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Right Field

Clean Cut

By Russ Smith | Posted 2/7/2007

The hysterical reaction to Joe Biden's alleged racist comment captured by a New York Observer reporter last week might have left Democrats vexed and Republicans chortling, but the longtime Delaware senator was unfairly maligned. Biden has almost no chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination next year, but if he withdraws from the race before it's hardly begun, American voters will be denied the opportunity to hear one of the few politicians today whose views aren't scripted solely by consultants and polls.

He's called a "bloviator," a loudmouth, and there's not a Sunday talk show he won't sprint to appear on, all of which causes his colleagues more than occasional heartburn. But in the modern era of rehearsed press conferences, Biden reminds me more of an old-time chatterbox like Hubert Humphrey.

Biden's sin, as has been reported extensively, was this assessment of Sen. Barack Obama: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's storybook, man." The Observer's Jason Horowitz, who also recorded Biden's harsh assessments of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, probably just let the tape recorder roll, knowing he had explosive material.

Biden was denounced immediately after the Observer story was posted online in large part because of the implication that previous black presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Carol Moseley Braun were lacking hygiene. Anyone with a lick of sense understood that Biden, however clumsily, meant that Obama was untainted by past scandals or intemperate remarks.

Sharpton, receiving the inevitable apology from Biden, assured the senator that he takes a bath every day. Funny guy. Biden's correct, however, that Obama is the first black (or half-black) candidate who could occupy the White House.

Jackson, for example, not only referred to New York as "Hymietown" in a conversation with Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman (also black) in 1984, but his cozy relationship with the late Yasir Arafat was repugnant as well. On a trip to the Middle East in 1979, Jackson met the Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist in Lebanon, kissed him, and said Arafat was "my friend and the friend of justice and humanity." In the late 1990s, Jackson, a publicity hound, counseled Bill Clinton at the White House about the latter's romps with Monica Lewinsky even while he was having his own extramarital affair.

Moseley Braun, who lost a Senate re-election race in 1998 amid charges of financial improprieties, was never taken seriously as a presidential candidate in 2004. Even The New York Times harshly dismissed the one-term senator in a September 2003 editorial, calling her campaign "a vanity affair," and criticized the National Organization for Women's endorsement of her as "silly."

Sharpton, the reverend/huckster, has a vile history of anti-Semitism, best exemplified by his conduct in Brooklyn in 1991. After a Hasidic driver accidentally killed a young black boy, Sharpton incited an understandably upset community at the child's funeral, and organized a march against the "diamond merchants" carrying the "blood of innocent babies." In an ensuing melee, Yankel Rosenbaum, a rabbinical student, was stabbed to death as the protesters shouted, "Kill the Jews." As for the 1987 Sharpton-fueled Tawana Brawley hoax--in which it was alleged that she was gang-raped by a group of white men--that's an ugly chapter (or two) in the political/cultural story of modern New York.

That Biden also called Obama "articulate" riled people as well, notably the Post's columnist Eugene Robinson (an African-American), who wrote on Feb. 2 that "Articulate is really a shorthand way of describing a black person who isn't too black--or, rather, who comports with white America's notion of how a black person should come across."

It's really a matter of semantics: articulate, eloquent, silver-tongued, well-spoken, and so on--some people, black, white, or yellow, have it; others don't. Alan Keyes, the perennial Republican African-American candidate, has extreme socially conservative views, but in the 2000 Republican primary debates none of his opponents matched his passionate and mesmerizing soliloquies. George W. Bush is famously inarticulate, at least extemporaneously, and other notables, such as the president's father, Bob Dole, Lyndon Johnson, and Ted Kennedy were/are verbally challenged without their speechwriters.

What I found most curious about the incident was Obama's reaction after Biden apologized to him. According to a Feb. 1 New York Times article, at first Obama took the published remark in stride, saying he didn't believe that Biden meant to offend anyone. Later in the day, however, Obama told reporters, "I didn't take [the comments] personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate. African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton"--he omitted Keyes--"gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate."

It's disappointing that Obama, who indeed has emerged as the most charismatic national candidate in decades, is already pulling his punches, afraid to alienate anyone in the political community.

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