On Ferrarogate

Why were Gerry’s words so unsettling?

Speaking on MSNBC this morning, Peggy Noonan issued a broad accusation against the Clinton campaign: “In their race-baiting,” she said, “they’re unsettling the country.”

Noonan was referring, in this instance, to the tenacious little comment-that-could made by Clinton campaign supporter and fundraiser Geraldine Ferraro—“if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position”—published in a local California paper two weeks ago and, in a series of events as frustrating as they were utterly predictable, siphoned up into the narrow end of the media’s meta-megaphone and spat out on the other end both expanded and warped.

Noonan’s characterization of the Ferraro affair as “unsettling” is appropriate on several levels. Here was one instance in which a pundit’s use of a murky term actually made sense: Ferraro’s comments—or, more specifically, the media reaction to them—were unsettling in every sense of the word. Unsettling, in that they dredged up tensions we’d thought had settled themselves after the initial bout with race-based politics in the run-up to the South Carolina primaries. But unsettling, as well, in the questions they raised about the media’s ability to discuss, frankly and objectively, matters of race.

Take Chris Matthews, coming onscreen minutes after Noonan this morning to talk about the latest episode of Campaign Supporters Gone Wild. Asked whether Obama should denounce—again—his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sometimes inflammatory comments about September 11 and American foreign policy, Matthews responded:

Well, you know, I don’t like being in a position of, as a white person, of asking black people to further divide, or divide. I mean, I don’t like this kind of conversation. But I guess we have to do it because Pastor Wright’s comments, especially after 9/11, are impossible to defend.

Matthews isn’t known for mincing words; he’s known, in fact, for the opposite. So to see him so obviously uncomfortable—to see him unsettled—is unsettling in itself. And, more to the point, it’s telling: the fact is that most of us—in the media, not to mention in the culture at large—share Matthews’s discomfort with “this kind of conversation” about race. The conversation is painful, a reminder of a past whose ghosts we like to congratulate ourselves for having exorcized but which reveal their continued presence when society’s shadows occasionally come to light. And, in that, it’s fraught: “this kind of conversation” operates, often, on two levels: What We Say (society has transcended racism) and What We Know (no, it hasn’t). And the cords of those two levels of discourse, text and subtext, are woven together at such a high tension, and are so mutually constrained, that bending either of them ceases to be an option: the text we’ve woven ourselves into is so tight as to lack flexibility. The lines of permission when it comes to talk of race are so taut right now that any attempt to bend them threatens simply to snap the strings of discourse altogether.

This week, snap they did. Ferraro’s comments about Barack Obama were far beyond the constraints of acceptability when it comes to the text of our racial discourse. And yet, say what else you will about them, they conveyed a kernel of truth: that part of Obama’s appeal, as a politician and as an agent of change, is the fact that he personally embodies transcendence of the country’s racist past. Obama has suggested that point himself; Dreams from My Father is expressly about the future candidate’s struggle with his own racial identity. And the media have echoed it—so often, in fact, that Obama’s symbolism as a post-racial figure has become something of a cliché. His race, in that sense, matters. That’s obvious. Which is what Ferraro was saying. But she made her point outside of the prescribed lines of analysis—she defined Obama’s race in a negative sense, as a limiting factor rather than a liberating one—and, because of that, felt the media’s fury.

Witness the Righteous Indignation with which so may in the media treated Ferraro:

Politico’s Roger Simon: “Ferraro, who was part of Hillary Clinton’s financial team until she stepped down Wednesday, does not see an America where racism exists, only reverse racism.”

Newsweek’s Andrew Romano: “At March 7, 7:52 a.m., the Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif. printed an interview with former Democratic vice presidential candidate and current Clinton finance committee member Geraldine Ferraro in which the pioneering politician said something about Clinton’s main rival, Barack Obama, that was both baffling and offensive.”

The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn: “Ferraro’s original statement to Daily Breeze, which suggested that Obama has gotten preferential political treatment because of his race, was a dog-whistle to white voters who resent affirmative action.”

Salon’s Alex Koppelman: “And the Clinton campaign did itself no favors with its response—they said they disagreed with Ferraro, but did not fire her—which was interpreted by many observers as tacit approval. Pundits, bloggers and the Obama campaign relentlessly castigated the Clinton campaign for its approach.”

