” e-mail. Got my dumb ass pulled over while walking to a funeral in a suit. Hands against the wall, legs spread for the pat-down as I hear over the officers two-way that whoever it is they're looking for is in baggy black jeans and a hoodie—not a dark blue suit and trenchcoat. Color me “Lucky” as I do my bounding dance down the street. “Frosted Negro Lucky Charms...we're magically malicious!”
When called on that blurt of mind-boggling drivel, Ferraro went to ground defending it, hunkering down and lashing out irrationally and disingenuously re-casting herself as the besieged party. “I really think they're attacking me because I'm white. How's that?”
No, Ms. Ferraro. You're being attacked because you said something vicious, stupid and in the face of too many facts—indefensible—and then compounded it with a wild-eyed, incomprensible attempt to defend it.
It was born of frustration. We all get frustrated and maybe say things we shouldn't. But the place you went was so...beyond the pale that it makes me wonder about you. It makes me wonder things about you that I never thought I would. I voted for you. Happily and without a moment's hesitation. I wonder, in spite of your much-ballyhooed 40 years of service and work against discrimination that when the rubber meets the road and when you strip away all the gauzy trappings of a public record, just what you're really about at heart. The ferventness you railed about this with moves me there. And that legacy which many people younger than I have little clue about matters even less to them as these statements are the only context they have for you. A fit of personal pique is what will come up way at the top of google results for you, and your “record of achievement” only afterward.
In the end, was it really worth it? The anger? The frustration? The over-the-top vehemence of the defense? Was it?
Here's a better question...do I think you're a racist?
No moreso than Michael Richards or Bill Clinton in their remarks.
Touch a nerve did I?
Here's what I said about Richards in November of '06:
Richards bugged out. And bugged out on the whackdoodle racist tip because he couldn't cope and had nothing in his arsenal but the ultimate weapon against somebody who got to him. Is he a racist? I dunno. I do know, and everybody on earth now knows that racist thoughts evidently bubble up real easy in him, so that speaks volumes. Really.
Which leads us back to Dame Sitwell's quote at the top...
“When we think of cruelty, we must try to remember the stupidity, the envy, the frustration from which it has arisen.”
Richards was frustrated that night at The Laugh Factory.
Bill Clinton was frustrated in South Carolina.
And Ferraro was frustrated when that reporter spoke to her and evidently for quite some time before.
Frustration does odd things. It's like alcohol. It doesn't make you do things you don't want to do—it merely short circuits the common sense-ometer in the brain that hinders you from doing stupid things that dance in your head. Racism is a battle you fight every day as a victim and as a practitioner. Gerry Ferraro lost that battle for several days and is in denial about it, which is what makes her look so sad and small today—an out-of-touch anachronism as pitiful as the ditch-digging Al Campanis when he went “to core” making and then defending his silly, backward statements. Am I angry at Ferraro? A bit. But I pity her more. For her exposing herself as a barking nitwit on tough issues of race, and for how she's soiled her legacy with one toxic upchuck.
Am I angry at Hillary Clinton? Again, more disappointed. She, and anybody with ears and a brain between 'em knew what Ms. Ferraro said was heinous. But she let it sit there, a turd bobbing in the punchbowl. I don't think she wanted to have to hammer a lioness of the feminist movement and thought the controversy would slide away as the news cycle rolled on. Gerry instead compounded things with her intransigence and...perhaps, the more machiavellian forces in Camp Clinton saw that some lemonade could be squeezed from Ferraro's sour words. That being a not terribly sub-sonic dog-whistle to the pissy, frustrated “Dey took urrr jobzzzzz! Dey TOOK urrrrrr jobzzzzz!” bloc of voters in places like...oh, say “Rust Belt” Pennsylvania for instance. Things not going well? Blame the Black guy who now magically has it all over you. Goddammit, I wish I was wrong on seeing that in this. I wish to God I was. But I'm not. And that sentiment's being milked for a few more votes...
Stepping away from the computer for a few minutes. Gonna go hug the kids. Be right back.
I'm disappointed across the board. At Ferraro. At the Clinton Campaign's lazy, canny playing of this. And most of all at having to repeatedly mull over this sort of silliness in a campaign where two supposed progressives are battling each other.
And let me not front—I'm angry too. Thankfully, a lot less than I was 48 hours ago when this post was in an early draft phase and a mere drop of its original venom would have eaten through a battleship, hull to hulI. It was then when I remembered Sitwell's quote on frustration—said to me a decade ago when I nearly strangled a TV director who when he was feeling threatened by something I was doing, said something “Ferraro-esque” himself.
As Oran “Juice” Jones said in “The Rain”, ...“Instead, I chilled.”
That director... was “lucky” I did.
And we'll be “lucky ”when this primary season is over, too. If we don't end up knifing each other in the gut first.