January 18, 2008; Page A13
Let us give hearty thanks and credit to Rudy Giuliani, who has never by word or gesture implied that we would fracture any kind of “ceiling” if we elected as chief executive a man whose surname ends in a vowel.
Yet actually, it would be unprecedented if someone of Italian descent became the president of the United States and there was a time — not long ago at that — when the very idea would have aroused considerable passion. Now that it doesn’t, is it not possible to think that that very indifference is the real “change”?
I recall thinking, when Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman on a major-party ticket in 1984, that she would also, if elected, be the first vowel-ending Veep. Indeed, in San Francisco for the Democratic convention that year, I listened to the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti muse over drinks on the possibility of a future Cuomo-Ferraro “all wop” ticket.
The fact that these were now joking words and not fighting words struck me as happily suggestive. (I also thought that a President Walter Mondale would be a very high price to pay for having the first female vice president, and that President Mario Cuomo would be an even higher price to pay to prove that we no longer held any rooted prejudice against the descendants of Mediterranean immigrants.)
People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with. One does not banish this specter by invoking it. If I would not vote against someone on the grounds of “race” or “gender” alone, then by the exact same token I would not cast a vote in his or her favor for the identical reason. Yet see how this obvious question makes fairly intelligent people say the most alarmingly stupid things.
Madeleine Albright has said that there is “a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” What are the implications of this statement? Would it be an argument in favor of the candidacy of Mrs. Clinton? Would this mean that Elizabeth Edwards and Michelle Obama don’t deserve the help of fellow females? If the Republicans nominated a woman would Ms. Albright instantly switch parties out of sheer sisterhood? Of course not. (And this wearisome tripe from someone who was once our secretary of state . . .)
Those of us who follow politics seriously rather than view it as a game show do not look at Hillary Clinton and simply think “first woman president.” We think — for example — “first ex-co-president” or “first wife of a disbarred lawyer and impeached former incumbent” or “first person to use her daughter as photo-op protection during her husband’s perjury rap.”
One might come up with other and kinder distinctions (I shall not be doing so) but the plain fact about the senator from New York is surely that she is a known quantity who has already been in the White House purely as the result of a relationship with a man, and not at all a quixotic outsider who represents the aspirations of an “out” group, let alone a whole sex or gender.
Mrs. Clinton, speaking to a black church audience on Martin Luther King Day last year, did describe President George W. Bush as treating the Congress of the United States like “a plantation,” adding in a significant tone of voice that “you know what I mean . . .”
She did not repeat this trope, for some reason, when addressing the electors of Iowa or New Hampshire. She’s willing to ring the other bell, though, if it suits her. But when an actual African-American challenger comes along, she rather tends to pout and wince at his presumption (or did until recently).
Here again, the problem is that Sen. Obama wants us to transcend something at the same time he implicitly asks us to give that same something as a reason to vote for him. I must say that the lyricism with which he does this has double and triple the charm of Mrs. Clinton’s heavily-scripted trudge through the landscape, but the irony is still the same.
What are we trying to “get over” here? We are trying to get over the hideous legacy of slavery and segregation. But Mr. Obama is not a part of this legacy. His father was a citizen of Kenya, an independent African country, and his mother was a “white” American. He is as distant from the real “plantation” as I am. How — unless one thinks obsessively about color while affecting not to do so — does this make him “black”?
Far from taking us forward, this sort of discussion actually keeps us anchored in the past. The enormous advances in genome studies have effectively discredited the whole idea of “race” as a means of categorizing humans. And however ethnicity may be defined or subdivided, it is utterly unscientific and retrograde to confuse it with color. The number of subjective definitions of “racist” is almost infinite but the only objective definition of the word is “one who believes that there are human races.”
For years, I declined to fill in the form for my Senate press credential that asked me to state my “race,” unless I was permitted to put “human.” The form had to be completed under penalty of perjury, so I could not in conscience put “white,” which is not even a color let alone a “race,” and I sternly declined to put “Caucasian,” which is an exploded term from a discredited ethnology. Surely the essential and unarguable core of King’s campaign was the insistence that pigmentation was a false measure: a false measure of mankind (yes, mankind) and an inheritance from a time of great ignorance and stupidity and cruelty, when one drop of blood could make you “black.”
I remember going to several of the mass events generated by Colin Powell’s memoirs a few years ago, and being very touched by the eagerness with which young and old “white” people hoped he would give them the chance to elect (what would in fact have been) our first West Indian president. It was all book-tour hype as it turned out — I could have told you that then — but now it has resurfaced in a similarly naïve way.
Not to dampen any parade, but if one asks if there is a single thing about Mr. Obama’s Senate record, or state legislature record, or current program, that could possibly justify his claim to the presidency one gets . . . what? Not much. Similarly lightweight unqualified “white” candidates have overcome this objection, to be sure, but what kind of standard is that?
I shall not vote for Sen. Obama and it will not be because he — like me and like all of us — carries African genes. And I shall not be voting for Mrs. Clinton, who has the gall to inform me after a career of overweening entitlement that there is “a double standard” at work for women in politics; and I assure you now that this decision of mine has only to do with the content of her character. We will know that we have put this behind us when — as with the vowel — we have outgrown and forgotten the original prejudice.
Mr. Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of “No One Left To Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton” (Verso, 2000).