The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan: “Isn’t this classic Rove-Morris politics—to keep designating Obama a beneficiary of affirmative action and Clinton a victimized white woman in order to racially polarize a primary where Clinton needs white ethnic votes?”

Maureen Dowd: “Geraldine Ferraro, who helped Walter Mondale lose 49 states in 1984, was clearly stung at what she considered Obama’s easy rise to celebrity and electoral success.”

And, of course, there’s Keith Olbermann, who called Ferraro’s “despicable” statement “ugly in its overtones, laughable in its weak grip of the facts, and moronic in the historical context.” She was, he said, “dismissing Sen. Obama’s candidacy as nothing more than an Equal Opportunity stunt.”

Perhaps Ferraro was pandering to those who resent affirmative action. Perhaps she wasn’t. In place of a perfunctory reference to the intentional fallacy, I’ll simply say that what she meant in making her comment ceased to matter in any real way once that comment was appropriated by the media. And let’s not forget that the pundits who declared themselves, in the last few days, Morally Affronted by Ferraro’s comments are often the same pundits who have been celebrating Obama’s “post-racial” identity in their commentary—conveniently forgetting, again, that it is precisely Obama’s race that allows him to embody the promise of a post-racial America. And they’re often the same pundits who, when the campaigns were just heating up last year, wondered aloud, “Is this country ready for a black president?” If you ask a question, guys, you have at least to be willing to hear its answers—whether they affirm your hopes or confound them.

There’s an element of pack journalism, certainly, in the furor over Ferrarogate. (Indeed, reading and watching and hearing some of the coverage, it was hard not to imagine a pack of wolves, salivating as they homed in on the warm carcass of Ferraro’s reputation.) Given a media culture so ready to pounce on its pundits with accusations of racism, it’s much safer for those pundits to stay, safely, in the center of the pack; the outliers, as Ferraro’s case makes clear, are the ones most at risk of being attacked.

There’s likely an element of passive aggression, as well, in those attacks—a strain of self-preservation that manifests itself in preemptive strikes against charges of racism. (If I’m vehemently decrying Ferraro for being racist, then obviously there’s no way I’m racist. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” and whatnot.) And this sense of defensiveness when it comes to race, it’s worth noting, isn’t limited to the media. See, as just one example, Saturday Night Live, which, before making “in the tank” the buzzphrase for alleged media bias this primary season, made headlines for the apparently agonizing time it was having finding someone to play Barack Obama (“Fauxbama,” as it were) on the show, given the touchiness of casting either a black man or a white man to portray—and poke fun at—the senator. The only solution the SNLers found, until they finally tapped the olive-skinned Fred Armisen to play the part, was to have Obama come on the show to play himself.

In today’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer writes of Ferrarogate,

The optimist will say that when this is over, we will look back on the Clinton-Obama contest, and its looming ugly endgame, as the low point of identity politics and the beginning of a turning away. The pessimist will just vote Republican.

He has a point, sort of. This is getting ugly; one does hope it’s a “low point.” We’re certainly at a critical juncture right now—not just in the Democratic nominating contest, but in the way we approach identity politics. And, by extension, in the way we approach our identity as a country. For all the other opportunities this unprecedented political contest provides, perhaps chief among them is the chance to step back and consider how, precisely, we in the media talk about that identity—and how, most importantly, we filter that conversation to our audiences. Obama won 91 percent—91 percent—of the black vote in Mississippi this Tuesday, according to exit polls. And on Wednesday morning, we got all the expected analyses of “Obama and the Black Vote,” parsing polling data, comparing Mississippi to other states, etc.—considering, you know, what such a striking discrepancy between Obama and Clinton means.

But: what does it mean? And not just in terms of glib, “Race Was a Big Factor in Mississippi” headlines, but in terms of the actual, on-the-ground intersection between race and politics in this country? And what does it mean that 72 percent of whites, according to those same exit polls, voted for Clinton? If we’re going to throw around the term “post-racial,” it’s worth stepping back and considering what, exactly, we mean by that. And if we’re going to celebrate Obama as a “transcendent” figure, it’s worth examining what, exactly, he’s transcending.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.