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March 25, 2008
Barack Obama in the Land of Donovan McNabb
The year's last big
Democratic primary contest has gotten into full swing here in
Pennsylvania, with less than four weeks left in the seven-week sprint
that culminates in the April 22 vote. Ads are beginning to run, lawn
signs nailed down and the candidates themselves are making regular
appearances on the airwaves as well as in person.
Two things must be
stated at the outset about the Pennsylvania primary:
1. Hillary Clinton,
thanks to demographic advantages, is virtually certain to win, and 2. It
likely won't matter, because the number of delegates at stake will be
not nearly enough to cut into Barack Obama's sizable lead. Unless Obama
amasses a delegate and popular vote lead that is absolutely
insurmountable, the election is almost certainly headed for a
superdelegate challenge in Denver. Pennsylvania, rather than the
be-all-and-end-all that the national media is making it into, is really
not all that important.
But the candidates seem
to care, which is why one or the other has appeared in Philadelphia
seemingly every day of the past three weeks.
legendary "A More Perfect Union" speech took place in Philly last
Tuesday. How apropos that Obama delivered his speech at the National
Constitution Center, a building that is abutted, on one side, by Race
Indeed, even before the
Jeremiah Wright brouhaha began, race clearly had a part to play in the
Pennsylvania primary. Ed Rendell – governor of Pennsylvania, former
mayor of Philadelphia, former Democratic National Committee chairman and
current Hillary supporter – made a comment a few weeks ago that rankled
many. He stated, in an interview with a Pittsburgh newspaper, that
"you've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites
who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."
Rendell's statement was
very clearly and indisputably accurate. But in making it he alienated
just about every Pennsylvania demographic imaginable. Black voters, as
well as Obama supporters of all races, heard the statement as a coded
appeal, making "excuses" for whites to avoid voting for Obama. White
voters were insulted, thinking they were called racists, while Hillary
supporters were irked that they could win the primary on the backs of
racists. Conservatives objected to Rendell "injecting race where it
doesn't belong," while actual racists were likely upset about being put
on the same side as both Hillary Clinton and Ed Rendell.
It's largely thought
that even though some rural whites may not grant him their support,
Obama would at least gain majorities in Philadelphia, with its large
black population. But whether white people in Philly will support Obama
is another question entirely. Ever since the Rendell controversy, I've
been asking jokingly how white Philadelphia can be ready for a black
president, when they're not even ready for a black quarterback?
And indeed, Obama has
much in common with the Eagles' oft-embattled quarterback, Donovan
McNabb. Both are from, or at least lived for a long time on, the south
side of Chicago. Both are constantly enmeshed in controversy, even
though there's really nothing controversial about them. Both are
considered too black by some people, and not black enough by others. And
both are very strongly disliked by Rush Limbaugh.
So on the morning after
giving the historic Constitution Center speech, Obama stepped bravely
into the breach of the nexus of McNabb opposition: Philadelphia's sports
radio station, 610 WIP.
Obama appeared, via
phone interview, on Angelo Cataldi's morning show on WIP, for a friendly
five-minute phone interview. The move was seen by most as an attempt by
Obama to reach out to blue-collar white voters, most of whom have gone
for Hillary in the previous primaries; Cataldi's show is Ground Zero for
Philadelphia's working-class, rowhouse-dwelling, damn-those-rich-owners
Cataldi and Co.
actually came across as impressed with the candidate, and didn't even
say anything when he appeared to commit a gaffe in calling his
grandmother a "typical white person." Some other personalities on the
station, however, including popular afternoon host Howard Eskin, seized
on this, and dozens of callers were given a chance to share their usual
"why you gotta make a racial issue out of everything" argument, while
substituting Obama's name for McNabb's.
It's always dangerous
to call someone "typically white" or "typically black," although in
context the statement made sense. And the fact that something said on
the Angelo Cataldi show could have an effect on the presidential
election was probably the most unlikely event of the campaign, with the
possible exception of Sinbad's involvement.
The vote is set to take
place in just four weeks, but the primary is likely a mere warm-up. The
general election is right around the corner, with Pennsylvania once
again set to play a major role.
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